Sunday, March 2, 2014

Where Nature Meets Nurture

Today at church was Camp Sunday. Unquestionably, it has always been one of my favorite days of the year, especially since I started volunteering and working at camp four years ago. Today, I stood up in front of my church family and talked about how much camp has changed my life. I said something similar to this:

When Kim asked me to talk about my camp experience, I jumped at the opportunity to share something that I am so passionate about, but then, I realized that summing up something that has radically changed who I am in 3 to 5 minutes is basically impossible. I spent only one week as a camper when I was 12, and I honestly don’t remember much of it. I returned to camp at 16 as a counselor in training, at 17 as a volunteer, and at 18 and 19 as part of summer staff, which caused me to experience, in some capacity, almost every camp Outdoor Ministries has to offer. 
Working at camp forced me to do a lot of things that felt uncomfortable and scary to me at the time, like leading songs and talking in front of large groups, thinking on my feet and rearranging an entire day for forty-some kids at the drop of a hat—which is not easy, resolving conflicts between campers and between staff, functioning most days on little to no sleep, meeting and working with a new team of volunteer directors and counselors every week, having to be upbeat, positive, and enthusiastic 100% of the time. I was out of my comfort zone the first day of staff training when I walked into a room of thirty or forty people that I would be living and working with for the next seven weeks, all of whom seemed more adult and much more capable than I was.  
But the thing about being pushed to do something you’re uncomfortable with is that it forces you to grow as a person, learn who you are, and really develop your sense of self. The most important lessons I learned in life, I learned at camp. Every child I worked with had something to teach me. From my kids, I learned to balance a spoon on my nose, to try new things, to be patient, to embrace my own weirdness, to be flexible, to be brave, to laugh at myself, to face my fears, to love... I could talk forever. 
My favorite weeks were the ones where I got to work with middle schoolers. Both summers I worked on staff, I was placed at fishing camp, and the kids I got to work with were all so unique and at camp, they’re free to just embrace who they are. Last year, there was one cabin of girls, all of whom had been my campers before at various camps. They bonded almost instantaneously. We had a lot of laughs that week, but we also had some serious conversations. Every night after the lights went out, my girls felt free to be vulnerable to me and to each other and we talked about their fears and insecurities about growing up, and I shared some of my experiences with them about friendships and life, but I mostly listened as they encouraged one another. 
I chose to work at camp because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids. I have no idea what sort of impact that I had on any of them or even if I made one. But what I do know is that these kids—my kids—all changed my life in some way or another. We had a running joke on staff that we didn’t get paid enough for what we had to put up with—the late nights, the storms both literal and metaphorical, the power and water outages, the lack of sleep and sanity—but honestly, I would go back and do it all over again for free because the experiences I had and the lessons I learned are priceless. 
This summer, I will unfortunately not be able to attend camp in any capacity because I have to take summer classes, and this is heartbreaking for me. But I want to encourage all of you to go to camp this summer—either as campers or as volunteers, which camp really needs right now, because it truly is a life changing experience and something you will never forget. If anyone has questions about the different camps offered or about volunteering as a counselor, please come talk to me! I’d love to give you more information!

You would think that something so significant to me would be easy to talk about, but it really isn't. Not when you have anorexia and so much of your recovery journey is tangled up in your time as a counselor (This post only briefly touches on how the two are intertwined).

Camp was the first place that I'd ever "come out" about my eating disorder, my depression, and my self-harm. I was 16 and a counselor-in-training, and something about the stress of the week or just the atmosphere of camp, I felt comfortable being vulnerable and breaking down, first to one of the counselors and then to one of the directors.

It was the director who really got me started on the path to recovery. She called my mom the week after and told her, when I was in St. Louis on a mission trip with my youth group. Enter my mom, enter therapy, enter my life changing. E continued to support me in the coming years--encouraging my recovery, letting me vent my frustrations, and just being a really good friend. I am forever grateful for this relationship.

One year later, I was back at the same camp. I remember one of my campers making a comment at dinner, something like, "The reason you're fat is because you eat too much." That hit exactly where I was vulnerable because I was only going through the motions of recovery. I handled her comment appropriately, but after, completely had a meltdown to another one of the counselors.

The next year, I was working on summer staff. When I was figuring out what I was going to say at church today, I looked back to a paper I had written about my first summer on staff for a class last year. It says this of my fifth week:

On Friday night, I received a phone call from a high school friend of mine.  She was in tears, and I couldn’t really make out what words she was saying.  But eventually I learned that her boyfriend had dumped her and that her battle with anorexia had landed her in the hospital.  Her heart was skipping beats like crazy; she was dying.  I hung up with her and I cried.  
I cried because she was so sick.  I cried because she was both literally and figuratively heartbroken.  I cried because I was two hours away and couldn’t be there with her.  But mostly, I cried because that could have been me.  
What you don’t know is that in the months leading up to my summer at camp, I had been in treatment for anorexia.  It had gotten to the point that my parents were going to pull me out of my senior year of high school and send me to residential treatment.  I wasn’t supposed to be working at camp that summer. 
But I was; pretty successfully, I might add.  So while I was busy taking care of my kids and my camp family, they were also taking care of me in ways they couldn’t even imagine.  They were helping me heal, helping me become confident in myself, and helping me prove that I could go to college in the fall.  Camp had gotten me through treatment and ready for the real world.  
I spent almost my entire twenty-four hours off with my friend at the hospital. I went home only to shower, hand my dirty laundry off to my mom, and sleep.  I arrived late for the start of camp on Sunday afternoon and promptly fell apart.  However, my boss understood and let me talk everything out with her before my kids came that afternoon.

Camp was the immediate reason that I cared about even trying to get better at the end of my senior year of high school.  A couple weeks before it was supposed to start, my doctor told me that I wasn't allowed to go work at camp for the whole summer. I was furious and this fury pushed me to see her concerns and agree to follow what she was instructing, in order for me to work at camp.

That first summer on staff completely changed my life. It pushed me to my limits, but I was also held in by some wonderful, wiser, and loving people that I am so privileged to now call friends. At the time, two of these women were my bosses and were really supportive and encouraging of my recovery and my health, even in the chaos that is summer camp. I developed relationships with campers, counselors, and directors who loved and accepted me just as I was and who gave me the strength to keep fighting, the courage to be myself, and a reason to keep going, even after the summer ended. That week after I spent my time off with my friend in the hospital, I called E and told her how grateful she was that she had called my mom those two years before. I was determined to stay in recovery.

The next year, during my camp interview, my boss asked me indirectly about my ED and how things were going. She felt comfortable enough with my progress to hire me back for a second summer, but she was--and still is--there for me when times get rough.

That second summer was hard. I went through lifeguard certification, which was tough because I had been avoiding exercise as it is an ED behavior for me, but I passed. I dealt with so many insecurities and so much drama from other people on staff. But I also met some amazing kids... Kids who were afraid to be who they were because they were worried about what others thought. Kids who were bullied at school. Kids with appearance insecurities. Kids who thought that no one would ever love them for who they were. And some of these moments, I could share bits of my story with them.

I'm not going back to camp this summer, as I said at church this morning. I have to take summer classes, and honestly, I don't think it would be healthy for me to go back to camp this summer because recovery takes time and I can't force it into a timeline. Lately, I've been feeling so disconnected from this young woman who worked two summers on camp staff--this young woman so determined to recover and be healthy and a good role model for these precious kids. Even talking this morning in church seemed so inauthentic because I couldn't say the real impact that camp had on my life.

As much as camp allowed me to enter into periods of recovery, it also left me vulnerable to relapses later, like the one that sent me home from college this year. But camp also taught me so much. That I am strong. That I am worth fighting for. That I am loved. That I don't have to be perfect. That I don't have to change. That I don't have to be something that I'm not. That I can have questions and doubts and insecurities and still be loved. That life isn't perfect. That I can be flexible. That I'm okay just as I am. That I can make it through anything I put my mind to.

Camp allowed me to become, at least while I was there, the woman who is capable of fully recovering from her eating disorder. In the time since then, I have lost that person. But she's not gone forever. One day, she will be back at camp again.
Camp and my kids have kept me alive thus far. Today, I feel like I have a renewed purpose to fight for my life and health, like I have a renewed strength.
Camp has--and will continue to--save my life.