Crippled at Camp: A Love(?) Story

The first time I was wounded at summer camp, I was eleven years old. It was my fault, of course. I was on a sailboat with a couple of other kids, being as obnoxious as you might expect a kid on a sailboat to be, when the swinging boom whacked me full-force on the side of the head.

I don’t remember this event very well, probably as a result of minor head trauma and major embarrassment. I do recall a very panicked teenager who scooped me up in her arms and sprinted to the infirmary. And that the nurse gave me three blue freeze pops while I waited to see if I was going to die.

The summer I was fourteen, I came down with a disgusting stomach flu the night before we were going on an awesome overnight trip. I spent two days in the infirmary that time, watching really terrible movies on a very small TV instead of making s’mores in the woods with my friends. I secretly hoped someone else would get the flu so I would at least have some company. It didn’t work out.

My luck only worsened once I started working there. When I was sixteen and training to be a counselor, I wound up with head lice and a staph infection that had pretty much eroded my flesh from the knees down. When I was seventeen, I got stung by an entire hive of bees. And at nineteen I spent too long standing on the hot sand during lifeguard training and suffered from massive, horrible second-degree burns on the bottoms of my feet. Alright, that one wasn’t all bad; it did necessitate my supervisor literally carrying me wherever I needed to go, which amused the campers a great deal and made me feel like a princess.

In 2012, when I was finally on the leadership staff, I shared this story with my coworkers. We were gathered inside one of the boys senior end tents late at night, watching the candlelight dance on the canvas flaps and talking about what camp meant to us. Our stories were supposed to be meaningful. Mine was about getting maimed.

But they understood what I meant. My story was about strange and improbable injuries, sure, but it was also about deciding that getting hurt wasn’t enough to keep me from going back to camp summer after summer. It was about the knowledge that no matter how tough it got, no matter how many legitimate reasons I had to run away, it was always worth it to stay.

That summer, 2012, had its own share of misfortunes. During the three months I was there, I was caught in a violent downward spiral of anorexia that wreaked havoc on my physical and mental health. And it took me so long to recover from that nosedive that I couldn’t even consider the possibility of going back in 2013.

Three weeks ago, I submitted an application. Today, I called the camp office for an interview. Even after the personal hell I experienced a year and a half ago, I’m going back.

My parents are baffled. And worried. A lot of people are worried. You know what? I’m worried, too. But every year that I’ve been knocked down, I’ve come back stronger. I’m a champion for a cause I love more than anything. Something about it will always be tough, and I might not always come out on top. But as we who have worked there know, it is always, always worth it to stay.


Leeches: A Love Story

I was sitting at the picnic table in the sun, carefully organizing swim cards by cabin, when one of my staff members ran over to me with a look of terror and urgency.

My mind immediately started running through every horrifying possibility. Did a kid drown? Did we lose one somehow? Did somebody get a spinal injury? What was going on?

But it was even worse than that.

One of the campers had a leech stuck on his arm.

Now, I am a tad bit sadistic when it comes to leeches. I love killing them. It gives me a strange satisfaction to watch them writhe in pain until they stop moving altogether. But children do not see them as potential prey, rather as predators who will probably suck the life out of them within the minute. Children don’t understand how easy it is to kill them. And the second one kid comes out of the water with a leech, that’s it – none of them step even a toe in the lake for the rest of the week.

Those damn little buggers. I was the head of the swimming department and it was my job to make sure the campers got the swimming lessons their parents were promised, but leeches did a really excellent job of making my duties significantly harder.

I ran to the swim box and grabbed my trusty salt shaker. “Take me to him,” I ordered the counselor firmly. By the time we ran across the beach to where the victim sat frozen, wide-eyed, with his leeched arm thrust high into the air, I knew it was too late to save my swim lessons. Those kids were never going back in the water.

“NO!” the boy yelped as I reached toward his arm. He swung it away from me. “AAAHHH! WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME?!”

The other campers began to form a circle around their screaming, hollering friend. I shook nearly the entire supply of salt into the sand while trying desperately to get at least some of it on the bloodsucking creature that was ruining my life. But even after it was handicapped enough for the still-frantic victim to shake it loose, everyone on the beach was completely out of their minds. Kids were yelling obscenities and running toward the tree line, far away from the water. Counselors were sprinting after the ones who thought they’d make a clean escape under the rope lines. Chaos. My department was lost in utter and absolute chaos.

As I looked at the scene unfolding around me, I was overwhelmed by my sheer lack of control. I had no power to stop that kid from attracting a leech. I had no authority over the gut reactions of a bunch of 8-year-olds. I had no way of calming them down, and no idea of how to convince them that swimming lessons were still a good idea. I was standing in the eye of a hurricane, with no way of directing the wind.

Suddenly, I started to laugh. Fear wasn’t doing me any good. Guilt wasn’t doing me any good. This was a moment of madness, a moment that would one day make a hilarious story (barring some strange turn of events where something legitimately terrible happened). My lack of control meant that it wasn’t my fault. And so, free of the weight of blame, I laughed.

I managed, with the help of my staff, to wrangle all sixty or so kids into some semblance of an orderly line so they could tag out of the swim section. After they returned to their cabins, I performed my normal cleanup routine, picking up lost towels and discarded sand pails. Everything was sane again.

As I plucked the empty salt shaker from the sand where it had landed, I couldn’t help but smile. Oh, tomorrow was going to be hard, I knew that, but today had reminded me of the unpredictability of life. And that was a beautiful thing.

When I Knew You Wouldn’t Love Me

This is a really hard post for me to publish. But if this blog is all about baring my soul, then it needs to be said. 

To the person about whom this was written: if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.

I met you at a coffee shop when I was eighteen. You were shy and kind of awkward and so was I. You walked me back to my dorm even though it was out of your way and told me it was nice that we finally got to meet. I smiled because I already kind of knew that one day I could love you.

You used to come into the gym while I was working and even though you always had a workout to do, you would stop and stand by the lifeguard chair, sometimes for my whole half-hour shift, and make me laugh. You told me crazy stories about your time spent abroad in exciting places, and listened while I made bad jokes about my own boring life. For months I thought about telling you how easy it was to talk to you and how much I looked forward to the Monday night shifts when I knew you would be there, but I never did.

You left my life, but you were always there. You ran through my mind when I least expected it. I thought about your big goofy smile and the way your arms moved kind of funny when you were doing the crawl stroke. I watched enviously as you went on adventure after adventure, never afraid of anything, eager to take chances. I thought about you and how scared I was and how much I wished I could borrow some of your bravery. I hoped maybe one day you’d be able to show me how to be fearless.

In those moments, I knew you could never love me. You were so far beyond anyone I’d ever comprehended before. I had nothing to offer someone who already had the world.

But then you came speeding back into my world like a roller coaster and you stopped to let me on and I didn’t even bother buckling my seat belt. I was more afraid than ever, but you were there and you were so close and I thought maybe it was finally time for my adventure.

You said all the right things. I heard you and I believed you and I tricked myself into thinking that maybe one day you could love me after all. And every minute of time I let myself be with you made everything feel less scary.

One day you were sitting sideways on your bed, plucking your guitar strings with your fingers and talking enthusiastically about your mythology book, when it hit me. I could love you. I didn’t right then, not yet. But I thought about the way you elbowed me in the ribs after you told a bad joke and the way your eyes lit up when you explained to me why sugar cubes spark when you hit them with a hammer, and I knew for sure that it would be incredibly easy for me to fall in love with you.

And I knew you wouldn’t love me. Maybe you thought someday you might be able to, just like I had, but I knew better. I knew you would love someone who gave you that same “Oh, shit” realization I’d just had. I knew you would love someone whose wanderlust was on par with your own, who thrived off of passion and adventure just like you. Someone whose hand you wouldn’t have to hold every time she was afraid.

I could love you, I thought, because with you I am falling in love with myself. You make me feel stronger and braver and wiser and more beautiful. You’ve helped me break down a lot of walls that were holding me back.

But I never did anything for you.

And the second I realized I could love you, I decided you could never know. Because I knew you wouldn’t love me, and you had to realize that on your own.

Run, ED, Run!

Post-workout selfie!

Post-workout selfie!

When I was in treatment, my case manager and the rest of my team liked to play a super fun game called “When Will Gwen Hit Monitored Walk?” I’d been in residential for almost a month, enduring meal plan increase after meal plan increase, and my BMI had risen a whopping one point, not enough to be considered “medically stable” by my insurance company. In order to go on a slow, mindful, 20-minute walk around the hospital grounds, your BMI had to be at a solid 18.5; to put it mildly, I was a bit shy of that mark.

When I was stepped down to partial, I was still pretty much couch-ridden. Until the scale reached that magic number, if I did anything more exhaustive than walking from my bedroom to the kitchen and bathroom, I was required to drink an extra Boost (my all-time favorite plasticky liquid nutritional supplement). I’d drive around town in my Subaru, chowing down on Luna bars and watching enviously as “normal” people all around me went for their afternoon run. I was quite literally being fattened up, Hansel-and-Gretel-style. God, I hated every second of it. I desperately wanted to go sledding and ice skating and all the other things people do in the winter, but even doing my Christmas shopping at the mall required me to drink an extra 64 ounces of Gatorade.

It made sense. At my worst, I had been eating far less than a thousand calories a day and still running between 5 and 10 miles every morning. The physical exertion was causing my body to start digesting its own muscle, including my heart, and I could have gone into cardiac arrest without a single warning. But as various systems in my body began to regularize, I began longing to join my mom for her morning power walk and compete in the local road races. I missed the feeling of my muscles working together to do something extraordinary. I missed running.

Fortunately, I have been able to maintain a relatively stable, healthy weight for the majority of the summer. Both of my doctors, at school and at home, have begrudgingly cleared me for exercise. And today, while I was out for my afternoon walk in the gorgeous August sun, I decided to do something terrifying. I picked an endpoint about five hundred feet in front of me, pushed off, and ran.

Damn. It was harder than I remembered. I mean, granted, I couldn’t get much of a rhythm going in 500 feet, but I can only describe what happened as semi-coordinated tripping. Exhausting, semi-coordinated tripping that left me with a stitch in my side and a frightening tightness in my chest. It took a couple blocks of walking to recover from that son of a bitch. I guess I’d forgotten that running was hard. That it hadn’t come naturally to me the first time, and that it wouldn’t this time either.

Hard or not, however, it reminded me of something. It reminded me of how powerful my body can be. Sure, right now it’s pretty worn out from trying to repair all the damage I’ve done. But I remember breaking a seven-minute mile and passing the seven-mile mark – before everything started unraveling. I remember what it feels like to be proud and strong. It was fleeting, but I remember it. The moments when I was too tired to hear ED screaming about what a failure I was and took just a fraction of a second to appreciate what I was finally able to do.

Running became, eventually, about the number of calories I was able to burn. But it didn’t start out like that. It started out as a quiet morning energy-booster. A way to experience the world before anyone else was awake. A way to release the stress and frustration I’d inevitably built up over the previous few days. Feeling the pounding of my feet on the pavement forced my body to create a pattern of movement that was steady and strong and synchronized, like every part of me was governed by my heartbeat.

I’ve decided I deserve to feel that again. In the past ten months, I have become stronger mentally than I ever thought possible. I have grown in so many ways; I’ve learned to appreciate moments and people and experiences. I figured out that the size of the fight I’ve got inside is bigger than anybody realized, including me. I’ve pretty much decided that I can do damn well anything I please, and ED can go fuck himself. Pardon my French. And I want to display my strength. I want my body to be as strong now as my mind is. I deserve to have an outside that accurately reflects the soul within.

So bring on the weight gain. I’m fully prepared to eat lots of extra peanut butter and banana sandwiches and drink protein shakes. I’m ready to lift barbells and look stupid doing squats at the gym. I’m even looking forward to the moments when my legs give out and I can’t do the last push-up, because you know what? that means I’m trying. On my worst days, I’m trying. And every time I put on muscle mass, I’ll be one step closer to squashing ED altogether.

I’m empowering myself, not my eating disorder. And that feels pretty amazing.

15 Things I’d Do for A/C Right Now

1. Wait in line at the Comcast store.
2. Watch Miley Cyrus’ latest music video on repeat.
3. Sit next to a screaming baby on an airplane.
4. Clean my bathroom window frame with my bare hands (just trust me for the gross factor on that one).
5. Shave my head.
6. Learn to quilt.
7. Cube ten pounds of raw chicken with a dull knife.
8. Sit through all five Twilight movies in a row.
9. Change a diaper.
10. Teach my grandmother to use her iPad.
11. Speed date everyone I went to high school with.
12. Wrestle an alligator.
13. Go through sorority recruitment again.
14. Watch someone else eat the entire carton of ice cream that’s in my freezer right now.
15. Be stung by a jellyfish.

Bonus: Shots. I hate shots.