My wife left to hike the Appalachian Trail just over six weeks ago. It’s been quite the experience so far for both of us and I want to talk a little about what it’s like being “the one left behind”. There are a million blog posts by hikers, but not so many from the family they leave behind. We have our own journey to travel through this as well and I think it’s worth sharing.
When we finally decided that she would hike the trail this year, we both began planning, albeit in different ways. When I say we decided, I do mean that. This is something that effects both of us, and while of course Camilla made the final decision, we walked into this together. I won’t speak for her or her decision—you can read that yourself in her blog—but I do want to talk about my decision and how it’s effected me so far. The first time she mentioned the idea I thought it was a passing fancy that would never manifest in my life. I played along with the thought experiment. After a while though it became clear that she was really drawn to the idea and she struggled to figure out how to make it a reality. I shifted gears to figure out how to support her making a final decision, knowing that whatever that decision was I’d be on the hook to follow through all the way with her. At the time it sounded so healthy and happy and far away. It was an easy commitment to make. I don’t regret a single second of it, but it has certainly been harder than I thought at the time.
For a little more context, I should also say that we’ve been married for 8 years (our anniversary is actually coming up in 2 weeks) and we’re in a really good relationship (it’s actually kind of ridiculous how awesome it is). I’m not at all worried that she’s going to cheat on me or leave me on the trail, and I don’t feel like she is doing this to get away from me. She has lots of reasons for going on the trail, but I’m not one of them. I’m one of the things that made it a hard decision to go, and I feel that deeply. So we’re good on that front and it really is more about how we can loosen the strong bond we have to give her space to explore this need and me space to see what that will mean for me too. I know this isn’t everyone’s experience in these circumstances and I feel lucky that I’m not dealing with layers of relationship problems through this.
A few months after we decided, the reality of it started to hit me and I realized I needed to prepare myself. As she was researching the logistics and testing out a variety of equipment, I started to figure out my own plan. I was going to “lose” my best friend, my ballast, my solid ground for 6 months. Shit. While we are able to communicate just about daily, that is mostly just her sending a text that says something like “Long day. Time for sleep. Love you!”. We very occasionally get to chat for a few minutes on WhatsApp. We talk on the phone once a week or so. So she’s not “gone” but I don’t get my daily debrief over dinner, supportive hugs, or victory dances and high fives that define the rhythm of living with someone invested in your life. All of the little random things you want to say or laugh about just get backed up and then forgotten, unshared. It’s all the little counter-balances and gentle corrections that make navigating life more steady. It’s harder than it may sound, especially when you’ve had that rhythm for so long. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I most need and get from her and then how I could mitigate that loss. Here are the three things I did to prepare. These are certainly specific to me and my life, but perhaps this can helpful for others in the same or similar scenario.
I tend to be extremely withdrawn when I’m hurting in any way, so I knew that I would want to just disappear into my apartment and never come out again. I can get myself into a dark place and I knew I would need to interact with people to get out of my own head. I started talking with my closest friends about my fears and what I was going to need from them. I needed to be honest with myself and them. My biggest ask from the other people in my life was to pull me out of my shell kicking and screaming if they didn’t hear from me for a while (like 2-ish weeks max). For my friends in Copenhagen, they can show up at my apartment and drag me out somewhere. For others, it’s as simple as checking in regularly and asking how I’m doing and if I need anything. (Some people even literally have a schedule for this. <3) I’ll also admit that going to my friends with this kind of request made me realize that I need to spend more time taking care of my friendships. I can be a very “out of sight, out of mind” kind of person and have always put most of my focus on my significant other. This has made me really evaluate what friendship means and what I need to give to keep those relationships strong and healthy as well. I don’t want to take my friends for granted and this is a big personal focus for me this year. This void has created a great opportunity to deepen and broaden my friendships. I would say this is one of the biggest heartfelt lessons from this experience for me.
One big thing I wanted to make sure to deliberately address is self-care. It’s easy to let things go when my routines are off or I’m not feeling top of my game. Camilla and I encourage and support each other in this area and I knew I’d need something a little more rock solid this year. I ended up deciding to give myself a challenge to add a new positive habit each month. That way I could try something out for one month and I would be in a good pattern at the end so if I wanted to incorporate it permanently, I could just keep rolling. I decided to focus on adding positive things instead of removing negative things. I need all the positivity I can and removing bad habits is a lot harder to do in general. I also wanted to be clear about choosing things that would be long-term habits, instead projects with finite goals. The idea was to build a set of habits that are good for me, relatively easy to maintain, and would stick around throughout the year to give me touchpoints to build my own rhythm and routines around. I wanted to get these started before Camilla took off, so that I would have some habits well-established by then. So far this year I have worked on the following habits, and I’m happy to say that so far, they have all stuck.
- Jan: Exercise at least 5 days a week
- Feb: Meditate at least 10 minutes a day
- Mar: Floss my teeth every day
- Apr: Write in a journal every day
I think the most important aspects of this for me are making the habit goal 1) something I actually really do want to do for whatever reason and 2) giving myself fallbacks. Fallbacks are critical for habits for me. The idea is to do something on a regular schedule no matter what and the longer you do that, the more likely it will become a no/low-effort habit. I don’t always have the motivation or time every single day so fallbacks are levels of simplifying the goal to a point that you have no excuse to not do it, and you’ll still build that regular routine momentum need. For example, with meditation, my goal is at least 10 minutes, but my fallbacks were 5 minutes, 2 minutes, a deep breath and count to 20. My simplest fallback for journaling was to open the journal and write the date. Yeah, so easy that you can’t excuse yourself from helping yourself a tiny bit every day.
I knew that in addition to my personal life, my professional life would be challenging this year (in a good way!). We have a number of new and exciting things we’re working on, but that can also be quite stressful. A lot of being a CEO involves a huge amount of emotional energy, especially when dealing with change and challenge. I knew I would be emotionally challenged with everything going on and I wanted to make sure that I also cared for my professional life. I generally have a growth goal to support my team better and grow our company in a healthy way. Getting an executive coach gave me support towards these goals. In addition to professional advice, my coach is also very aware of the details of my personal life as well. She understands how they overlap and effect each other, and she plainly sees my struggles. I can’t really share this professional vulnerability with many people. This is just the way it is as a CEO. Having someone who knows all the currents going on for me and that I can be vulnerable with has been a huge help. It makes me a more sane and emotionally stable CEO.
I will note that that a coach makes sense for me because I knew I would have professional challenges generally this year as well as fallout from Camilla being away. A therapist is also a totally good choice here if there are deeper issues that should probably be dealt with. This is part of you needing to be honest with yourself about your weaknesses and needs.
Does this work?
Yes. I’m really glad I’ve taken the time to plan and prepare for this time alone. I would be drowning by now without it. Having a friend check-in and remind me that I am not really alone always warms me through. My habits have given me some small handholds to create a routine that is geared towards taking care of myself and since they are built as habits, I tend to do them even when I’m feeling angry or lazy. My coach has definitely kept me on target when I hit rough patches. She keeps me focused on the work at hand, while also accounting for my struggles. She’s straight up told me to step away from work when it was clear I needed to catch my breath and get my shit together, while I felt compelled to forge ahead. Having someone give me “permission” to take the space I need so that I can be a better CEO is kind of amazing.
The most important thing is to really evaluate what you’re going to need before you get to day one of the hike. It can lead to some uncomfortable conversations—with yourself, your significant other, or other people in your life—but you need to prepare just as much as your hiker does, and it will probably take some time to get things into place. You deserve the care you need and you’re just as brave as anyone setting boot to trail. Take care of yourself!