Written by Bisa Myles
When people learn about my past and the challenges that I’ve overcome, they say that I am strong. I cringe every time I hear that. After everything that I’ve been through in my life, I don’t feel like I am strong. On summit night, after I decided not to make the attempt to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I realized why I felt that way. Everything that had happened in my life—raising my cousin’s children as a single parent, beating cancer, my career choice, and even where I chose to live—were things I had to do to keep up with my family’s and society’s expectations of me. How can I be strong if I was only doing what others wanted me to do?
For as long as I can remember, almost every decision I’ve made was based on other people’s expectations and desires. For instance, I took an accounting class in high school because my friend was taking it. I didn’t suddenly fall in love with accounting, but I’d heard I could make a lot of money if I chose it as a career. I don’t love numbers or math. I’m not quite sure how I managed to get good grades in the subject. I slept in a lot of the classes because I was working full-time at night. My classmates all wondered how I managed to get an A on the test. I said it was by osmosis merely because I was able to memorize the information easily after reading it.
I’ve done okay in my career, but it wasn’t my passion. When I finally got the courage to make a change, my cousin passed away. She and I grew up together and I thought of her as my sister. My grandmother started out as her children’s caregiver but asked me to become their legal guardian because she was in her 80s and unable to do so on her own. I had never thought of raising them on my own.
When it came to my cancer treatment, there were times when I wanted to quit, but I would say I can’t stop the treatments because of the kids. I thought it was selfish to say I should continue the treatments for myself. I didn’t know how to live for myself.
I have no regrets about the decisions I’ve made, but I’ve realized that many of my choices were not just because I wanted to do something. I signed up to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for many reasons. One of them was because I wanted to go with this group of women. I wanted to show people that someone who looked like me could do something as incredible as this. I did want to challenge myself, but that is also part of the narrative of what other people have said about me.
When I was sitting in my tent on summit night, for the first time, I felt strong. I had hiked to over 15,000 feet on Kilimanjaro. I walked for hours in the blazing sun, cold, and wind to get there. I didn’t do it because I felt like I had to do it or prove anything to anybody. Making the decision not to summit to the top was based on how I felt and what I thought was best for me. Years ago, my ego wouldn’t have let me listen to myself and would have worried about what other people thought of me. It’s funny to think that it took climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to finally make me believe that I am strong, not just physically—but mentally.
After a week had gone by post-climb, I realized that while I was hiking every day on Kilimanjaro, I wasn’t thinking about all of my problems like I thought I was going to. When I walked and hiked at home while training for the trek, I was able to disconnect for a couple of hours but never truly disconnect. During most days on Kili, I didn’t think about anything. The guides would tell me to walk at my own pace and enjoy the scenery. So, I did. I had never been so present and in-the-moment in my life than I was while I was hiking on Mount Kilimanjaro. Nothing that was happening in my life in the United States mattered. All I had to do was take one step at a time and enjoy the views. Now, there were moments on the mountain that I just wanted to go home. But there were more moments when I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
I imagine my feelings about this experience will continue to evolve, the more I continue to reflect on my experience. When I first came down from the mountain, I didn’t think that it had changed me. But it did. I went to Tanzania hoping the universe was going to speak to me and give me all the answers to my questions. That didn’t happen, but I left Mount Kilimanjaro feeling more confident and stronger than I’ve ever felt.