Last week, my son went away to summer camp.
At face value, there is nothing remarkable about that statement. He’s almost 12, headed to middle school, and was at camp with his Boy Scout troop. Going away to summer camp is a typical thing for an almost 12 year old Boy Scout. But this specific almost 12 year old spent the better part of the past year coming out from the depths of anxiety and panic disorders. At this time last year, just leaving house was a challenge. At this time last year, there was nothing typical about his days.
I wish I could remember exactly when it was that we had to make a decision and pay a deposit to secure his spot at camp. It was months ago. It had to have been after my son had climbed far enough out of the blackhole that was the time of his worst anxiety and panic, to be (mostly) functioning in the world. But it also had to have been well before we finally reached a steady maintenance dose on his medications. Somewhere in the middle of those two points in time, was another point in time where we were far enough beyond living in crisis mode to be able to imagine a not-too-distant future date where he truly would be mental healthy enough to handle a week away from home.
Whenever that day was, it was months ago. So, as it goes with these sorts of things, a deposit was paid, a date marked on the calendar, and on we went with the day to day of life. We all knew that camp would happen, but were not actively thinking about the fact that camp would happen. For months “camp” was more of an idea than an actuality. But then months turned into weeks, and as school came to an end CAMP was suddenly looming in the very near future.
One month before he left, my son was incredibly excited. He would tell everybody about the train ride (a 24-hour train ride from our home in Southern California to the camp in Southern Oregon!), the merit badges he planned to work toward, and the activities he was looking forward to most. Two weeks before he left, I would have described my son as nervously anticipating the trip. The week before he left he was excited yet increasingly anxious. In the days leading up to the trip, he became solidly anxious, while still looking forward to the adventure.
Two days before he left, he had a panic attack. After going weeks without even a minor attack, I watched the panic wash over him as we waited in line at a restaurant. It was small compared to what it would have been a year ago, but it was real. The cause was a lunch crowded restaurant, the root was his growing anxiety about camp.
The day before he left was his worst day in months. From the time he woke up until the time he finally fell asleep, he cycled through sensory driven meltdowns, bouts of near hysterical tears, and a handful of minor panic attacks. Through all of that we packed him up for his week away. And through all of that my anxiety level was higher than it had been in months. I spent that day doing lots of deep breathing and praying. I spent that day wondering if we’d made a mistake all those months ago when we decided camp would be a good idea.
The date that had for so long been an idea on a calendar, was suddenly a sunny and humid actual day. With the dawning of that day also came a return in my son’s excitement about his great adventure. As he stepped on the train with a huge smile and a wave, I said a prayer. I prayed for him to have the strength to push through his anxiety and be fully present for the adventure ahead.
He was gone for 9 days. For most of that time we had no direct contact with him (they had their cell phones confiscated when they arrived in Oregon), and only sporadic updates from the adult chaperones on the trip (turns out the camp is in a cellular blackhole). The few pictures we received showed him happy and dirty – typical 11 year old at camp type pictures. For a week the only narrative we could imagine was the one shown in those few pictures.
I wish I could say that the kid who came off the train was as happy and excited as the kid who boarded that same train 9 days earlier. Or that the smile which greeted us, was the smile that we’d seen in pictures while he was gone. I wish I could say that the gut feeling I’d had all week that those pictures weren’t telling the entire story was wrong. I wish I could say all of that, but I can’t. The kid who came off the train was emotionally, physically and mentally depleted. He was spent. He was clearly happy to see us, but the happiness was soon replaced with relief. Relief that he was home, and among his closest circle, and didn’t have to try so hard to keep it together – and with that relief came the release of 9 days worth of bottled up emotions, frustrations, fears, and his self-perceived failures.
The “self-perceived failures” are a big part of the story here. It’s a story we are just beginning to piece fully together now that he’s been home for a few days. I know from the few comments I heard a couple of the older boys make to my son, that he was not struggling silently while they were at camp. Comments from adolescent boys such as “I’m proud of you” and “Forget about the bad parts – you did some great stuff” are super telling to me. The other boys saw how he struggled, and some of them showed the best of themselves by encouraging my son to focus on the successes rather than the self-perceived failures.
The adults who were with him have shared with me stories that illustrate a kid who definitely struggled several times during the week, but who was able to persevere. I have also learned from the adults on the trip that although my kid was definitely struggling, he was also looking out for other kids who were struggling themselves. One adult told me that my son is the most empathetic kid she’s ever met.
He has begun to tell the story of this time at camp in little bits of stories that come at seemingly random times. I’ve heard about the food, the camp staff who he liked best, and every type of candy they sell at the camp trading post. He’s also told me how he “cried every day”, how the early to rise and late to bed schedule left him feeling rushed, and that there were a few times where he did not take his medication. He’s clearly still processing everything he experienced. My hunch is we will continue to hear his first hand experience for weeks to come. He’s focusing a ton right now on the things that did not go right – but slowly he’s sharing the good stuff. My hope is that over time we will be able to help him reframe the story so that what he remembers is how he persevered in a difficult situation, and as a result was able to have an incredible adventure.
I’m working on focusing on the adventure part as well. A year ago there was no way I could see a near future where he would be mentally and emotionally stable enough to do something as huge as a week away at camp. With time, and hard work and medication we got him there – take any one of those three things out of the mix and we would not have gotten him there. He functions in the world only because of a tenuous balance of time, hard work and medication – this trip was a test of that balance. For the most part I think the balance was maintained. But his admission that he knows his medication was not always taken at the right time or in the correct amounts does bother me greatly. We’ll never know if some of his struggles would have been smaller (or even nonexistent) had his medication routine not been interrupted. I have strong suspicion that played a partial role in the challenges he faced during the trip. That is something that I will continue to wrestle with – where did we go wrong in communicating to the adults in charge the importance of his medicine – but it is not where I am choosing to focus.
Over and over again in the week he was gone, people close to me wondered in amazement at the fact that he was strong enough to be gone. It truly is an amazing thing and something that I do not take for granted. This kid who has been dealt an incredibly challenging hand in this game of life, definitely struggles in the day to day. But when the big things happen he shows up, digs in, and perseveres. There were so many times I questioned our decision to let him take this trip, but in hindsight I would not have made a different decision. By giving him the opportunity to strike out on his own, we have also given him a solid foundation for moving forward. There is so much adventure to be had, and we’re going to help him find his place in that adventure to help him discover his place in the world.