I have been asked–and am asking myself—if climbing to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro was transformative. Transformation. That’s a big word. Maybe too big for this event. But I do have a few enduring conclusions about the trip. Does that count?
Conclusion number one is that it is entirely possible for a group of women from different backgrounds, different ages, different parts of the country, and different belief systems to come together on a mountain and find lasting friendship. Not just the hug, hug, kiss, kiss, it’s-been-real kind of friendship. But the friendship that comes from knowing each other deeply, because that is what the mountain and the experience inspired us to do. I love my “kilisistas” (including Marion Kaufer who took this wonderful photo!) but that word doesn’t even begin to get at it. Those who shared life’s ups and downs with me during this hike, and vice versa, know who they are. They are forever friends. And I’m very grateful to Heather Thomson and the other organizers of this event for making that possible.
Conclusion number two—and please don’t kill me for saying this–is that I don’t like hiking that much. I found it surprisingly solitary. You start out together (we were in two groups, actually– slower and faster– and of course I was immediately placed in the slower group, which was just fine…) but inevitably people proceeded forward at their own pace, hiking several miles and hundreds of vertical feet up each day. You’re mostly looking down (I should have known this from my Bear Mt. experience), and you’re often not talking. I guess I envisioned us moving together: chatting, panting, and planting our poles as we hiked. It wasn’t always that way. Somehow I successfully tackled the ascent by putting one foot in front of the other. But it could be lonely. And absent other voices, the voice in my head needed to be relentlessly positive. Or at least commanding: “Just Keep Going!” is what I mostly remember.
Conclusion three: you can pee anywhere, anytime, quickly, and painlessly, without the use of a Go Girl. (Again, you have to look it up)
Conclusion four is related to number two. It’s about what staying in that one-foot-in-front-of-the-other present led me to understand about my brother and sister, in whose honor and memory I undertook this journey in the first place.
It really was rather intimidating to look around or look up. During those rare moments when we’d see the summit—silent, still, and gorgeous in the distance—the prospect of getting up there seemed impossible–almost laughable. It was enough to stop me in my tracks if I let it. Even just looking up at the hikers ahead of me on any particular day was unnerving. When my husband was driving me home from the airport, I pointed to a multi-story apartment building and said, “Imagine you were on the sidewalk, and you saw hikers on the 52nd floor of that building, and you knew you had to climb up the side to join them. Possibly before lunch.”
So often we’re encouraged to think strategically: Don’t Lose Sight of Your Goals. Keep Your Eyes on the Horizon. Begin With the End in Mind. That kind of thinking would have been paralyzing to me. The only way forward was looking down.
All of which got me to thinking about Billy and Eleanor, who were each in the grips of addiction for many years. For them, every day must have been like looking up at Kili. The prospect of living drug-free existed almost as a taunt, unattainable, as far away as that summit. I’m pretty sure they each felt alone, ashamed, and hopeless; felt their lives were irrevocably derailed; and felt the path to the top was simply unachievable. More than once they tried putting one foot in front of the other, but the disease sapped their ability to Just Keep Going. They needed more than a voice of assurance and affirmation. Addiction was bigger than they were, and it stayed that way until the end for both of them.
We must get a better handle on treating the disease of substance abuse—and on reducing the stigma associated with it so people will come out of the shadows to get that treatment. There is news of a possible medical intervention with mental illness which has implications for addiction—the first glimmer of hope I’ve seen in a long time. Addiction is a brain disease and needs to be treated as such. The AA movement can be powerful but it’s not enough. You wouldn’t tell a cancer patient to come in every Thursday, hold hands in a circle, and share. This may rankle some people. But we have to start thinking about addiction as the insidious, circuitry-altering force it is. It will take science, not just solidarity. “Just keep going” can sound pretty hollow to someone who neurologically can’t battle back the craving for drugs.
Conclusion number five: I can do the thing I wasn’t supposed to be able to do. I can and I did. That is incredibly empowering and for that I’m beyond grateful for this experience. Too many people to thank for it here, but I was not alone up there, and everyone who contributed to that moment shares it with me. Would you call that transformative? I don’t know; I’m definitely not hiking another mountain anytime soon.
But I do know that making it all the way to the summit taught me how powerful just bearing down on the present can be. I’ll be thinking about other ways to apply that lesson. To do that, I think one is required to look up.
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