Losing the Light When Summer’s Ended: Lessons from camp about isolation and abrupt transitions, as quarantine wears down recovering friends

I was texting a friend recently, and he told me basically every recovering addict he knows has relapsed since the country began isolating for the coronavirus pandemic. We chatted about how difficult isolation has become in particular for people with substance abuse and mental health issues. He encouraged me, if I was leading a devotion or meditation, to lift this up, because he felt camps had a unique perspective to offer the world about isolation.

When working long-term at a camp, human interaction can be feast or famine, and the transition between the two is not usually gradual. I’ve seen summer staff grapple with this year after year. I’ve felt this each year at the end of the camp season. Being at camp can be overwhelming at first due to the lack of connection with the outside world, family, non-camp friends. Then leaving camp can be its own challenge. One has to quickly switch from a structured community with supportive friends, lots of activity and uplifting experiences into what? We leave the safe and supportive camp environment and enter a world with more uncertainty, communities with more strings attached, and less understanding of our personal struggles. It can be a shock to the mind, body, and spirit.

So, I thought I’d offer lessons I’ve picked up over 25 years of shifting from one camp life to another for those really struggling with quarantine life. This certainly won’t replace professional counseling or emergency responses. But, maybe it will get at something universal and make us feel a little less alone in all this.

Be With the Emotions
Even good transitions carry sadness. It is normal to be sad when something ends. I think about a summer full of people, celebration, connection, noise and how the day after it ends it all goes quiet. It can make you feel like the meaning you found is gone too. Give yourself permission to be sad about it. Sit with those emotions and ponder what they bring out for you. As you sit with the sadness, you may realize it hurts so much because it means so much. It may take you to deeper places you didn’t know before.

Keep Community Alive
Missing friends is part of the sadness any time camp ends. I feel this several times a year, just wanting to have those people in the same room again to laugh, to share stories, to listen to each other. It is lonely going from access to a loving, supportive community straight to being alone. For people with deeper struggles, their supportive community may be the biggest thing keeping them stable.

In my summer staff days, back at college after summer, I made a point to coordinate gatherings with other camp staffers on campus every month or so. It was different, but there were ways it was like being back at camp together. Quarantine is so new and strange to many of us. But, there are ways to stay connected with our communities. For people who need it most, it’s crucial to schedule times for friends to meet on social media, to follow live events friends put on, to schedule social distance parades where people drive by houses to say hello. It can start with just making a simple phone call to someone you know and trust.

Embrace Solitude
Solitude often gets used with a negative connotation, but it can be a source of renewal too. As sad as it is for camp to end, I often feel a great sense of peace from the quiet. I sink into slower, more intentional rhythms and observe a nature more comfortable with itself and me. When I remind myself that solitude can offer peace and reflection, I find myself engaged in interesting activities that are good for my mind, body, and spirit.

Solitude can be a time where the voices in our head get free reign to say all they want with no interruption. This can be dangerous for some of us. I propose entering into that solitude with the
intention of curiosity, exploring the world in front of you. Ask the world questions, and let it speak to you. Give your own voices a rest. They’ve been working hard. It’s time to listen to something outside of us.

Don’t Be Afraid to Share Your Vulnerability
After an incredible camp experience, everyone goes their separate ways into sometimes very different realities. For those with not so good realities, it can be difficult to reach out and be honest about things not going so well. In a time where we only share the good stuff on social media, it’s easy for all of us to have the wrong impressions of how it’s really going. We may feel like a burden or a buzzkill for all the people taking a camp high out into the real world.

I’m sure during this time of isolation it can be equally hard to reach out. We know everyone is going through some sort of personalized difficulty. No one wants to feel like a burden. No one wants to add one more thing to their plate. It’s hard to talk about these difficulties. But, sometimes being able to share that vulnerability with a trusted friend turns out to be what both people needed in that new world they’ve entered.

Translate the Goodness of What You’re Leaving to Where You’re Going
We become special versions of ourselves in the right environment. One reason I’ve stuck with camp so long is that I often feel like the best version of myself when I do camp work. At the end of the summer, I see many people go out into the world and feel a bit like a rudderless ship. Without the camp atmosphere they are unable to completely access that person they were there.

It doesn’t mean that person only existed in that one place. There’s just some translating that has to happen from one world to the next. Upon returning to college from camp, I noticed I was more outgoing and welcoming. It was not the same as camp, but I started to see similarities and ways I could plug in. I did this, because I didn’t want to lose that feeling. The challenge was that camp was
set up with the intention of empowering me to be outgoing. College was not. It needed a little extra from me to get that. Once I saw it, though, I was able to find those parts of myself I originally thought only existed at camp. It gave me renewed confidence in a new place and it had positive repercussions for my new environment.

Every summer I was at camp, I was in great physical shape. I didn’t have to do anything extra, because camp kept my body plenty busy. My body needed rest by the end of the summer, but only for a short time. Pretty soon, I needed to find ways in my new world to be active.

Whatever lifestyle we were living before isolation, it likely structured in more movement than sitting at home does. I think it’s good to catch up on rest in that early time, but we have to think of new ways to move. When I’m active I feel more alive--it’s like a natural high. I find my emotions and body reflect each other. If one is down, it’s easy for the other to be. If one is up, the other follows behind (even if reluctantly).

Remember this...
The same way the summer was temporary, times of transition are also ever changing. Summers will come again, and even those who don’t come back to summer camp like they did last year will have the chance to use their experience for something new. The time of change is a hard time to figure out. Each day holds more discoveries, and it’s always been helpful to me to find childlike wonder in those new things, even if they are scary (isn’t that what we want our campers to do?).

If You Know Someone…
I think we are all learning during this time how important it is to reach out and be reached out to. If you know someone who has had struggles in their life, if you know someone who was really thriving in the life they were living pre-quarantine, if you know someone who has particular struggles with transitions, reach out. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Request some time to talk or video chat
  • Send them a picture of the two of you
  • Recount an epic experience you shared
  • Remind them of something incredible you’ve seen them do
Look for ways to share the goodness you’ve had before as you wade through this new reality. Maybe even make some kind of new goodness. Let’s take care of each other in this new time. It’s yet another thing we should know from our time at camp.


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