It’s 6:40am and I am standing at the corner of Delores and 18th street in San Francisco waiting for a bus to take me to summer camp. With a duffel bag in tow, I say my name to a woman wearing bright colors, who is way too cheerful for that time of day. That would be the last time I would use my name because for the next 4 days, I would be known as Squirrely. A green tortoise bus pulls up when I’m informed that half of the bus is filled with cushions. I kick off my shoes and crawl in to the pile of strangers who are lying down, chatting and cuddling. This was the start of my adventure to Camp Grounded: A Digital Detox.
When I first get to camp, which is 4-hour drive into the Redwood Forest, I am directed to turn in my identification, credit cards, and all digital devices. I don’t know how I functioned before the iPhone. How did I look up random facts on Goggle? Carry a phone and a camera?… sheesh. What was life before text messages? How do you tell someone where to meet for Frozen Yogurt? I guess you had to talk to them, on the phone, or God forbid face-to-face… eek!
The Redwood Forest is beautiful and the trees somehow make you feel insignificant. Everyone is dancing, laughing and singing. I was a little confused. How is this real? People aren’t really this happy. I found myself pushing against the idea of camp. By the end of the first night, I was thinking to myself, “Well it was a good experience, but I won’t be doing this again.” I felt a little irritated. The next day, we had signed up for “Playshops”, which are group activities you could do during the day. Of course with me, it wouldn’t be cross-stitching or shadow puppet theater. I went for the Ropes Course with Zip Lining and AcroYoga. Not even giving my Diva Parkinson’s another thought.
When I get to my first activity of the day, I notice just how high the trees are. I was to climb up a ladder, which was made for giants, because some of the steps up were half the length of my body. Now mind you, for safety reasons I do have a harness on, so if I fall, the only thing getting hurt would be my ego. Being the wonderful caring person I am, I let everyone go ahead of me. Oh alright… I was too scared to go, I went last. Staring at the tree ladder that seems to go all the way up to the clouds, I tell myself, “I am a winner… I can do this.” And I begin to climb. A few steps in, I think, “I must be almost to the top”. Ha! In one of life’s cruel jokes, I was only about 10 feet off the ground. Looking at the next rung on the ladder, I feel my body go into panic mode. I begin to doubt everything. I am shaking, I am frozen, I am going to pee my pants, I am going to fall, my medications aren’t’ working, but hey, I do have a very cute woodsy outfit on. It’s amazing how easy the word Parkinson’s comes to mind. It is like a default setting. I think I can’t do this because of my Parkinson’s disease.
My eyes begin to whelm up with tears. I can’t trust my body to do what I need it to do. My mind is telling me to take that next step, but my body is a shaky scaredy cat. Then I gave myself a mental slap across the face and said, “You got this!” I gripped the next wooden rung, a slowly pulled myself up. I was not going to give up. Slowly but surely, I made it to the top. Mascara smeared down my face. I was a hot mess, but a mess that had pushed through her fear up to the top of the Redwood trees. I felt that I had conquered the world, but only to realize that I had only climbed the ladder of the course. I had a whole obstacle of balancing on ropes high about the ground in front of me, but I had come so far, and was not going to quit. I calmed myself and shimmied my way across the wire. My reward for facing my fears was zip lining through the beautiful forest… Oh, and a fresh change of pants.
By the second day, I was getting tired of the happy people and cuddle puddles everywhere. I mean really, does everyone have to make eye contact for so long? It was uncomfortable. I was sitting on the grass away from everyone, when a man walks up to me and says, “Free Hugs”. I smile and politely say, “No, thank you”. He replies, “Oh come on, you know you want a hug.” I say, “Nope, I am all good”, trying not to lock eyes with his intense stare. Relentlessly, he tries again, “Get in here”. I stand up and walk to his with my arms extended and reply, “I don’t know why I am doing this, I don’t want a hug”. The stranger embraces me for what felt like an hour, he pulls away and says, with direct eye contact, “See? That wasn’t so bad.” He hugs me again. And we aren’t talking about the ass-out hug where half of your body is wrangled in, and your lower body is as far away as possible. I am talking about a hug, full body contact. After what felt like a few seconds, the stranger lets go, but I for some reason keep holding on. He responds with a laugh.
Confused at what just happened, I walk off to the hydration station to fill my water bottle when an overly cheery, high-on-life girl bounces up and says, “Hi! Are you have a good day?” I turn to her and say, “No! I don’t get it, this isn’t the real world. I came here to find myself, but I don’t want to”. I began to cry. Needless to say, I had just said something truly profound. My new friend recognized it and told me to stay right where I was. She went to find my camp counselor.
My counselor and I walked around as I cried. This wasn’t the real world. My life rotated around medication schedules, timing my on/off periods, being surrounded by people who have Parkinson’s and find some days challenging to walk, let alone dance around. My identity had been stripped away. I was open. I was exposed. No one knew who I was, they only knew me as Squirrely, an adorable little forest creature. So it was now time to embrace living in the moment and being present. No fears of the future or what might happen with my body as I battle Parkinson’s. I was going to enjoy being there with my new friends, no walls up… for the next few days, I was just going to be me.
After the bug spray, sunscreen, and dirt was rinsed off, I had time to reflect on my time at camp. I almost feel sad, like a part of me is missing. I randomly walk up to people on the street yelling, “Free Hugs” with my arms extended, but strangely, everyone runs the opposite direction. To go through an experience together with a group of strangers, it amazes me how you can connect. I can tell you what activities that I was a part of, what games I played, what food I ate, but I can’t put into words the impact it had on me emotionally. All the campers had their own personal experience, but we did it together. I have made friendships that were authentic… without the walls that we put up to protect ourselves. Parkinson’s disease was present, but it didn’t define me. Even though it was frightening to be that exposed, I can’t wait to be dancing and joining in the cuddle puddles at camp next year!