This project left us two down and exhausted. A typical day is 15 hours in uniform, plus acting as a cabin leader for approximately 20 eleven year-olds overnight. It is hard to remain present with people when you are working such hours. Going through the motions is a much easier option than investing in those around you, especially children. Though less exhausting, it is also less rewarding. This is one of the biggest lessons I learned from the Sly Park teachers, and so our second to last week there, I made the goal to try to stay as present as possible and invest in the students as much as I could by listening intently, playing with them, and getting to know their story.
In the middle of the week, however, I got a phone call from my Dad that changed everything.
Whenever something bad has happened, my Dad will send a text that says, “Call as soon as you can.” This is his way of sounding calm in the midst of chaos. So, when I received that message, my stomach dropped. For the respect of my family member, I am not going to write the specifics of what was going on at home, but I will say that it was very hard news to swallow.
I didn’t know that I could feel so alone, but after hanging up the phone, the thousands of miles that separated me from my family and friends that loved me so dearly seemed all but an entire universe. I needed to be strong for my family, and so I decided that I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone else.
It was carnival night, so all the students were in the gymnasium playing games when I got off the phone. I held it together long enough to head into the gym to ask my Team Leader if I could have the rest of the night off. There was no way I could handle being around anyone, let alone children that night. I had no intention of crying right then. I wanted to bottle it up. I wanted to seem stoic and brave in front of my team. In all reality, I had only known them for less than 2 months and had no idea how they would react to such a need for love and support. I didn’t want to put them in that position. I wanted to act strong.
But I didn’t hold it together. I ended up hyperventilating in a closet next to my Team Leader and another Corps Member. I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t breathe and all I wanted to do was shrink my world so I could manage it again. I remember feeling the cold concrete below my balled body, and knowing it was so good to feel something stable below me. With clenched fists I held my breath and put my knees to my chest, and thought, it wouldn’t be so bad to just fade away right now.
I see people in my life who can hold it all in. Friends who I am close with who on very rare occasion break down and let people in. Sometimes I really wish for that. I never quite feel strong enough for them. However, there is a part of me that truly knows that as humans we are meant for community, and so are meant to be loved by one another. Being vulnerable in front of someone is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of courage, and hopefully, a sign of trust in that relationship.
I calmed down enough to be walked outside by two of my teammates. I have to give them a lot of credit for dealing with me that night –eyes full of tears, scared, and unsure. Unfortunately in the moment it’s really hard to say, “I need to be loved in this way,” but they did the best they could. It’s so simple to say now, but all I really needed was someone to be present with me, for them to shrink my world so it was just them and I with their hands on my back, telling me that it was going to be ok, even if they didn’t know for sure. I can’t remember most of the words the three of us exchanged, but I’m sure they were the right ones. It was more a gesture of normalcy than a need for me. They would have been just fine sitting there, letting me cry, holding my hands until I was ready to acknowledge the rest of the world. It’s ok that we’re all still learning on our team how people need to be loved – it’s a learning process.
Reflecting on that night and the subsequent days still makes me tear up a little. Half the time I spent in a haze, trying to keep myself busy enough to forget what was happening at home, feeling guilty for ever stepping foot out my door, or being overcome by a tiredness that would not go away. I was still hesitant to let people in, doubting that I had known them long enough to handle such a thing, uncomfortable with being honest in saying, this is the way I need you to be here for me right now.
And then I reflect and think, I’m glad it happened to me. Not the exact situation in my family, but the fact that I was the one on the team that broke down first and in such a big way. I’m glad it happened because maybe, just maybe, it helped others trust just a little bit more in the people around them. Maybe me being ripped wide open would help them see that their teammates would be there to pick up the pieces. Maybe it will give them the courage to help us know how to love them.
But maybe that’s just the optimist in me.
These are the people I will depend on for another 7 months. I will be thousands of miles from home, whatever home means anymore. I need them in my life to help support me when I am not so strong, whether they appreciate this position or not. We are building and re-building. I, just like the rest of the people on my team, and maybe even all those other 18-24 year olds, am just trying to find the right combination, trying to see what and who helps me feel fulfilled. Sometimes it takes dismantling some of those familiar things to see it.