How three lessons from church camp helped me navigate a major Bipolar episode

I’ve been open about my thirteen-year-long struggle with Bipolar II disorder. On January 30th, I wrote that I was going through one of the worst depressive phases I’d ever experienced. Although there were fool’s springs here and there, I’m confident I’ve finally gotten through its darkest depths. I didn’t expect it, but a handful of lessons from a week I spent at church camp more than twenty years ago were instrumental in helping me make it to the other side.

Me, hard at work writing this post.

I’m generally not predisposed to write about my mental health here. I’d prefer to post about the Howard County CourthouseWest Side Park in Muncie, or a Savinelli 320 KS. Although I deal with it, I’ve never felt any urge to become an advocate of Bipolar Disorder or to make my experiences with it a cornerstone of this blog. I take a leap every time I write about those issues, and feel a heavy burden to make sure I express myself in a way that’s respectful to everyone who comes here to read about our shared interests that are foundational to my blogging efforts. 

Thankfully, though, these rare posts have rewarded me with feedback that makes me think occasional dives into my issues might not be all bad. On the contrary, people have told me these posts might be helpful. I don’t blame you if this topic isn’t your cup of tea. It’s not mine either, and I’ll return to our regular programming tomorrow.

My apartment while I was a freshman in college at the upper right, as it appeared in 2009 when I lived there.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar II by my family doctor when I was a freshman in college. I suspected I’d dealt with something along those lines for a while, but that episode didn’t represent the first time I experienced a disruption in my mental health: I went through a period of terrible anxiety when I was ten and eleven. At night -just like clockwork, and always after I got in bed- I became unilaterally convinced that my family’s house would be destroyed in a fire and that we’d all die. Nothing helped.

I wasn’t just anxious about fires. For some reason, I was equally worried about spending time away from home. I missed my mom like crazy! Unfortunately, I was still dealing with all that when my brother and I were sent to Quaker Haven, a church camp in northern Indiana’s lake country.

An old postcard depicting cabins at Quaker Haven, identical to the one I stayed in. Image courtesy of the Syracuse Public Library.

We got to camp, registered, and dropped our backpacks off at our cabin. Mom took us to the lake to let us hop in the water, and I cried when I came out and saw she’d left while we were swimming. “She’s abandoned me!” I sobbed, just as I did every night, until I was confronted with a free day where we had the run of the place to do whatever we wanted until dinner. I planned to spend the day sitting there on my own, pathetic and gloomy, until I remembered the old lakefront waterslide I’d seen when mom dropped us off. It looked terrifying, but I trudged down anyway. I’ve always been afraid of heights, but I screwed up enough courage to climb the rickety ladder. I plopped down on the hot metal, then launched myself down the chute.

It wasn’t scary. Actually, it was fun. Really fun! I climbed back up, slid down, rinsed, repeated, and realized that I’d been so busy having fun that I hadn’t had time to think about missing my mom or being worried about the campfire later that night. At that moment, I made it my mission to go down the waterslide a hundred times. I made my final descent just before sundown and gained independence from my anxiety. That’s where the montage fades to black and picks up with me cutting up with the rest of the campers at breakfast in the lodge the next day, at least how I remember it.

The beach at Quaker Haven, depicted in an old postcard. The water slide was just past the tree near the left. Image courtesy of the Syracuse Public Library.

I hadn’t thought of my summer at Quaker Haven for a long time, so it was weird that the experience unexpectedly burbled up over the past couple of months. I’m glad it did, though: my 11-year-old self set the stage for me, as a 32-year-old, to put into practice some things I learned that week that helped me move past the worst impulses that this depressive phase brought. Here they are.

You’re your own main character

The first thing I learned during that week at camp was that I’m not the main character of anyone else’s narrative. Mom didn’t abandon me at church camp. For one, nothing was sprung on me, and she left me in the capable hands of counselors and staff. It’s not like she threw me off a bridge in a burlap sack and sped off, cackling, into the night! Similarly, none of the other kids sat sympathetically with me while I was crying in a corner. They were out having fun doing camp stuff!

The 1822 Crawford County Courthouse in Fredonia, Indiana, is abandoned. I was not.

Flash forward to now: during my darkest days, I had to make a concerted effort to remember that people I’m close with hadn’t abandoned me when they didn’t check in according to my schedule. They were simply busy with their own lives, obligations, comfort levels, boundaries, and story arcs! Whether it comes to acting on suicidal ideation or ascribing people horrible character flaws, Bipolar makes it hard to resist making snap judgments based on the messed-up data your brain is trying to process. Remembering that I’m not the main character of anyone else’s life kept things in perspective. Eventually, most people I’m close with reached out when they had time or showed support in other ways that helped.

Distractions can be helpful

The second lesson from twenty years ago was that distractions aren’t a sign of weakness. When responsibly deployed, they can help navigate challenging times. I was too busy scampering up that dilapidated ladder and trying to keep an accurate count of how many times I’d slid down the thing to think of being anxious or miserable on The Day of 100 Slides.

Projects like trying to figure out the history of this abandoned church in rural Blackford County distracted me from my worst depressive impulses. Photo taken February 26, 2023.

Much later, as I saw the signs that I was falling into this deep depression, I decided to try to use the time and effort it takes to write here to help keep my worst impulses at bay as I coped. The amount of research I have to do for some of these posts can be punishing, but it kept my mind focused on things I was interested in. Frankly, it worked better than I thought it would since there I didn’t have time to think about my depression or fixate on triggers that made it worse. It was only when I stepped away or got ready for bed that things got to be a real problem, and that’s something I’ll have to plan for the next time I see I’m headed into one of those aggravating periods.

Things end

The third lesson I remember from that summer at camp was that, eventually, things end. Despite my anxiety, I knew my time at Quaker Haven would conclude after seven days. I didn’t go down the waterslide a hundred times per day for the rest of the week, but doing it once was enough to break through my anxiety and have fun the rest of the time. Shortly afterward, the intense fears I harbored about my house burning down also ran their course.

Of course, a blanket statement like “things end” means that lives end, too. A couple of years ago, a friend went through a life-altering mental health crisis that occurred out of nowhere. It was like something inside of him snapped. Eventually, he spent some time in the hospital, then moved back in with his parents. As his situation improved, he started feeling better and rebuilding his life. It couldn’t have been more than a week later that his family found him on a running trail, dead at thirty-nine. It had nothing to do with his mental struggles. He just died. It was shocking and tragic.

Classes at the Governor I.P. Gray School in Jay County, Indiana, ended in 1965. Photo taken July 27, 2021.

I knew that my depression would pass, as my friend’s issues did before he died, so long as I let them pass and didn’t take matters into my own hands to end them more quickly. That said, there will be a point when we all die.

Despite my time at church camp, I’m not really a spiritual person. I don’t think I’m some kooky new-age weirdo either, but I believe in the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. It basically means that energy can be transferred and transformed, but the total amount in a closed system always stays the same. I believe, admittedly without much basis or scientific understanding, that we are assemblages of specific particles and energy created when the universe originated. Those components will scatter into the earth or fuel the flames of a crematorium when we die, but they’ll never go away outright.

The same basic components that let this building serve as the Mounds Cinema enable it to be Northview Church’s Anderson campus many years later. Photo taken January 15, 2023.

I think there’s a probability that later -perhaps many millennia later- the pieces that make us who we are will reassemble to allow us to return to some form of consciousness. Call it reincarnation, an afterlife, a new level of the simulation, or something else entirely, but I’m not sure the end of our finite lives represents a true finale.

I ruminated on those beliefs a lot over the past couple of months, which was both good and bad. On one hand, I worried about surviving my bout of depression only to have something arbitrary kill me immediately afterward like what had happened to my friend. Thinking that the end isn’t really the end was really comforting when I contemplated something like that! On the other hand, it’s not great to trivialize death while you’re having constant thoughts of killing yourself. Nevertheless, remembering that there’s an end to everything but that the end may not necessarily be the end is something I found helpful.

A state right-of-way marker on an old alignment of IN-67 in rural Delaware County.

I kept all three of my church camp lessons I’d learned front and center as I navigated my duos menses horribilis. Eventually, I sensed I was turning a corner when I did some things that forced me out of the protective shell I’d built: I went out and got a steak with my brother. Then I hung out with a new friend for the first time. My mom and I went on a couple of drives through the country to take photos of INDOT right-of-way markers. I got out and flew my drone, which has already informed some new content. It’s embarrassing to admit how hard the stupor of a major depressive episode makes doing things, especially when they’re things I normally love. 

Gradually, though, more miracles occurred: I vacuumed my stairs and gave my kitchen a much-needed spiff-up. I even started playing a new Nintendo game- a bizarre, but necessary, anomaly. I kept the house tidy, vacuumed more, and progressed through the game. None of that would have been possible when I was triaging and focusing on not killing myself.

My 1990 Sega GameGear, and my 2019 Nintendo Switch. Which game did I start? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t Sonic the Hedgehog.

I also kept at it here, writing just as I said and hoped I would. At first, I was worried that I’d be forced to run nothing but content I’d already written on my courthouse, schoolhouse, and pipe blogs. In fact, the opposite occurred: twenty of the thirty-nine posts I published since January 30th were brand new, and another seven were reworked and edited enough to make them basically new as far as I’m concerned. Sharing my interests with everyone through my writing has proven extraordinarily helpful over the past two months, and I’ve been deeply encouraged by your feedback and readership.

High tide at Steamboat Landing on Edisto Island. Photo taken December 29, 2022.

I’m not some guru, a prophet, or a snake oil salesman, and everyone deals with their traumas and issues differently. Although the lessons I learned from a week at church camp decades ago weren’t everything I employed to get through the worst of my depression, they came to mind at just the right time and went a long way to help. I’m sure I’ll be in for some setbacks, but I’m excited to experience the high and low tides of normal human emotions for now! It’s been an exhausting couple of months, but I made it through.

At any rate, now’s when the real work begins: after every episode of Bipolar depression, I do my best to try and unpack everything I went through to look for trends, triggers, coping mechanisms, and other stuff to help in advance of the next time I begin to flounder. I’ve already settled on a couple of topics that might be helpful to post here, but until then, let’s celebrate by getting back to our usual docket of content!

5 thoughts on “How three lessons from church camp helped me navigate a major Bipolar episode

  1. Thanks so much, Ted, for sharing your personal life with all of us — you are brave and such a great writer.. I’ve saved all your articles in a special folder to read over and over… ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re so welcome, Suzanne. I appreciate your readership here, and thank you for realizing that this wasn’t all that easy to publish. I know it will resonate with someone, though, beyond you and me.


  2. As one who scrupulously avoids opening my inner self to the online world, I recognize and appreciate the courage it takes to do so. Yours is not a condition I have much experience with, so this is a learning experience for me. As they say, everybody has something that makes life harder, but yours looks more challenging than most. Thanks for being so open about it.


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