What to Bring:
- Seven short-sleeved tops in hard candy colors, neatly folded.
- Seven pairs of denim shorts, cuffed above the knee.
- Seven pairs of socks and underwear. Mom says laundry’s done weekly. There’s no need to stress.
- A pair of knock-off Keds, laces removed. You ask to bring your real Keds, the purple ones, but Mom & Dad say those are for special occasions—like Red Lobster with Grandma. Not for therapy camp.
- Looney Tunes pajamas, a last-minute Wal-Mart purchase because you wear Dad’s old t-shirts to bed, or nothing at all, and that won’t fly when staff make their rounds at night. You’re 11 and maturing.
- One spineless notebook. You enjoy writing: on paper, in your head, at night when Mom’s morphine kicks in and Dad yells and your younger brother bruises his own face.
- An electric razor (to remain in a locked place when not in use). You may shave your legs if your blade hums instead of scrapes.
What Not to Bring:
- Belts, music, jewelry, pencils/pens, drugs, anything sharp, anything that resembles rope, anything that resembles home, anything personal and/or comforting.
What to Expect:
- Walls painted sea glass and warm weather sky. Floors and hallways exuding calculated calm. A clean fish tank. Grandma’s beachside condo but off.
- No cable, no MTV. But you’ll sneak a peek when a bolder kid dares to wade through the static, stumbling upon a splash of technicolor sound: I got a man. What’s your man got to do with me? You’ll remember solo bedroom dancing, daydreams about your 5th grade crush. Staff will catch you drifting, change the channel. Recommend you watch the VHS of Three Men and a Little Lady instead.
- A mulleted staff member’s impression of Jim Carrey as that female bodybuilder, your only form of PG-13 entertainment.
- Tokens awarded when you share your feelings, take your pills without protest, make it to Group on time. Tokens awarded if you comply, if you don’t tear at your arms like wrapping paper, if you just stay calm, please. When the token “store” opens its doors, you’ll “purchase” troll dolls—stroke their neon manes, press your thumb against their jeweled tummies, and wish hard.
- Access to your favorite condiments in the cafeteria: Tabasco and A.1. Once customary household staples, now glass-bottled talismans.
- A swimming pool for practicing handstands. A swimming pool for sinking to the cool blue bottom and forgetting where you are.
- A rubber room with padded walls the color of perfect day clouds to sit and scream and squirm against, straight-jacketed. One boy will enter the rubber room during your stay, a boy who shares in Group that his mother once put him in the oven, turned it on, and left him to die. Staff will restrain him and slam the door but you’ll still hear his muffled cries of terror, of release. They’ll keep watch through the window until they observe the rise and fall of his harnessed body, until he’s done in by his own pain.
- Family visitation dinners at Applebee’s. Mom glaring and gritting her teeth while you evade the deafening blows of her silent treatment. You’ve told the therapists about school nights sleeping on dirty waiting room floors, emptying her bedpans at home without assistance. You’ve mentioned her moods, her hurtful sarcasm, how she sometimes says she wished she’d died in that ICU last Easter and you know that she means it. Be more like your brother, her eyes threaten. Let your body flail with feeling, but only harm yourself.
- A girl in the room next to yours drumming a lonely melody through the wall, trembling with her fear of the dark, her fear of this place, her stepfather back home. You’ll respond in rhythmic pulses like your hand’s a heartbeat. Like, for the first time, you’re alive with the things you can’t tell doctors or your notebook or yourself.
- A 4th of July group outing to a mall parking lot. The motley crew of you awestruck by those fiery sky petals blooming and quickly wilting into ash. You’ll remember what it’s like to be in a world away from the mandatory and daily recounting of all your darkness. You’ll wonder if you’ll ever enter this world again.
- An adjustment period. One night, staff will wake you and lead you to the common room where your younger brother, red and inconsolable, bawls for his mother. You’ll hold the shuddering heat of him and he’ll cool like that boy in the rubber room. Staff will say you can sleep together for the night, the sofa yawning into their hands, revealing its mattress tongue. Your brother will nod off, done in by his own pain, fresh tears scoring his cheeks. You’ll want to whisper you love him, but you won’t. Instead, you’ll lie awake while staff make their rounds, opening and shutting the doors of other campers’ rooms until the overhead lights bleed through the halls like you remember from Mom’s hospital rooms where you monitored the mechanical breath of her machines—the same slow hiss now echoing from your brother’s sour mouth.
What Not To Expect:
- The truth. Therapy camp isn’t a camp at all; it’s a mental hospital for children. You’ve known this, but your parents slipped that euphemism under your tongue and it lodged there. Decades later, Dad claims your brother was recommended for treatment, but you’d volunteered to keep him company. You’ll hold no memory of this, but you won’t contest it. You know how to take one for the team, for the family’s greater good. You’ll wonder if this was legal, about your parent’s caretaking. But you won’t wonder why you went. Therapy camp promised rules and routines, adults who listened, sunshine rippling the pool’s surface like you remember from vacation. You’ll never attend a real summer camp with horses or campfire songs, but you and your brother will learn your own lifelong lessons. You’ll just never tell each other what they are.
Jillian Luft is a Florida native currently residing in Brooklyn. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y Lit, Barren Magazine, Hobart and other publications. You can find her work at jillianluft.com or follow her struggles navigating Twitter @JillianLuft.