I was standing on a bluff overlooking the placid blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, my body stiff with fear.
“Grip your hands around the rope and let your feet guide you down,” called out our group leader Tom at the bottom of the bluff.
Tom was a self-styled Indiana Jones type, wearing a straw fedora and a vest made for safaris. His backpack was stuffed with packets of trail mix and small plastic bottles of wine.
I waited until the whole group had rappelled down the small cliff and then took my turn, gingerly lowering myself one step at a time and trying to forget my fear of heights. At least I’ll have a great story to tell my kids, I thought.
“You don’t want to miss our picnic on the beach,” Tom encouraged me. “Or the awesome Alamere waterfalls!”
I wondered how I had ended up on this outing when my idea of hiking involved paved paths close to home. I could have taken a stroll around the neighborhood while my kids slept in and my husband watched Saturday morning golf. Instead, here I was, attending another Meetup group.
As a stay-at-home mom for a decade, my days had been filled with “adventures” on a smaller scale—pitching endless games of wifflle balls to my boys in the backyard or creating giant drawings on pieces of taped-together printer paper. I treasured those nurturing times. On the one hand I never wanted those days to end, but on the other I sometimes felt stifled and isolated. I couldn’t only depend on my husband for adult interaction at the end of the day. I needed more. Now that my kids were a little older I had the freedom to explore new possibilities.
I joined Tom’s Wine and Adventure hiking group, as well as a Spanish language group, biking group and creative writing group. I became a Meetup junkie, squeezing in 20-mile bike rides and two-hour Spanish conversation sessions before picking up the kids from school.
In fact, my health demanded these changes. At age 43 I had fallen into a depression, the aftermath of a manic episode that had lasted most of the previous summer. I knew that healing for me would come from pushing myself to try new things and meet new people. Although initially–when the depression first hit–I couldn’t muster the energy to do anything beyond simple grocery shopping and keeping up with the laundry, six months later, the fog began to lift and I wanted to embrace my health. I dipped into novels again, wrote in my journal, and slowly filled my days with more adventurous physical activities.
“You need to get the endorphins going,” my therapist told me each time I saw him. “Try to sweat a little.”
He was right. Not only did I enjoy a good endorphin rush but often an adrenaline rush as well.
One typical Saturday morning, I left the house to go sailing with a woman I had met at my biking group. She was learning to sail with her husband. I had sailed as a kid and recently taken some lessons so I thought it would be fun.
The day looked promising as the sun sparkled off the water and colorful boats packed the bay. However, my friend and her husband bickered the moment we left the dock.
“We need the motor to get out of the harbor,” my friend insisted to her husband.
“That’s not necessary. There’s plenty of wind ahead,” he said, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he adjusted the sails.
A little later, still with no wind and the motor now purring, we entered the busiest part of the bay. All of a sudden a fast-moving catamaran ferry approached on the starboard side. If we didn’t change course we would collide.
“Cut the motor, cut the motor,” cried my friend, flapping her arms up and down.
We all let a string of expletives fly as my friend’s husband turned off the engine and the ferry raced by, its wake bouncing us up and down. He lit another cigarette.
I never got to know my new friends well (I didn’t sail with them again), but I did pick up that they were stressed from caring for their son, who was facing some health challenges. Probably sailing for them was as much of an escape as it was for me.
When I was just coming out of my depression I reconnected with my oldest childhood friend once a week early in the morning before work and childcare responsibilities absorbed us. She had, in the intervening years, also struggled with depression and understood me in a way most couldn’t.
“You are doing great getting out so much,” she would encourage me as I recounted my first forays sailing, hiking and biking as well as thinking about restarting a career.
She then told me about her dreams of moving to Portugal and her schemes to buy and renovate properties in rust-belt cities like Pittsburgh. I sensed she needed adventure just as I did to buoy her through the trenches of middle-aged life. Dreaming is underrated, we agreed, and for that moment I didn’t want to be anywhere else but sipping lattes at 7 am in the fanciest hotel lobby in town feeling like the sky was the limit.
For their part, my kids enjoyed seeing this new side of their mom. My older son gave me a drawing that still hangs on the bulletin board above my desk. In it he sketched a sailboat with me at the tiller, my long hair flying behind. “Comfy wetsuit,” he wrote next to me with an arrow pointing to my sleeker-than-life figure. “Mom wins race,” he wrote at the top.
Eventually, as I regained my equilibrium, I wondered if I needed so much stimulation. Would I slip back into depression if I didn’t keep up a fast pace? The many Meetups had gotten me out the door and energized me when I would rather have stayed in bed. But maybe they had served their purpose.
I took a part-time job that curtailed my excursions and kept me behind a desk. A few months in I realized I was doing just fine. I was happy with my life and several new emerging career paths. I returned to simple walks around the neighborhood and I was content to watch as my kids, now teens, left the house on Saturday mornings to go hiking, biking and sailing. Sometimes we compared notes on the best trails and where to catch the best views.
From time to time my younger son talks about refurbishing my childhood sailboat, which has been languishing in my parents’ backyard for 30 years. I hope my wetsuit still fits when he’s ready to launch.