By Kerry Boyd Anderson
Americans’ experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic inspired many people to revaluate their lives, reconsider their priorities, reassess their values, move to new locations, find new passions and reorient careers. At a time when many people are going through that process, Caren Camp’s new book offers specific life lessons that are particularly relevant to women.
Camp, who lives in Old Town and has been a meeting
planner the last 22 years for HelmsBriscoe, wrote “Life Lessons of an American Woman” last year. She drew upon her range of life experiences with career, marriage, adoption, motherhood and coping with alcoholism and depression in writing the book.
The oldest of six children, Camp hails from Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Her childhood included pulling up roots many times – her family moved 11 times by the time Camp turned 13 – due to her father’s job with Burlington Industries. Her family’s moves took her to various cities in the North and South, and exposed her to many different perspectives and ways of life.
Camp spent 15 years working in the fashion industry after attending Saint Mary’s School in North Carolina and then Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, a school that specializes in fashion design and merchandising, in New York City. She worked on 7th Avenue for Lilly Pulitzer, then joined Estée Lauder cosmetics and traveled around the country launching a new line called Prescriptives.
While working in New York, Camp met her husband, John, on a blind date. They were married within a year. The Camps moved to Virginia so John could pursue his MBA, and later settled in Los Angeles, where Caren continued to explore the world of fashion and beauty. But two years in California was enough for the young couple.
“We had wanted to experience the West Coast because we both grew up on the East Coast,” Camp said in an email. “After living there for two years we found that we missed our families. Every time anybody had a baby, a wedding or a funeral we were the ones that had to fly 3,000 miles.”
After she and her husband John adopted two children, in 1985 and 1990 respectively, Camp took time away from work to focus on raising her children, a time of her life that she says was extremely fulfilling. During that time, she was involved in nonprofit fundraising and independent meeting planning, and those skills supported her transition to working in meeting planning with HelmsBriscoe when she decided to re-enter the workforce.
When the Camps returned to Virginia from California, they first lived in Middleburg, then McLean – where they raised their two sons – before moving to Alexandria.
“… after the boys were going off to college, we decided to move to Alexandria because it is more of a neighborhood that we enjoy,” Camp said.
A combination of memoir and life tips, Camp’s book offers advice for everything from balancing work and family to building a new house and finding an effective exercise routine.
Camp used to find it uncomfortable to share difficult experiences with others. Over
the years, she found that sharing her story with women was often helpful for them and for her. Her introduction is titled “Share Your Story, Change a Life.”
“In my 50s, I started sharing at A.A. meetings and Al- Anon meetings about my life and realized that it’s very healthy to share,” Camp said.
Other women began asking her about alcoholism recovery, health and adoption. She also began journaling and found that her subject areas could translate into book chapters.
“I decided that writing a book would be a good way to share with people,” Camp said.
Camp’s decision to share her story can be traced back to her experiences with her second son, Bob. For years, the family struggled with Bob’s educational and behavioral challenges. As the family worked to find the right schools, counselors and other supports, Camp interacted with other parents who were trying to cope with similar challenges.
The exchange of information was useful in understand- ing their children’s difficulties and finding help. Today, both of Camp’s grown sons are doing well.
Camp noted that alcoholism is often an inherited disease – it was for her. Multiple members of her family have struggled with the disease and multiple factors led her to the realization that she was facing alcoholism herself. So, at the age of 37, Camp stopped drinking.
“I am now over 30 years sober,” she wrote in the book.
Her recovery from alcoholism also encouraged Camp to speak out. She discovered that she could help other people facing similar challenges.
“People who look like they have everything have a lot of trials and tribulations behind the scenes,” she noted.
Coping with alcoholism is a major theme in her book.
“Do not be embarrassed about it,” she advises. “Alcoholism is terrible, but I learned that I can give up drinking. I want people to be comfortable with recovering and not drinking.”
Camp said that gratefulness, her husband’s support, her children and wanting to stay healthy have helped to keep her sober. Camp gives much credit for her recovery to her husband’s encouragement as well as attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon meetings. She described “never wanting to wake up with another hangover” as an added motivation for honoring her sobriety.
In addition to a family history with alcoholism, Camp also had family members who suffered from debilitating depression. When severe depression hit her at the age of 57, Camp was not expecting it. It took a year before she recognized that she was depressed.
“Why didn’t I see it? Because I thought I could work through it,” she said.
Working with a doctor and taking prescribed medication quickly helped Camp feel like herself again.
Another one of her main themes is balancing motherhood and career. She hopes to help other women who are trying to juggle both.
Camp began her career in the 1970s, when professional women went to an office in a suit and high heels.
“It hasn’t been easy, but I have done it. I had to work harder, stronger and longer than men to prove who you were in order to be noticed or make a comparable salary,” she said.
Camp notes that technological and social changes have created a vastly different work environment for younger women in today’s workforce. While in the past, women often lost their jobs when they had children, today employers are more likely to value women’s experience and consider ways to retain them – including offering remote and flexible work.
Camp met the owner of local business Yellow Dot Publishing, Ellen Hamilton, through the Chamber of Commerce. Because Camp is a long-time resident who works and volunteers in Alexandria, she was happy to work with a local business owner to publish her book.
Readers can find Camp’s book on the Yellow Dot Shop website or at the Made in ALX store in Old Town.