It filled me up to feel wanted, important, needed. Which is why once I started, I didn’t stop — at all
Eleventh grade was the year I spent more time crying than doing anything else. During that fateful year, my best friend switched schools, my social life became inordinately miserable, and Regents were not exactly fun either. It was lucky I emerged alive at all, actually. That’s why getting the job as Night Activity Head at Camp Peninim* was all the more incredible.
I’d applied for the position without much hope, to be honest. After the confidence-bashing and social challenges of the previous months, I didn’t imagine that someone like me even had a chance at masterminding the famous Peninim night activities. When the acceptance letter arrived, I had to read it four times before I was sure this was actually happening.
The purple and silver Peninim logo flashed at me above those magic words: “We are delighted to inform you that you have been accepted for the role of Night Activity Head.” Then there were 10 pages which basically said blah blah rules, blah blah forms, but the point is, something in my life was going right for the first time in months. My dream coming true! And boy was I going to ace it.
The next three months were a whirlwind of activity. While school remained annoying and political, on phone calls with Avigail, my co-head for night activity, I was flying high.
“Silent Disco left me a message. They can’t do Tuesday, what should we do?” I asked. Avigail went quiet.
“Hmm. How ‘bout we switch it with the photo shoot on Thursday instead?”
“Good idea!” I mumbled, while scribbling a note to myself to add ‘Call Photo People’ to my rapidly-extending list. This was hard work, but fun, fulfilling, and stimulating too.
We had our fair share of stresses and miscommunications because, as I learned, running the wrong activities can mean dire consequences for the competitive camp environment. Still, with some tears, more laughter, and even more calls, texts, and emails, the day arrived. Camp was set to begin.
From the very beginning, camp was pure adrenaline. Whether it was dancing around cheering, standing on the stage and directing a flash mob of themed characters, or creating an atmosphere at a supper, I was in my element. Avigail and I ran around all day making noise, and soon attracted bunches of admiring girls in the younger bunks who trailed after us to talk to us. It filled me up to feel wanted, important, needed. Which is why once I started, I didn’t stop — at all.
As camp went on, my involvement with different girls deepened. Most nights found me sitting outside quiet bunkhouses with one earnest, struggling camper, talking and sharing, often crying too. My bed barely featured. The other staff also did late nights between the different duty rotations, but most of them crashed in the early hours of the morning, a few short hours of shut-eye to get them through. I didn’t even do that. I stayed up until the sun was rising, the birds were chirping, and I was lucky if I caught three hours sleep before it was time to cheer myself hoarse at breakfast. I functioned on a diet of adrenaline, Coke and coffee, and my job role kept expanding, of my own volition.
“Camper needs first-aid in Bunk Five,” my radio blared. It was my “off” hour and I knew there were at least four other first-aiders on duty. Still, something compelled me to get on the scene, be part of things, so I ran. The same happened whenever a volunteer was needed or a crisis occurred. While the Head Counselor and kitchen staff took breaks and slept when they had time off, I just couldn’t. I refused to turn my radio off, or even lower the volume. What if I missed the action? I wanted to be there. I wanted to be seen.
Camp went on in this vein. As the weeks went by, my sleep deprivation continued to grow until I found myself falling asleep standing some days. But the whirlwind of noise and people that is camp did not let up, and I went on — and on and on. I did crazy things at crazy hours and didn’t even think twice about it.
“Get yourself to bed!” Tehilla, the Head Counselor, would chide, tapping at her watch for good measure, a look of concern on her face.
“Bed?! What’s that?” I would tease, waving my ice coffee, the third one that day, and running off to find some other action. Somehow, I kept going without stopping for all those weeks.
Then, camp ended.
As the buses pulled up to collect the hordes of screaming, crying, and hugging girls, things began to unravel. One minute I was smiling, cheering, and singing the camp theme song as loud as my voice could muster; the next moment I was bawling on Avigail’s shoulder, wailing that camp was over, that I was so sad and so, so tired. Avigail said she understood, she was also sad, but I knew she didn’t really get it. She had no idea what this time had meant for me. The time to shine, to be unique, to be loved. I cried and cried and cried.
The bus ride back from the country was the same. Driving down the highway, my eyes kept fluttering closed. But at each jolt of the bus, I awoke again, was reminded of reality, and cried. The adrenaline was gone and I had nothing left in me at all. Zilch. I was shattered to my very core. I was a hysterical, sobbing mess.
Avigail’s bus stop was the one before mine. I blearily waved her goodbye as my head slumped back down to my chest, gravity feeling stronger than I had ever known it to be. I knew I couldn’t miss my stop, but I also couldn’t keep myself awake to keep track of my surroundings. Luckily, the traffic light just before my stop turned red unexpectedly and the driver came to an abrupt halt, which jerked me awake. Somehow, I dragged myself off the bus on legs that felt like lead. Home again.
The next two weeks were a sickening roller coaster. I alternately cried and slept, calling camp friends and crying on the phone with them, then crashing on my pillow, fully-clothed, during the day. The sleep deprivation was so bad that I actually fell asleep in the bath once, and only after my mother banged on the door, did I wake up with a start in a lukewarm tub. I don’t think I realized at the time how much sleep I was missing; everything just felt out-of-control and crazy. By the time my poor circadian rhythm finally recovered, it was time to start preparing for 12th grade. Slowly I bounced back to my normal self, less snappy and irritable, more patient and kind. My body learned the hard way — sleep is not optional.
I started 12th grade with more than a little dread in my heart. Knowing what a washout 11th had been, I didn’t have much hope for improvement. Luckily, Hashem proved me wrong, and I was blessed with a year where many things went right. My confidence climbed and I found my place again, in a way that felt almost miraculous. I guess that’s what helped me when I returned to camp as Night Activity Head for the second year running.
On the first night of camp, the buzz returned. People and action and opportunities everywhere; I was thrilled to be back. I ran around helping the kitchen staff, spoke to as many people as I could, and then looked at the clock. There were so many things I could still do and involve myself with, people to see, places to be. But the question remained: Is the sleep deprivation worth it? Maybe I could do camp another way…
I’m not going to say I became the Sleep Brigade and didn’t have late nights, because hello, camp. But I will say that I put myself to bed with sufficient amounts of sleep to stay functional each day, and in the long run, I think everyone gained. I was calmer, kinder and more capable when it was my turn on-shift, and I still managed to be there for people who needed it. Just in a more healthy and balanced way.
The real proof showed through on the day I came home. Sure, I was tired and sad, but that massive downer I had the year before? It didn’t come again.
All through camp my body was telling me what it needed, and that first year I ignored it. I’m glad I got the opportunity to try again, to give myself the care I deserved, and enjoy the experience.
That way, I got to live my dreams, and get them at night, too.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 870)
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