I live in San Francisco, where summers are freezing and foggy enough to warrant busting out your winter coat at night. But every year, around this time, I yearn for the REAL summer days of my youth, when my parents would drive me and a small gaggle of girlfriends to our seasonal home away from home: a Virginia sleepaway camp called Camp Friendship.
I went there for 3 summers -- first as a camper, then as a CIT (counselor-in-training), and then as a junior counselor. And I wouldn’t be lying if I told you that Camp Friendship kind-of changed my life.
I have a long history of depression, and it sank its teeth in when I was in my early teens. I was completely miserable, consumed by vicious, self-loathing thoughts that hijacked everything I did, said, and felt. So I did that special adolescent thing where I tried really, REALLY hard to feign aloof OK-ness. In between compulsive re-applications of Revlon “Toast of New York” lipstick, my friends and I practiced our best “don’t give a f*ck” scowls in the bathroom mirror.
We were like Misfit Lites -- not remotely perky or normal enough for the popular kids, but not dark or hard-core enough to be embraced by the stoners. I spent most of high school trying on identities (punk rock, hippie, raver, etc.) and feeling like an unattractive loser with no idea who I was, or wanted to be.
That all changed, though, when I got to Camp Friendship. I was 13 or 14 the first year I went, and the place -- nicknamed “Camp Friendly-f*ck” for all the incestuous hanky-panky among its young staff -- seemed to have a therapeutic effect on me right away. (Maybe it was all that friendly f*cking? I kid.) Most notably, while I was there, I DIDN’T HAVE TO PRETEND TO FEEL OK. I just … was OK.
It felt like I could finally take a breath, and stop fighting myself all the time. Something about that place -- with its sprawling grounds; bright green man-made lake; and musty ant-infested cabins -- seemed to fit me so naturally (which was pretty odd, because believe me: I was NOT the outdoorsy type).
Each summer I went, whether it was for a matter of weeks or months, my thick fog of sadness would begin to lift. Maybe it was partly being outside, in nature, where tenacious crickets sung us to sleep every night. The sound of rocks and branches snapping under my feet became the constant soundtrack to my life -- which, at camp, was full of archery, swimming, pottery, crafts, and (the best part) tons of FRIENDS. The people there were what made me a Camp Friendship convert for good. For the first and only time in my life, I felt like I belonged. I felt liked -- even downright popular.
I even began to feel a little less invisible. While I was there during my CIT summer, I had my first kiss (and later my first hookup) with a tie-dye-wearing Deadhead from Colorado with huge green eyes and terrible skin. Our first kiss was a sloppy, spit-fueled nightmare, but I didn’t give a damn. I felt pretty, and young, and free. I felt the expanse of my life rolling out before me; I knew there’d be many more kisses and friends and adventures.
I’m still in touch with some of my old Camp Friendship friends, mainly via social media. And every summer, around this time, I mourn a bit for the passing of time (why can’t there be summer camp for adults?!), and think back on all the things that made camp so magical for me: the family of friends, the loud-ass crickets, the mini heartbreaks, the rabid crushes, the classes, the bonfires, the drunken misdeeds, the obnoxious singing, the dodgeball games, the stifling humidity, the lush, green Virginia hills ... And most of all: a brief, beautiful respite from being young and sad -- having a place to go where I could just be young, for a minute, and worry about everything else later.
Did you guys go to summer camp? Got any awesome/funny/horrible/mortifying/gratifying camp memories you’d care to share?