When Walking It Off Stops Working

I’ve always walked. When my mother didn’t come home — because she was working late, or because she was drunk, or later, because she was high or getting there — my grandmother encouraged me to play in the front yard. As a  moody only child, more likely to hide beneath the kitchen table and read, play didn’t come easily to me. The outdoors felt erratic and overstimulating. I couldn’t predict how many cars would come down our one-way street, at what point my neighbors — kindly, softly — would say hello and ask how is your mother, anyway? My grandmother’s house, where I, and my mother before me, was raised, sat on the bay in a small town in southern Massachusetts. Each time I turned the corner and saw the water, it comforted me. It said: I am still here and so are you.

So I circled my block, telling myself that my mother would appear around the next corner. Just one more left and she’ll be home. Three more walks and she’ll be home. I always went inside my grandmother’s house alone. Years later, after I had grown but continued to walk everywhere – to the seafood restaurant I waitressed at, to the pharmacy where I stocked shelves, to the houses of the girls I loved but kept secret – my grandmother teased me. “You looked like a caged thing,” she’d tell me over the dining room table, a decade before her death, like a tiger who’d wandered into glass. Then she’d say, there’s work to do.

This was the way we found power over pain: move. Stay busy. Sweep, scrub, shelve. Keep your mind busy. Push it away, respress it. There is no bitterness here; we heal the way that we are taught. When my grandmother’s mother died, I had been at the beach with a friend. We were wearing bikinis, which felt very scandalous and important the summer before we began the sixth grade. When I walked home, I found my grandmother sweeping in the kitchen. The floor was already clean. She greeted me and her face was wet and low. I asked if my great grandmother died and she said yes. She put down the broom only when I put my arms around her middle and pressed my head into her chest. We did not speak of it again.

When chores were done, I walked.

Even that young, I craved motion. One foot in front of the other and the bad thoughts went away. This control, I believed, was a form of power and strength. Even through most of my twenties, I believed these two concepts — strength, power — were interchangeable. To be strong, I believed, meant to be in control.

Walking is how I survive every breakup: one foot in front of the other on the sidewalk. Intrusive thoughts? Walk to the grocery store and buy one avocado. Squeeze it. Hope that it is ripe enough to eat with a spoon and salt. Sudden, silent hysteria in Target because Adele came on the loudspeaker? Do laps around the store with my head down. Too nauseous to muster up the energy to cook myself a meal? Walk to the local donut shop for sugar. Embrace the ache.

In all that walking, I called my escapism survival. And when I traveled from my home in Washington, D.C., to Iceland by myself, the only person I wanted to escape was myself.

Research proves that walking helps reduce chronic anxiety, elevate mood, and lessen the severity of panic attacks. I’m no psychologist, but I think just about every self-help book recommends it. If you’re physically able, it’s a pretty accessible form of exercise. No special equipment or membership required. Frankly, it’s a free way to pass the time. My footsteps were slow and steady, but what I was really doing was running from myself.

The notion of losing one’s self in travel isn’t unique to me. It’s quick to credit Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild with this idea that through sheer travel alone, we transform. Through adversity, we’re reshaped. But it’s more deeply ingrained than that in the cultural sphere. The vision that if we change our circumstances — move to a new city, start a new relationship, begin a new career — our past lives become not a shadow but a separate body entirely. What going alone to an island in the Arctic made me question, more than anything, is how I’ve resisted rest for so long.

Two decades after I circled my grandmother’s house, forlorn and regularly inconsolable, I’m still both of those things, but I’m also a journalist. I’m comfortable as the interviewer, the person who asks the questions. The person who predicts where the conversation will go. The person who thinks ahead to the end. In relationships, this transfers easily; sometimes too easily, to me being the framer, the fixer, the person who puts it in perspective. At work, I ask myself: So what? What is the point of this article, this essay, this investigation. With my emotions, I ask myself: So what? So I am sad, so I am scared, so I am overcome. What is the point of sitting with it?

There’s not a lot of elevation in Iceland, but there’s a whole lot of exposure. The terrain is a surreal geothermic spread that changes around every bend: lava fields, volcanic ash, ice, natural hot springs, and — careful! — hot steam that would sizzle you up. The YouTube videos that vlog the experience show this, of course, but in Iceland, the terrain changes even more than you’d expect. With no trees, the landscape reshapes itself. Iceland’s mountains don’t get as high as say, Norway, in part because Iceland has almost no trees to curb the wind. Nature reshapes itself. You can plan within reason — bring waterproof pants, broken in hiking boots, and forgot about an umbrella — but only within reason. You can’t control nature isn’t a new sentiment, but when I turn it on myself — I can’t control nature —I bear witness: I can’t control the nature around me. I can’t control my nature, either.

Even writing an essay feels a contradiction. Why am I exposing myself? Why write about me? Let’s write about Iceland instead.

Accessing Landmannagular involves driving a 4×4 three hours outside of the capital city, Reykjavik, where I was staying in an airy Airbnb that was, as described, a sleek space that got excellent light. My bedroom was filled with books in Icelandic I didn’t pretend to try to read and a delicate arrangement of succulents. I took at least a hundred selfies in the curved mirror above the desk. Pleasantries aside, I strategically avoided the woman who ran the Airbnb and stayed out late instead, walking in the surreal midnight sun. I sat in parks and said hello to the city’s hearty cats.

Does a codependent person take an international solo trip? I did, so I guess so. Codependency, like most things, is easier to identify than to fix. In my worst moments — after a devastating breakup, before the start of a ten-hour shift in a fast food restaurant, the minutes at an empty bus stop, convinced I’d gone to the wrong place — I didn’t trust myself at all. I couldn’t order coffee (black, no sweetner) or walk to the water or go to a museum. I trembled in the aisles of many a CVS. My body couldn’t rest. I felt powerless. By the time I booked my ticket to Iceland, I was determined to be independent. Bold, rough, self-reliant. I resolved I would do it all alone.

I’ve always been a believer in the mind. Physically, I am small, narrow. Most days, I can barely open my bathroom window. As a child, in spite of all my walks around my block, I remained all bone. When I signed up for an all-day hike by a volcano site, it didn’t occur to me that my body could betray me. That it would betray me.

Landmannlauger is just 600 meters above sea level; at its very highest point, Hratfninnusker is only about 1100 meters. There are far higher places in neighboring Norway. What feels brave about Iceland’s Highlands is not its height but its remoteness. It’s at least three hours from Reykjavik and you’ll see almost no towns or stops along the way. You’re advised to pick up all supplies — gas, snacks, water — on your drive to the Highlands. Backpackers carry packs thick with what I imagined was granola bars, baby wipes, and hope. Once you’re there, you’re there.

I researched every minute. The terrain, the winds, the seasonal chill, the best way to tie my brand new waterproof Danners. I didn’t think my undoing would come from the inside. A tilt of balance a rush of panic. How could I betray myself? All of my planning, all of my desire to be good. Epiphany did not reach me as, I humiliated, clung to the hand of a German woman I had never met and whose name I never learned, and it did not reach me, even, when I was on my plane or on the tarmac or back in my apartment. What the mind represses, the body remembers.

At the top, it started to rain. Rain in Iceland can be shattering. Without trees to obscure it, it’s common for rain to bounce back upwards after it hits the ground. Someone described the downpour as a palate cleanser. It was beautiful. At least, the blur that my brain comprehended was beautiful. Watching the hikers around me pose for pictures and laugh helped me center myself, a bit; if no one else is afraid, maybe there is no danger. But before long, my inner thoughts went negative: Don’t panic, stupid bitch. Don’t freak out. Don’t embarrass yourself. Of course there’s nothing to be afraid of. The mountains scurried around me and my inner narrative shouted at me to keep it moving.

On the descend, my steps got smaller and smaller. People I’d passed on the way up breezed by me. Some couples did hold hands, using each other for balance and, as I interpreted it, emotional support. My stomach got small and tight. My footsteps got smaller and slower. My glasses glazed over, then fogged completely. Later, I researched vertigo and the symptoms matched up. The symptoms also matched those of a panic attack.

A German woman passed me, then stepped back. Oh, she said. You’re afraid? She was tall and long, her narrow face obscured by the hood of her rain jacket. I looked up when I nodded, though I couldn’t make out her features beyond a thin mouth and sharp nose. When she held out her hand, I clung. I said, I’m unsteady, then I said, I’m panicking. The cliche is true — saying the words was the hardest part.

I am not afraid, she said. I am from the Alps. My grip must have hurt her but she was kind enough to suffer me. I pulled away when we got to flat terrain, embarrassed at my dependence, and slowly seized at each exposed bend. She found me, again and again, and held out her arm. She did not make me ask. For this, I loved her.

When I moved particularly slowly, when a corner had only enough room for one foot at a time, she told me that if I fell I would not die. It would hurt, she said. You would be very frightened. But you would survive it.

It would be easy to say I took her hand and thought, mother. That I recognized my need to be supported. Those realizations flickered later, back in my home continent. Then, I just gripped the sleeve of her dark red rain jacket and hoped.

Landmannugular wasn’t the first time I cried while traveling. I cried in Austin, Texas, in the guest room of an Airbnb before I joined a friend at an old dyke bar, full of Lonestar and local punk bands, all skin and bone in their leather gear. I reread old Facebook messages and sobbed into a pillow. A handwritten note from my Airbnb host reminded me to enjoy the bluebonnets; the sincerity pushed the tears up, I told myself. Then I went out and inhaled second-hand smoke while people talked about doing cocaine and riding horses to the bar. I called this coping.

The easy answer is to claim that Iceland was the first place I wondered about these crying bursts, that if perhaps one foot in front of the other was getting me away from pain but not healing it. Walking, perhaps, was just one way to be kind to myself. A form of survival masked as self-care that I had outgrown. That nature changes everything. But the realization knocked on my brain in many spaces: in temporary beds, temporary cities, the middle seat of an airplane, a bench overlooking a body of water I find, even when I find myself landlocked.

When people ask me about Iceland, they usually ask me about hiking Landmannagular. That’s largely my own doing; it’s just about all I talked about. The photos I posted on social media described the hike as challenging but that I was so glad I did it. When I am honest with myself, though, the hike I’m so glad I did was actually a walk on the coast.

Tripadvisor comments described the Perlan as fine but not to go out of your way. In the land of fire and ice, there are more impressive things to see. I went anyway. At Nauthólsvík, a small geothermal beach just off of the Perlan’s trail, many Icelanders lounge in the man-made hot pods. Around them, some braved the ocean. I paced the sand and the boardwalk, still swollen from long hikes and overnight airplane travel.

That June, the sun was so bright. This water wasn’t my water. This beach wasn’t my beach. I was very, very far from the bay across from my grandmother’s house. But it felt like the coast of my youth: Cold and unforgiving to outsiders. A locals spot. Nice if you’re in the area, but don’t go out of your way. The water would feel so cold; it would hurt, I knew, but you’d survive it.

Can vertigo hit you on flat landscape? What about sitting down on a bench? I don’t know. Maybe it’s vertigo. Maybe it’s panic. Maybe it’s grief. Maybe it’s shadows catching up with me.

Walking is one way of soothing myself. It’s also a way of closing myself off. No, I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just ignore it. Let me just walk it away. It’s a balance I’m still learning: When to self-soothe and when to open up. When to walk until my head is clear and when to ground myself and say hey, this bubbling up shouldn’t be swallowed back down. My brain is good at doing what it’s done since I was a small girl, circling around my grandmother’s block: keeping itself distracted, focused on an object just outside of the real target. We do what we can to cope. Slowly, nature reshapes itself. There is an easy ending to this: I have grown, learned, overcome. I have not overcome — I am overcome. And I am learning to live with it. ⚡

Edited by Carmen

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Marissa H. is a lesbian writer and editor living in Washingon, DC. Her nonfiction considers poverty, food, and the queer domestic.

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19 Comments

  1. This piece roots me in reality as I’m experiencing waves of dissociation from anxiety lately. Thank you for sharing beautifully themes of escapism, confrontation, and vulnerability. I guess I’m just looking for my metaphorical German woman to hold on to at this point. Maybe the German woman is me?

  2. Oh I just loved this. Since March of last year, I have been unable to walk without pain and I am currently in a hospital bed recovering from my second surgery. I miss just being able to walk. Right now I cannot put more than 20% weight through my right leg. I walk with a frame. I am turning 34 on Saturday. Most people in this hospital are over 60. I feel so alone.

    • Very nice article. I also loved to walk since always especially in nature. But I was always having my thoughts and worries circulating in my head instead of being able to enjoy nature. A few years ago I learned about mindful walking and it changed everything. I try to walk very carefully and a bit slower than usual and being aware of my feet touching the ground. And then I can see everything much more clearly and I feel peaceful and stable.

    • Sorry to read this. I have auto-immune arthritis and am experiencing my body the way a 60-y-o might, despite being 35. I attend a feldenkrais class, and I am the only attendant under 50… But it’s helping a lot to deal with the pain, so I continue.
      I hope you have a quick recovery and have the energy to party soon!

  3. This is beautifully written. Thank you.

    I’ve also been suffering panic attacks for the past year, and I also walk. There’s a park near my house that I can walk to, walk around, and walk back. I recommend it, but also, repressing your anxiety only makes it come back stronger at a later time. I tried everything to push mine down, including herbal supplements and prescribed meds.

    Right now, the Anxiety Slayer podcast and EFT Tapping are saving me (look it up on YouTube– there are many tutorials.) Also, letting myself cry. Do you know that crying physically releases cortisol from your body?? I did not. Let’s create a cry-positive society where we are allowed to feel our emotions.

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