The summer with no fireworks

Monday, March 16, 2020 - 5:25pm

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Photo Courtesy of Maxwell Barnes

As I sat on a boulder in the middle of the Saluda River in North Carolina, I raised a can of Twisted Tea to my lips. I had never tried one before, and the taste was sweet and lemony — easily mistakable for a non-alcoholic beverage. “That’s dangerous,” I said to my friends, noting its satisfying intake that could have easily led me to drink five more. 

The relaxing sensation of the wind lightly bristled through my hair. It was the Fourth of July and I was conveniently on my day-off from working as a counselor at a nearby sleepaway summer camp. Calmly, I wandered back through the torso-deep waters to the riverbank to check my phone. I was prepared to head back to my camp later that afternoon, along with the miscellaneous crew of counselors that had shared an Airbnb with me the previous night. I was excited for that evening. I anticipated I would be assisting with the ceremonious ritual of shooting off fireworks for all of camp — nearly 300 children ages six to 16 — to see. At our camp, the firework lighting was an honor reserved for only male counselors with at least a summer of prior camp experience. It was going to be a fun event which I had been looking forward to for weeks. 

As I checked the GroupMe app, I realized I had been removed from the coveted “Bomb Squad” chat. I quickly received a call from Trent, a peer who was the head of the boys camp. He flustered while he tried to explain why I had suddenly been left out. 

“What’s the issue?” I asked puzzledly. 

“They’re scared you’re going to shoot the fireworks at the kids,” he answered, referring to our managers. 

I immediately began to regret having been so open about my mental health to my coworkers.

My own experience with depression arose in the fall of my sophomore year of college, when I was desperately trying to transfer to the University of Michigan out of the elite arts university I was attending in New York City. For the better part of a year, I encountered loneliness unlike any kind I had experienced before. I essentially lived alone in my dorm room. I did everything alone: museums, basketball games, Broadway plays. In spite of my sadness, I was committed to making it work. I participated in intramural sports, wrote for a satire magazine and even rushed a fraternity in hopes of meeting someone, anyone, with whom I could form a deep connection. I didn’t succeed. My classes, while superb in instruction, were not enough to keep me from quickly losing maintenance of my social life in such a large city. It felt too adult, and I was too young.

At times I did not feel like I was even attending a university. As a theater major, only two-fifths of my classes were taught by university faculty — the others were led by third-party teachers from a local acting studio. I was essentially a glorified conservatory student with a lunch plan. Lost in the rat race of the New York City rush hour, I often recognized my own face as the youngest out of everyone on the subway during my commutes to and from classes. As my condition quickly turned unbearable, I turned to prescription medication to help alleviate the profound level of sadness I was experiencing.

When I was accepted to the University, I decided to give up a summer internship with a well-known improv training center in Chicago. I figured I needed a space that was familiar so I could regroup emotionally. I had been a counselor at the North Carolina summer camp before, so returning to it was supposed to be a refresher, something I hoped would be a peaceful bridge between one chaotic timeline to another, more relaxed one. I love working with kids, and I had hoped my summer would be just as enjoyable as the last. Upon my arrival, I was understandably questioned by my fellow counselors about my sudden departure from New York. I answered them honestly: I was new to medication. I was depressed. I needed simplicity.

***

Back on the riverbank, my call with Trent ended abruptly. I nearly dropped my iPhone into the water below as I became furious and fraught with confusion. I couldn’t think straight. My good friend, Henry, offered to drive my car back to camp as I sat in the passenger seat. We drove in silence before he spoke up. 

“I’m sorry, do you want to talk about it?” he asked.  

“What is there to talk about?” I replied. “I’m being punished for something I can’t control.” 

When I had applied to be a camp counselor, at no point in the application process was I asked about the status of my mental well-being. I had assumed with the current tide of the zeitgeist, I wouldn’t be barred from opportunities. It seemed like “Reduce The Stigma” was the catchphrase of 2019. It turned out my confidence in the public’s far-reaching acceptance of mental health’s destigmatization was over-assumed. 

As I became more and more open about discussing these topics the first few weeks of camp, the summer I desired went out the window. Suddenly, I wasn’t leading any overnight camping trips. I wasn’t being asked to help read the daily paper aloud to campers in the mornings. Any scavenger hunt or evening activity that required a counselor to perform did not include me. This was especially unnerving when I would be passed up for playing characters or putting on costumes to judge talent shows. I was an acting major, after all. I had energy and dedication to spare that wasn’t being utilized. 

I knew I was being treated wrongly by my managers’ logic. In my mind, caring for a horde of 12-year-old boys in a woodland cabin surely must hold more responsibility than lighting off fireworks. When I returned to camp from my day off, I sat down with my employers face-to-face. Both were in their twenties, like me. I asked them: “Should I still be allowed to work here?” To me, the question wasn’t about pettiness or simply being angry about not being able to light fireworks. It was about who they thought I was because of my depression, which began to shape my own interpretations of myself. 

Through some struggle in explaining, my administrator Francis countered. She had some pity in her eyes. “It’s not that we don’t trust you, we just don’t trust your judgment. Gut feeling? We didn’t think it would work.” My heart sank. Word of my depression had clearly gotten back to my managers on account of my openness. I felt sterilized. Meanwhile in Chicago, participants of my abandoned internship were meeting privately with Lorne Michaels after viewing an invite-only SNL audition. I left the meeting in a blur, feeling like I had easily accepted defeat. 

I should’ve gotten angrier, I thought, and more curt about the pattern of exclusion I had been facing for the past few weeks. I wished I could have conveyed how desperately I wanted to feel included rather than excluded. Any incorporation or trust between me and my employers would have done wonders for my self-confidence.

That night, the fireworks were rained out. 10 days later, when they were rescheduled, I was conveniently placed on another day off.

After the Fourth of July incident, I considered quitting my job entirely. However, that would’ve meant I would have to pack my things and head home for the remainder of the summer with no friends around and certainly no means of making money. For my financial and social health, I was stuck working under the heavily circumscribed agency I was being handed. 

From an occupational perspective, the largest roadblock in reducing mental health stigma seems to be the actual implementation of nondiscriminatory policies. Although it is illegal for employees to be fired on account of their mental health, an employer may request information about a mental health condition when there is objective evidence that an employee may pose a safety risk. This loophole is broad. While it may keep some workers employed, this rule certainly has great potential to be abused. 

Looking back on the disappointment of this past summer, I’m still fortunate for a lot of reasons. I’m grateful I have the opportunity to make such sweeping adjustments to my life if I’m feeling I require them. I’m grateful to have a supportive family and the option of pursuing higher education. I’m grateful I have the choice to live without medication, as I’ve been practicing since August. However, I’m aware that many others may find themselves in dire circumstances similar to mine and lack the necessary resources to create changes.

At the University, I volunteer on the Depression Center’s student advisory board. I joined because I wanted no student to feel the way I felt. Before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we had been preparing to participate in mental health crisis training, so that we could learn to uplift and support friends and colleagues who are in danger of physical harm. 

As our culture continues to “reduce the stigma,” I’d like to see more initiatives focusing on similar crisis training which become commonplace for employers. Hopefully these would be taught in the same manner we teach CPR or anti-sexual harassment seminars. I’m no doctor, I’m a camp counselor — my best expertise is in playing “Capture the Flag.” But it seems like a good place to start.

Maxwell Barnes is studying Communications and Media in LSA and a Daily Staff Writer for Arts. He can be reached at mxwell@umich.edu.