Every year our church goes on a weekend retreat to Berea – a camp a few hours away in New Hampshire. The weekend is a big deal – a bus trip, a speaker, a band, and camp activities ranging from paintball to “rock dramas” to a massive snow tubing hill. For years to come the memories students make pop out in little stories about “that one time” at Berea.
However, for some students, “that one time” never happens. Although our church is heavily committed to making it financially feasible for every student to attend, students sometimes have various other limiting factors that keep them from attending. Jarett was one of those students.
Jarett came to us through our Open Door program -- an after school outreach program in which we open the door of our church's Student Center and invite our community’s middle school and high school students inside out of the cold, as many of them don't have a place to go after school gets out or would be going home alone to an empty apartment.
Thin, quiet, likeable, and mild mannered, Jarett appeared to have strong friendships with a few, and appeared to be a wallflower to many. However, approximately a year ago Jarett began to open up to me and share pieces of his past.
Jarett had dealt with depression and anxiety for many years. In an effort to cope, he had started smoking marijuana in middle school to dull the pain, and eventually started abusing prescription opioid pills – an alternative that he thought would be a ‘safe’ (albeit stronger) substitute due to the fact doctors utilize and prescribe the pills. Soon he found himself addicted to the opioids. Finally, he came to a crossroads – find a way to break the addiction to the ever more expensive pills, or turn to more accessible, cheaper street opioids, aka: heroin.
It is with great joy that I can report that Jarett made the very difficult decision to get help. He speaks openly about entering a treatment facility at the beginning of his sophomore year of high school where he was able to successfully withdraw from the pills. Nevertheless, coming out from treatment, Jarett had even more severe anxiety symptomology. Panic attacks became frequent occurrences. In addition he developed a fear of being in crowds. In particular, the fear of being in crowds makes his day to day experiences at school—walking through crowded hallways, attending assemblies, and even attending his own upcoming high school graduation—an all encompassing, toilsome process.
Now a senior, Jarett has seen many friends come with us to Berea, but has not felt capable of going himself. For years he would hear his friends talk in anticipation of the weekend trip, and share recollections upon their return. However, in the midst of his crippling anxiety, Jarett counted himself out.
Nevertheless, this year would be different. As I grew in my understanding of why Jarett thought he couldn’t attend, we started to put a few pieces in place that would make it more possible.
The first step was helping Jarett establish deeper, trusting relationships – both with myself, and at least one other volunteer who would be attending the trip – as it was not possible for me to give my exclusive attention to Jarett with 30+ other students on the trip.
Enter Josh, a 20 year old young adult in our congregation. Josh is no stranger to dealing with health issues that people cannot see. Born with craniosynostosis, a condition that causes premature fusion of the cranial bones that endangers brain development, he had multiple surgeries as a baby and then continued to deal with dyslexia and other learning disabilities throughout his scholastic career. As such, school had not come easily to him and he had encountered his share of unknowing, insensible people critical of him and his aptitudes. Nevertheless, upon graduating from high school, he had gone on to get his Commercial Drivers License and Heavy Equipment Operator’s Certification and was able to secure a reputable job in our hometown. In addition, he started humoring me in my attempts to get him involved with youth ministry. Although he stated he was willing, he also indicated he wasn’t so sure he was ready. However, he first agreed to help with our Middle School youth group alongside a veteran youth worker, and then, when I expressed a need for him to come mentor a high school aged young man, stretching himself to serve at Open Door.
Within days of Jarett and Josh meeting, the trust was being built. For weeks, Josh would rush to our program the moment he would get out of work, as he knew Jarett would need a ride home. And, on those rides home, the guys would talk.
With Jarett now comfortable getting rides with Josh and leaning on him for support, our first major accommodation became clear: instead of riding the bus up to Berea with the group, we would allow Jarett to make the three hour trip alone with Josh in a separate vehicle. Although this was a departure from our general “rides” guidelines (we typically work to avoid prolonged car rides where one student is alone with one leader), all leaders thought it was an appropriate departure to make. Josh and Jarett had established a trusting relationship, it was accommodating to his fear of crowds, would decrease the pressure on Jarett to “be okay” in front of anyone else, and eliminate any potential for embarrassment felt by Jarett if he had an anxiety attack on the way up.
Nevertheless, with less than a week till our trip, Jarett still was not sure he could do it. In his own words, “I wanted to go because I knew it was my last chance to go – do I go for the weekend and have fun, or do a stay home for the weekend and do what I always do? It was a chance to have a new experience. However, I was really nervous about all the “what ifs” and anxious thoughts going through my head. I knew that pushing myself would be good and that it was an opportunity to take a big step…[in that it was also the] first time I had gone out of state without any family with me. A lot of my family members know what’s going on with my mental health, so I am comfortable going with them. However, to go with all people that may not know the ins and outs of what I go through was WAY outside my comfort zone.”
Finally – after hours of conversation, assurance, and dreaming of a life not dictated by his anxiety– the night before we were set to leave, Jarrett decided to go.
Wondering how things turned out? Read the rest of Jarett's story!