The year I turned sixteen was, for lack of a more poetic descriptor, a bit of a garbage heap.
My parents split up.
My Nana died.
I spent the entirety of my grade ten year trying to eat as little as I could, and exercise as much as possible.
The acne on my forehead, chest, and back mutated from a small community garden patch, to a GMO-modified super crop. Equal parts horrified and embarrassed, I spent as much time spackling concealer onto my shoulders as I did my face. (Thankfully, for my birthday I was gifted a prescription for Accutane, and therefore also a new lease on my teenage dermatological life.)
I had braces and was in total denial about my (very real) need for glasses. I can never be sure I didn’t cause permanent damage to my eyes, what with the amount of squinting I performed every day at school.
I had extensive surgery which saw the breaking of both of my jaws and the reconstruction of my mouth. The end result was a complete restructuring of my facial composition and profile – although this never became apparent until approximately three months post-breakage, what with the amount of swelling that I had to live down.
During this time, I ate so much instant oatmeal I couldn’t even look at Quaker package for almost six years.
That summer, I enrolled myself in Camp Potlatch’s “Leadership in Training” course, the completion of which would certify me to work as a camp counsellor.
Unfortunately, my Nana died two days before I was to start the camp and I missed the first three days as I had to fly down to Nova Scotia for her funeral and wake.
I remember feeling so utterly discombobulated flying back home by myself. I was jet-lagged and flu-ridden from the back-to-back, cross-country plane rides and the ensuing whirlwind of familial gatherings, churches and burials.
I was also livid that my parents still expected me to attend the camp. I hadn’t even had the chance to properly grieve, and here I was flying right back home, packing up my bags and pretending like nothing had happened.
I’ll never forget the car ride to the camp’s boat launch just outside of Squamish – my entire body seething with teenage rage, hurt, and indignation.
Any time my dad said anything I just ignored him while screaming, “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP” inside my head.
Unfortunately, once I arrive at the camp things didn’t get much better.
My first three hours were spent in the frigid waters of Howe Sound, learning how to right a capsized canoe.
I also somehow lost my retainers (negating much of my happiness from having just gotten my braces off in the first place!) and then almost fainted, as I was too embarrassed to tell anyone that I was very hungry and hadn’t consumed anything since leaving Halifax the day before.
I was also subjected to the advances of the world’s worst flirter – a seventeen year-old boy named Christian, who was my partner in our canoe-training exercise.
Christian was about six foot four, weighed approximately one hundred and fifty pounds, and had a shock of white-blond hair that stood a good six inches straight up from his head.
He liked to sing to me, in particular the lyrics from Dennis Leary’s seminal work “I’m An Asshole.”
As you can imagine, I was immediately smitten.
Walking up from the waterfront, soaked from head to foot, lugging the front end of our very wet, and very heavy canoe, I felt the first prickle of a tear in my eye.
Trying my best to air on the side of positivity, I whispered to myself that “there was no way this could get any worse.”
And then it started to rain.
I immediately began to plot my escape: I would tell the director that my mourning was too great! I would “accidentally” break a limb!
No doubt reacting to my increasingly pallid complexion and demoralized demeanor, my counsellor Julie came up to me, put her arms around my shoulders and gave them a squeeze.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go get warmed up.”
As we walked up to the showers, she and Amanda (another counsellor in-training) let me know how happy they were to have another girl in their ranks.
“I really didn’t want it to be just me and five guys,” smiled Amanda.
Looking quickly back at Christian and his rag-tag group of compatriots, I silently agreed. I too wouldn’t have wanted Amanda to weather the incoming storm on her own.
As we walked into the washroom, and I saw both Julie and Amanda begin to undress, I felt a wave of panic rise inside of me.
I didn’t want to get naked in front of these two strangers.
I didn’t want anyone to see my body.
For a second I was completely paralyzed, unable to even breathe.
But then I saw how completely unmoved both of them were by the scenario; how completely at ease they were in their skin.
And in that moment I wanted this more than anything I had ever wanted anything before – more than I wanted my parents to get back together, more than I wanted my Nana to be alive, more than I wanted clear skin, and skinny legs.
I just wanted to be warm, and bare, and happy.
So I took off my clothes and under the stream of the second shower from the left, I felt some of that happiness and strength.
And in that moment I forgot about my retainers. About my parents. About death, and acne, and my body.
I just felt the water warm me – all of me.
The following three weeks were impacting, and transforming, and utterly brilliant. That time spent in the bush canoeing, hiking, kayaking, building fires, cooking camp food, swimming, fending off Christian’s advances, and sleeping under the stars was exactly what I needed to get over the trauma and drama of being sixteen years-old.
At least for a little while.
(Along, of course, with Accutane.)