People talk to me about hiking now, and often express interest in joining me. I put it on social media that I wanted to do a hike this weekend, and I would be willing to stay more local, do a less intense trail and even start later in the morning to be accommodating. I had a handful of people tell me they were interested, but this weekend couldn’t work, and honestly I was thrilled because that meant I could go where I wanted to go – a mountain (albeit small). I wanted to get high, reach a summit to feel the rush of standing high above most everyone else. Sunday we climbed Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland, for a 7.8 mile hike, with an elevation gain of 1,511 feet. I added weights to my backpack, plus a full Camelbak bladder to keep hydrated in the scorching heat and humidity. This hike felt long- the added weight put strain on my back, and I felt my calves ached on each ascent. The path up and down the mountain included elevation gains on the way down too, even in the last half mile. It was not technical at all, but the added weight made it more intense, and I knew I had to do this in order to prepare for backpacking. Our word of the hike today was “jump” because toads kept jumping in front of us, we talked about having to leave the ground with two feet when taking leaps of faith and then we had a series of failed synchronized jumping in the air photos. I was forced to ask myself what am I ready to jump into, and more apt, what is holding me back?
My backpacking trip to Maine is the adventure I am preparing for, ready to plunge into. I posted something about how summits are my new addiction- mostly a joke but there is still some truth to all jokes. I have been devouring literature, guide books, YouTube videos and documentaries about hiking the AT. I think about my trip to Maine often, specifically what it will be like to stand on top of Katahdin. I want to talk about it a lot. I’m apprehensive and keen about starting at Katahdin and spending three days backpacking in the wilderness of Maine. According to Harvard University’s “Science in the News, “Dopamine is a chemical production by our brains that plays a starring role in motivating behavior. It gets released when we take a delicious food, when we have sex, after we exercise, and, importantly, when we have successful social interactions. In an evolutionary context, it rewards us for beneficial behaviors and motivates us to repeat them” (Travor Haynes link). I love the rewards that come from exercise, the rush of endorphins and dopamine. Standing high above the world, looking down to where I had climbed from gives me the same chemical response. My feet gripping the rocks, suppressing the ever-diminishing fear of heights, it almost feels like I’ve left the ground. Covid separated us from loved ones. We couldn’t see our friends, nor hug people outside our households. Separating from my husband in conjunction with this was difficult and I searched for “feel good” moments in healthy, and very unhealthy ways.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (-often attributed to Aristotle) The principal at the school where I work read this quote to the graduates this week trying to motivate them to create habits of excellence. Most routines, habits and conventions help us. Brushing my teeth twice a day, as an example, is a daily routine that I do for the sake of hygiene. Obviously there is no immediate reward for this action, but rather a long term reward of good dental hygiene and praise from the dentist. Other actions that can quickly become habitual ignite the dopamine reward center for an effervescent happiness, where the long term effects are negative. Overuse of social media, the attention you get from others, drugs and alcohol all fall under the later example. If we are what we repeatedly do, our habits and addictions define us. I had dinner recently with someone who has been in recovery for a decade, and I spoke very honestly with him about my parents both being in AA, and that I used to be a heavy smoker. I quit smoking the way you “aren’t supposed to” by cutting out one a day. It was an addiction, yes, but breaking the habit was hard. It was easier for me to figure out how to replace one cigarette a day with a distraction, than go cold turkey and not know what to do with all that free time. There is a fine line between habit and addiction. Changing a habit is one thing- it is a choice not to do something, or to do something. An addict has no choice. The amount of the substance required to get the same effects grows over time, and they need more and more to reach that same high.
My affinity with ascending mountains has likely become an addiction, but a healthy one. I want to do it more, faster, higher and with my challenge. I have hiked Sugarloaf before, but didn’t make it very high up because I was with my kids and there was still snow on the ground. This hike provided a new perspective. We took the little jumping toads as a sign, and Googled the spiritual significance of the reptile. According to angelnumbers.net, “like a toad, we should also embrace the changes in our life without being in despair for the loss we had to withstand. We should always believe that the universe has something better in store for us.” Leaving a marriage terrified me. At first it was a thrill, a hope for something better, but then living on my own became a harsh reality. I took a leap of faith, but left one foot on the ground – I never fully believed I could do it all on my own, and my self esteem plummeted as my need for validation grew. What does jumping off a cliff look like when you’re not willing to pick up both feet? It looks like tripping and falling gracelessly off the edge. Something I am working hard on is the fact that I am an attention addict. It started as my marriage was crumbling and I didn’t get it from the one person I wanted it from. Once I got a little bit of it, I felt this rush. I wanted more text messages, more likes on social media, more affirmations. I was relying on other people to validate me. I can be needy, desperate for attention to numb my pain.
I struggle with the fantasy of our little family unit being back together- and this is ludicrous because I am the one who tore the family unit apart. I am divorcing a man I still love, and it kills me sometimes, less and less as time goes on, that we just don’t work – it’s a lost cause. Sunday’s hike coincided with the 77th anniversary of D-Day, and also happened to be my 12th wedding anniversary. This was the second anniversary we’ve spent married, but separated. I was very emotional in the morning. I missed my kids and I wanted to grab them, and take them with me on my hiking trip. In honesty, I wanted all four of us to hike together. The hike was a healthy distraction from the heartache I felt. I am healing, I am growing and I have moments of sadness and doubt, but the more truthful I am with myself, the easier it becomes. I have some bad habits to break, and some addictions I need to recover from. When I stand on top, or near the top of a mountain, I feel confident and proud of my accomplishments. My self esteem gets a healthy, sustainable boost and I feel ready to jump, with both feet off the ground, into any adventure that comes my way.