Photography credit: Hayley Haws, @hayhaws; courtesy of Brave Recovery
“Are we almost there?” a voice calls out a few women back. “Yes!” I emphatically answer and on we go. Full disclosure, I have no idea how much longer we have on the hike, and the truth is, the distance remaining is far from my mind. I know that we’re here for the journey and the lessons we learn along the path.
The concept of hiking as a form of recovery coaching found me when I was least looking for it. When I became a Certified Recovery Coach during the pandemic, I envisioned working with clients in an office, not on hiking trails and mountain ranges. But on a spontaneous girls’ weekend trip with a newly sober friend in May 2021, I was inspired by the ease with which she opened up to me about her life and sobriety journey while hiking.
That experience sparked an idea that I couldn’t get out of my head: What if I created a similar experience, on a larger scale, for sober women to meet up, share their stories, get more comfortable in sobriety, and have fun using nature as the ultimate backdrop?
Six months after that girls’ weekend, Brave Recovery Coaching hosted its inaugural Sobriety Hiking Retreat. Two years later, I continue to be inspired by the bravery, compassion, vulnerability and humor of each of the amazing women who attend these trips. We laugh, cry, leave our comfort zones, push ourselves, and get to know ourselves more deeply. The lessons learned on the trail are many, but these are a few that stick out the most:
Hiking Reduces Social Anxiety
The action of walking side by side or in a line with others reduces social anxiety. Whether you are introverted or extroverted, hiking suits all types. It is a casual way of hanging out and getting to know the others in a group. Eye contact is not necessary and focusing on the trail reduces the focus on yourself. Plus, being out in nature generally brings out the best in everyone by enhancing overall mood. A form of nature therapy, hiking decreases the body’s internal regulatory stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body down allowing us to more easily connect.
The Power of Emotional Honesty
As someone with generalized anxiety disorder, speaking in groups and opening up was never easy for me. It still isn’t. Gathering a group of women to share an experience, reaching a common goal like summiting a Blue Ridge Mountain crest to witness a breathtaking sunset view, and sharing personal failures, successes, regrets, and joys along the way was eye-opening beyond expectations. These brave women who allow others to hear their stories—and allow themselves to receive support without judgment in response—gave each other the confidence to dig deep.
The Importance of Community
No one can do it alone. No one should do it alone. No one wants to do it alone. As a recovery coach, the most consistent feedback I hear when talking with people who have started drinking again is that they’ve lost connection. Period. They’ve stopped going to meetings, stopped talking to others in sobriety, stopped working their program, and they’ve started isolating. When I talk to the women on the hiking retreats, the thing I hear most often is that they didn’t realize how much they needed connection with other sober individuals. One woman with four years of sobriety didn’t have a single sober friend when she came on her first retreat. She didn’t think she needed any. While on the retreat she discovered the power of connection. To this day, she consistently stays in contact with the friends she made.
Forming Authentic Relationships
The vulnerability that occurs within a safe community such as this one lends itself to the formation of real relationships. The security of being able to share your story without judgment is critical to personal growth in sobriety. One of the more incredible aspects of these retreats is how women—some who just met a day prior—are able to speak frankly and openly with minimal-to-no fear. It’s as if they’ve been friends for years. I hear women on these retreats commenting on how they’re not able to talk about their experiences in sobriety with some of their oldest friends but they can do so on the trail. The ability to have open conversations about your feelings, your struggles, and your “wins” with others who “get it” is essential.
Your Story is Someone Else’s Story Too
After the daily hike is complete and we rest our tired legs around the fire or soak in the hot tub, the conversation is easy and open. The support is palpable, and the familiarity is striking. As the conversation proceeds there are consistent head nods and “me-toos,” sighs of empathy, and giggles of understanding. Your story is uniquely your own and the details will be unique to you, but the general storylines tend to follow a similar path. As these women shared the details of their stories, many found they were not the only ones to have experienced these things and, more importantly, they found that they were not alone.
Confidently Owning Your Sobriety
My greatest fear in my early sobriety was the stigma associated with sobriety. As a health care provider I know firsthand that the stigma regarding addiction has not changed amongst the medical community. “What’s wrong with you?” “Why don’t you drink?” “Why can’t you drink?” This stigma and shame took a great degree of deep personal work and time to move through. I made a promise to myself that once I could own my own sobriety, I would help others to own theirs as well. That is exactly what has happened. Attendees have courageously gone public with their sobriety on their Instagram page during the retreats. Others have returned home and started recovering out loud within their families and their workplace. The ripple effect of being confident in their stories has been the greatest phenomenon that these women continue to experience long after the retreat is over.
The Actualization of Fun
No matter your reasons for coming into sobriety, one thing is constant. There will be (and needs to be) a period of redefining and reestablishing what fun without alcohol means to you. Not having the social lubricant of alcohol creates tremendous social challenges in early sobriety. Socializing sober takes practice. Creating a space with a relaxed vibe sets the stage for people to be themselves, to let their guards down, and to have fun. No expectations. No stress. No set schedule. The deep belly laughter, lighthearted silliness, and witty inside jokes with tears running down faces have been the realization of my entire vision for my retreats.
The success of the trail and the effects it brings to our participants is real. One woman with ten years of sobriety who had fallen away from socializing with others started mentoring again and organizing local sober meet-ups. Another woman started hosting her own weekend sober slumber parties after her experience on the retreat. The overriding powerful lesson from the hiking trail is simply women inspiring and supporting other women through emotional honesty, community building, owning their sobriety and their stories, forming authentic relationships, and having fun. The effects are contagious and far reaching. We just need to be brave enough to experience it. ***