In my inbox, from Sarah, this morning:
Over the winter that followed that morning of shooting-the-sh*t on the porch, Sarah’s parents’ marriage crumbled at the hands of infidelity. I don’t know what a parent’s infidelity does to a child’s (and, let’s be honest, a teenaged girl is still, very much, a child) sense of herself in the world, but I don’t believe it can possibly be good. (To say something else, just so that it is on the record: I know both of Sarah’s parents, and they are both absolutely committed and loving parents to her. They adore, honour, and love their daughter, and always have. I have absolutely never doubted or questioned that. I hope that Sarah hasn’t either.) I do believe that that infidelity, and its impact on the family life she had always known, burned its way into Sarah’s understanding of love, relationships, monogamy, beauty, trust, honesty.
While her home life spun out of control, long-undiagnosed learning disabilities (including ADD) were making high school into a prison sentence. A form of dyslexia required super-human focus for Sarah to decode text, while Attention Deficit Disorder systematically eroded her focus. Sarah, always taller and broader than other girls her age, developed bulimia. All of this created perfect conditions for clinical depression to join the party. And speaking of partying, there was more than a little underage drinking and recreational drug use going on. A support group, a regimen of medications, and an alternative high school program kept Sarah treading water. While I remain forever grateful that Sarah did not, in fact, drown in that tidal wave of chemical imbalance, let’s be very clear: treading water is not the same as swimming confidently. Not the same at all.
The following summer, when Sarah and her friends registered in our teen leadership programs, they truly and finally became “mine.” Sarah moved into my cabin with 10 other girls, where she would stay for 3 years. The girls were packed into that cabin like sardines, and Sarah, once again the oldest, was definitely the head sardine. Her music played on the boombox, her posters hung on the walls, her voice resonated in the tones and vocabularies of the other girls. She both loved and hated her role as a leader. It made me push her harder, ask more of her than of the other girls. We argued occasionally. Thinking about it now, I may have been the only person to whom Sarah had ever gracefully lost an argument.
I want to be clear: while there is no denying that Sarah brought her demons to camp with her, they did not define who she was in that setting. Camp is a much gentler, safer place than the wealthy Bay Area town where Sarah grew up. In a place where everyone is dirty, grubby, mosquito-bitten, sunburned, bruised, and scraped from bouncing around 200 acres of meadow and pond and forest and swimming pool and mountain bike trails and climbing wall, traditional California definitions of beauty begin to fade. When the only reading required is decoding a one-page schedule, to get yourself to the right activity at the right time, the burden of dyslexia gets a lot lighter. The frenetic pace of camp life might actually make ADD into an asset. And as for drugs and drinking? Well, when teenagers are so intensely supervised, and when the consequences of partaking in those things include being kicked out of your most favourite place on the planet… they become a lot less appealing.
For much of the time at camp, Sarah shone like the sun. Being in a leadership role suited her big personality. She led 100 children in rowdy “stand-up” songs at campfire, laughing and dancing her way through multiple repetitive verses of silliness. With the help of our dance instructor, she choreographed contributions to talent nights: Thriller, The Time Warp, and others. She led Dorky Dive competitions at the pool. She played basketball with little boys.
All of that being said, there is no denying: eleven 16-year old girls in a 20 x 20 foot space adds up to lots of drama. They cry lakes of tears and consume gallons of ink scribbling in their journals. I rarely came to bed without finding someone sobbing, someone mad, someone placating someone else. They would scatter into little groups: 2 or 3 on the porch, a couple on the back step, someone sitting in the dirt just up the hill, and always, always, someone who slept through it all, and someone else who pretended to sleep through it all. Sometimes I held them and let them cry. Sometimes I made them talk to one another instead of about one another. And sometimes I just tucked them in to bed, refusing to hear any debates, to wipe any tears, to listen to any feelings. I tucked those girls in the same way I had tucked in the preschoolers I babysat at home. They were, really, just little girls.
And Sarah, the biggest of my little girls, after several months of winning the battle of bingeing and purging, was suddenly losing it again.