I went into Campowerment feeling oddly calm and sure of myself, given the constant storm of doubts and emotions that normally stir inside of me every day. When the opportunity to go to camp as a volunteer ranger was offered to me, I committed without hesitation. I didn’t really feel any nerves leading up to it, but then again I didn’t totally know what to expect. I knew I would be facing some fears and re-opening wounds, but as someone who has seen about 6 therapists in the course of my short lifetime, I have no problem discovering truths about myself. As a matter of fact, I thrive on it.
I went into the ropes course feeling confident that I would do what campers call the “leap of faith,” despite its daunting facade. Picture this: you’re on top of a mountain overlooking a blanket of clouds. Overlooking that bed of clouds is a 40-foot pole that you are supposed to climb and stand up on with nothing to hold onto but the literal air around you. The top of said pole is about the circumference of a medium-sized cheese pizza, so if you do manage to stand up, your toes are scaling off the edge. THEN, if you so choose, you can jump off the top of that 40-foot pole and attempt to grab onto a trapeze swing, which is about 3 feet in front of you and 2 feet above your head, give or take. I’m short, so it looked about 1,000 miles away.
I spent the first couple hours at ropes working my shift and witnessing some remarkable stories unfold for the campers, so by lunchtime I was anxious to embark on my own journey. My name was called and my stomach dropped to the floor. It felt like I was dragging my stomach on the ground behind me as I slowly walked over to the station. A beautiful, towering man, who goes by the name of Zen approached me, handed me a helmet, and began strapping me in. Attached to the other end of the rope were three of my fellow rangers and fast made friends--aka my ropes support system both literally and metaphorically. As Zen finished tightening straps and tying knots, he asked me what I wanted to get out of this experience. I think I said something along the lines of: “I want to believe in myself and not be afraid to let others down.” The words sounded foreign to me as I uttered them, most likely because I didn’t actually believe that I could believe in myself.
My adrenaline was pumping so vigorously that every memory from the start is sort of a blur. After we continued to exchange a few more words, Zen said, “I can tell you’ve been through a lot in your life already, and that you try to win love…”
My jaw damn near dropped to the floor. How did he know? I had just met this man 3 minutes prior and he managed to make a statement that rang true to my entire life. Just a minor backstory in case you don’t know me personally, but I have spent a good 18 years of my 25-year existence with the belief that I am unlovable and undeserving of love. In fact, pretty much anytime someone tells me they love me, my brain automatically rejects it like a heart transplant gone wrong. This assumption is the gas tank that fuels my depression, pumping crippling anxiety into my everyday existence. So, having this deeply rooted belief that I am an unlovable human, I typically spend my time trying to come up with outlandish ways to “win over” peoples’ acceptance and affection.
I stopped Zen mid-sentence, dumbfounded, “Do you read minds? Because that is SO true.”
I was in awe. He had just met me and yet it was like he had known me my entire life. Zen told me to look back into my childhood and pick an age that was particularly challenging for me. I scattered my brain for a few seconds and came up with age 10. He told me that today, I was not only going to take care of myself, but I was going to take care of the little girl that I lost along the way so many years ago. I was going to tell my 10-year old self that she is lovable, that she deserves love.
Zen focused my attention to one of my Ranger supporters and had me look into her eyes. He told me to tell her that I love and approve of her. I repeated this to her and I meant it in every ounce of my being. I barely knew her, but I meant it. I could feel her pulse in my clammy hand as she gave it a squeeze. He then told me to find my reflection in her eyes. With his words, her eyes instantly became a mirror; I could see myself so clearly. Zen told me to repeat the same sentiment, but this time to the reflection of myself. I repeated the statement, and at this point my eyes became a fog hazed by tears.
“Now tell your 10-year old self that you love and approve of her,” he said.
Nearly blinded by my own tears, I could no longer see my tiny reflection. I pictured myself at age 10, alone and unsure of the life and the people that surrounded me, and I told her that I loved her and I approved of her.
With a quick sob, a big bear hug, and another squeeze of the hand, the next thing I knew I was belaying up the pole. I climbed up those tiny 3-inch pegs to the top of that pole as if I had been a spider monkey in a past life. The climb up was a breeze. As I neared the peak I felt the uncertainties sink in; suddenly, I felt about 1,000 pounds heavier. I was straddling the top of what felt like a pretzel stick. I clung to the pole as if my life depended on it. The tiny bit of confidence that I had managed to muster up had vanished, and the “I can’ts” came flooding in, drowning me.
“I CAN’T!” I shouted.
My mind was racing with self-inflicting doubts: “There’s no way. You will fail. I knew you couldn’t do it. HA, you thought you could do this? You’re a joke of a human. Psh, go ahead and give up now honey, ‘cause this is over. I knew you would fail. I hate you.” I was in a full squat position hovering in mid-air, scared out of my damn mind. My self-deprecating thoughts were abruptly interrupted by the soothing voice of Zen from down below. My right foot was perched on a higher peg than my left foot, so with a little encouragement from Zen, I chose to swing my right foot to the top. My heart skipped a beat, but one foot was up!
As I contemplated trying to stand up there on both feet, I have never felt more physically unstable and blatantly unsure of my abilities in my entire life. I did not trust myself, at all. Although I had just managed to awkwardly swing my right foot to the top, I told myself there was NO WAY I could ever get the other foot up. I squatted up there with my right leg on top and my left foot nearly dangling on the peg below for what felt like an eternity. As the doubt again seized my mind, the cramps in my right leg became more and more painfully apparent. I CAN’T I CAN’T I CAN’T. IT HURTS. I CAN’T. My subconscious was wailing.
“Alright honey, I have an idea. I want you to take your right foot back down and instead, I want you to put your left foot up first.”
“Oh shit.” What? Was he serious? My left foot is even farther down than my right, how am I supposed to get that one up first?
“I’m going to stop you right there. Do you see what you just did? When I told you to put your other foot up instead, you said ‘oh shit’ because you usually take the easier way out. You said ‘oh shit’ because I just challenged you to take the harder route.”
Woah, he was right. I’ve spent much of my life taking the easier route, quite frankly because I didn’t believe in myself enough to reach higher, I didn’t think I could succeed. I had been holding myself prisoner in my own comfort zone for the majority of my life. I began to sob. Zen asked me what I was thinking about right in that moment.
“I’m comfortable being sad,” I said, “I want to be comfortable being happy.”
“Alright baby, well let’s get you there. Take that first step.”
Growing up with mental illness, I could never quite grasp the concept of happiness. Don’t get me wrong, I have had a wonderful life so far –I’ve experienced pure joy and had countless moments of elation. I’m not Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, I know how to have a good time. What I mean is whenever my depression subsides for a short while, I find myself searching for reasons to feel sad or berate my own character. I am so set in my self-hating ways that feeling good about myself is like being in uncharted waters. Instead of floating on my back and enjoying the view, I tend to subconsciously flail about, forget how to swim, and drown myself mentally. Well I’m tired of drowning; I want to fly. I need to SOAR.
Zen counted me down from 3, and with a swift swing of the leg I managed to get the left foot up! With a deep breath, a little trust in myself, and another countdown from 3, the next thing I knew I was standing on top of that wavering telephone pole. I WAS STANDING, UP THERE. I had done that –ME. Who knew that the simple act of standing up on something could hold so much meaning and power? I had literally been standing up on stuff my whole life, but this was symbolic of so much more. I felt a sense of ease and peace. I didn’t feel like I was perched on top of a 40-foot pole. There was no fear of heights. The fear, I realized, was in failing. The fear was in trusting myself. The fear was in believing that I have the inner strength to stand tall and accept that I am powerful, capable, and loved.
I looked around and took in the slow role of the clouds over the hills, the brush of the breeze against my skin. I listened for the birds, tried to pinpoint where their coos were coming from. To help savor the moment, Zen prompted me to name five things that I loved about my life. My whole body was quivering. I took a deep breath. I talked about my friends and how they have been there for me through my darkest times. They have stuck it out with me despite all the shit, and they haven’t abandoned me. I talked about my dad, and how I aspire to be like him. My dad lives life to the fullest. He lets life happen and rolls with the punches. He lives life with joy and laughter.
Before I could think of number 3, Zen stopped me. “I want you to relax your shoulders and breath. You’re thinking about the future, aren’t you? I can tell.”
It was then that I realized that as I was standing up there, I was thinking about how I was going to have to jump to that trapeze swing. I was thinking about how there was no way that I could reach it, and even if I could reach it, there was no way that I could grab and hold onto it. I was thinking about how I wasn’t strong enough. I had just faced one fear and proved my doubts wrong, and yet I found myself anxious about the next step, the bigger leap. I was doubting myself again. Before my self-hating subconscious could take over, as per usual, Zen chimed in from below. He told me to take a deep breath, relax, and accept that I could fail. He told me to accept it, and be okay with it. He told me to fail.
“Are you ready to jump and accept whatever happens? Are you ready to jump and give it your all? Trust yourself. Believe in yourself. Let go of the fear. Just do it.”
“Yes…” in that moment I had no choice but to just go for it. What did I have to lose?
My body went numb as my supporters shouted the countdown from below.
“3, 2…. “
Everything around me became white noise. I couldn’t see anything but that trapeze swing dangling above, beckoning me. My heartbeat was hammering in my throat. Everything was in slow motion. All I could hear was the countdown.
I let go, I stopped worrying, I believed in myself. For 2 seconds I was soaring, I was in a dream. The whole world stopped moving. Then, like something out of a Matrix film, I felt my hands grip the trapeze and with a jolt the universe sped up to the present and I was swinging! As I held onto that swing, I let go of everything else. It genuinely felt like I was flying, like I had just opened my eyes and was seeing the world for the first time—seeing myself for the first time.
When I surrendered from the swing and floated to the ground, my supporters embraced me, shouting my praises. Tears escaped through the smile creases framing my eyes and trickled down my cheeks. Zen—my voice of reason, my Jiminy Cricket—came up to me and encircled me in his arms. As I burrowed into his chest I felt so grateful for his guidance, for him and his extraordinary gift. I could feel his warmth and sincerity. He is a light. I can’t remember every amazing thing he said but he told me that he appreciated me and that he loved me. He told me that before this I didn’t understand or let myself see how powerful I am and how I can achieve anything I want. He told me I made that jump look easy! Zen hugged me tighter and with tears pooling in my eyes I said, “Thank you for seeing me.”
He squeezed me tighter and said, “I see you…and I think I’m in love with you right now because that was beautiful! You have such a big heart and I can see it and it’s beautiful and I love you. Thank you.”
I could feel my soul exhale with relief. I believed him. I felt the love and I let it in. I was finally accepting the praises, not rejecting them. I felt this undeniable sense of freedom. I thanked Zen for the truly incredible person he is, and walked away feeling immense gratitude and a newfound confidence. I felt love for myself. I was HIGH. Is this what self-love feels like, because damn I could take this alluring drug everyday. I was hooked. I walked away from ropes course light on my feet with a grin from ear to ear, my cheeks cramping. Campers beamed back at me and stopped me as I walked by saying, “You look so happy!” The joy was contagious.
I spent the remainder of that life-changing day reflecting and writing it all down. I wanted to keep this inspiration in my back pocket and have it handy any time life kicks me back down. It’s extraordinary what climbing a 40-foot pole and leaping off of it can tell you about where you are in your life. The impact of that leap is unfathomable. I am proud to say that I took that leap of faith, and I have been soaring ever since.
We are very lucky to have Cherie part of our team. Her continued support, participation, and photography have really helped ASVH grow. In her free (and busy) time, you can find Cherie petting a dog or cooking up delicious creations in the kitchen.
instagram - @sharedbycherie & @letsazzopardi
Photo creds to the brilliant Brittany Di Spirito & Juliet Rose