Debilitating Homesickness

I’ve mentioned this condition a few times before. In my personal experience, it’s only debilitating for a few hours. And the episodes are relatively rare. But for Mary, she’s always kind of at least 10% homesick and usually she’s actually somewhere between 25-100% homesick.

Last night, in the middle of the night, we were chatting on the phone while I was downing coffee and getting stuff done and she was about to go to bed and trying not to feel lonely so she could  sleep. And after an explanation of her feelings and ultra emotional day, she asked “What’s wrong with me?” and I was like, “You have IT.”

IT is what the staff used to call homesickness at summer camp. Used in a scenario…

Counselor 1: What’s wrong with Camper A?
Counselor 2: She has IT.

Usually the word IT is accompanied by the non-verbal cues (usually with your eyes) that accompany any interpersonal exchange involving a secret code. Basically, the “you know what I mean” suggestion eyes.

If you say homesickness around a camper or refer to a camper as homesick or let them identify with that term, then it’s like an instant flood of tears and straight up defeat and determination to have their parents come get them immediately and that decision is non-negotiable. As soon as they hear the word, for some reason, kids are basically going to be miserable and inconsolable and will end up finishing the week early. Usually, there was more than one homesick camper every week and kids have fragile emotions so if you were talking about one kid being homesick and another homesick kid heard you, that homesick kid might cross the threshold into debilitating homesick meltdown and then you have two unhappy campers. So that’s why homesickness = IT. The goal of camp is to make sure as many kids as possible have the most fun possible

Generally, because the goal of camp to be an awesome experience for everyone, the early departure of a camper was not the outcome we were hoping for. If you can get a kid to stay at camp for even another afternoon, they’ll generally be able to make it through the week. Some kids just have one acute episode of homesickness. Others go back and forth between happy and homesick all week but most of them are able to stay until Saturday. After being a counselor for even just one summer, you’re an expert at spotting the signs and symptoms of homesickness and intervening to make kids want to stay at camp and have fun.

It can be hard to be away from everything you know and all the security of your daily life and have to make new friends and do activities that you’ve never done before. We’ve all been there. So if you can empathize with the kid and have a heart-to-heart intervention talk and get him/her to want to stay, he/she will absolutely develop stronger coping skills and probably be better for it in terms of general life skills and also just be able to enjoy summer camp like every kid should.

And as an adult, homesickness really isn’t much different. You’re away from your support system and everyone you know. You have to make new friends. You have to do new and challenging things without the people who love you around to help you face those things. So when I told Mary that she had IT, she then asked what I would do if she was a camper and I was a counselor to help her not feel homesick.

Immediately, you have to figure out what, specifically is making the camper cry. Once you determine that he/she is crying because he/she is homesick and not because so-and-so was mean or because he/she was running down the hill and wiped out or because he/she can’t catch a crayfish and everyone else can, you then address why they’re homesick and whether it has to do with something they don’t like about camp.

The worst case scenario is that they actually do hate something about camp… like the food or the people in their cabin or team time or whatever. Because then you kind of have to come up with a solution to help them find food that they can eat or work out the issues with their cabinmates (girls are fucking vicious at all ages… that’s a FACT) or help them have fun playing 4-way soccer (which, for you readers not in the know, is 1 big game of soccer with multiple balls between 4 teams at once and 1 field divided into 4 sections… 1 for each team with 1 goal each).

I’ve gone to the kitchen in the middle of the afternoon and made a kid a PB&J because the kid didn’t want to eat anything earlier at lunch. And I’ve facilitated spur of the moment small group activities with follow-up debriefs about feelings/communicating/including other people/etc. And I’ve told a kid that he/she could be my 4-way soccer buddy and told him/her that we had a very special job to do together. Usually this “very special job” was some bullshit position like the “let’s try to keep counselor Nate from crossing the line into our goal territory” position which basically entailed running in a fashion that made the kid feel like he/she was contributing to the team effort and not sucking at sports. Lots of high fives. And the point is that you give them something to focus on, especially something that makes them feel important, to take their mind off the fact that they’re not having fun. And then they do have fun. Sometimes kids just need to feel like they’re special. And usually, because kids are crazy approval seekers, if you give one kid a special job or position or attention, other kids want a special job or position or attention from you too and before you know it, you have an army of kids who run wherever you run to keep Nate away from the goal territory and everyone has a good time and the kid who was unhappy doesn’t need you anymore because he/she is involved with other kids and having a good time with them.

All of these solutions work for the most part and unhappy campers become as happy as all the other campers. I did have one particularly vicious cabin that just would not get along though. Like 9 year old girls who tore each other apart consistently. We were on the challenge course for way longer than usual that week because everyone kept having meltdowns. Like anger meltdowns and frustration meltdowns and general unhappiness meltdowns, all with a shitload of tears. It was the week from hell. Finally, my co-counselor and I had to have that “Fuck this shit. Let’s just send them to free time because this is a non-constructive lost cause,” discussion… the ultimate failure for a camp counselor. The challenge course is about team-building and trust and communication and cooperation and personal growth and all that “peace, love, and happiness” summer camp stuff. But these kids were like the T-Rexes of elementary school. You can lead a T-Rex to water, but you can’t make it drink, I guess. One of my top 10 biggest feelings of failure happened during that challenge course afternoon. My co and I sat down across from each other at dinner and had that “WTF just happened?” non-verbal exchange. Granted, we knew it was going to be rough because those kids had problems with each other from night one basically. But usually, after the challenge course, things take a turn for the better in terms of people getting along. Because that’s kind of the whole point. Do new/fun things and get closer as a group. NOT THIS TIME. On Saturday morning, those girls hated each other just as much as they did on Sunday night. And probably even more, actually. They are the reason I want to have mostly boys if I’m ever a mom.

Goodness. That was a tangent. It’s still vivid in my brain even though it was almost 6 years ago. Some things are so terrible that you just never forget. That was also the week of excessive and negative animal interactions. The snake story is a tale for another time. If I ever have to answer an interview question about staying cool under pressure, I might use that experience. To this day, I have a serious problem with snakes, whereas I had absolutely no problem with them before. Prior to that week, I’d easily picked up snakes that got into the bathroom and put them outside and stuff like that. Now, my heart races even if I see them in cages at the zoo.

But ok… back to the homesickness. This is why I can never be a public speaker. People would always be like “WTF is she talking about? And what does this have to do with where we started?” I might start putting an outline at the beginning of these posts.

The best case scenario when assessing a homesick camper is finding out that there’s not anything specifically that he/she dislikes about camp, but rather that he/she just misses his/her mom or grandpa or dog or whoever. I previously mentioned the worst things to hear in the middle of the night from a camper. I need to add one to the list right now. “I miss my mom.” Usually they’re crying so hard they can hardly say the sentence. And in the middle of the night in a quiet cabin full of sleeping kids, this is a crisis.

But ok… so, you find out that the kid doesn’t hate camp but just misses something or someone about home. In this case, you don’t have to problem-solve. You can just skip straight to step 2 which is the final step. Smooth sailing. You basically just have to distract them. And most kids are absolutely easily distracted. It’s my favorite kid characteristic. Some people, when they’re discussing what types of kids they want to have or what type of kids they’re going to have, they list attributes like smart, social, athletic, imaginative, etc. The only thing I want my kids to be is easily distracted. Parenting will be soooo much easier.

You ask the kid with IT what they had fun doing that day or what they were looking forward to later that day or the next day or later in the week. If you make them start talking about how much they like camp, then they’ll forget how much they want to be home. And that works 90% of the time. During the other 10% of the time, when a kid is particularly stubborn (i.e. not easily distracted), you have to verbally express whatever positive stories and feelings and jokes and whatever you can come up with to make them laugh. Once they laugh, just one time, it’s basically game over in 99.99999% of cases. You’ve won. Crisis averted. The camper is gonna survive the homesickness and have a good time.

So, last night, when Mary asked what I would do if I was a counselor, I told her. And then we started talking about camp because she worked there when I did and became a counselor a few years later too. Incidentally, she was lifeguarding during the snake incident so she has PTSD from that too. Anyway, Mary obviously wasn’t going to be happy just by talking about what she likes about Utah because 1) she’s not really a dumb kid any more and knows what she’s feeling and why she’s feeling it so rationalization of the issue won’t help and 2) we always talk about what she likes about Utah and it always fails to cure her homesickness. So, I tricked her. Because adults, especially Mary, are sometimes just as easily distracted as kids. And instead of talking about Utah and how awesome it was, we talked about camp and relived some memories. Most of them regarding dealing with homesick campers. And that made her laugh and feel good about what she did as a counselor and so then we were able to have a happy conversation about other things and I was pretty sure it made her feel somewhat better so I felt like the intervention was successful.

Then she sent me this e-mail today that didn’t have anything in it aside from this depressing quote from season 1 of Mad Men.

In Greek, nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

Ugh. Now I realize that the intervention was actually a huge fail. The debilitating homesickness is still running rampant in her brain.

Mary = the vicious Junior girls from hell week. Resistant to behavioral changes. Not that it’s her fault. Nor was it the Junior girls’ fault. Sometimes you can try everything and still fail not because people don’t want to feel better but just because they can’t feel better no matter what.

And I’ve obviously had way too much psychiatric nursing practice in the past few weeks. My brain can really only think in terms of disorders and therapeutic techniques. 2 more days……….. Then I can be normal again.

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