Making Peace With My Writing Career One Walk at a Time
With every step, I realized I didn’t have to be juggling All The Things to be a worthwhile member of society. I just needed to exist.
My rescue dog, Gerdie, came over and laid her arm across my chest. As she licked my face, a tiny, almost imperceptible voice inside of me suggested taking a very short walk with Gerd. Yes, it was something I’d need to do for her, but it’d have a double effect of getting me out of bed too.
A louder voice fought back immediately. There’s no point!
But the tiny whisper came again. It’s the only thing you have to do today, it said.
The louder voice screamed, Fine! It won’t matter anyway.
I got out of bed. I didn’t bother changing out of my pajamas. I slid Gerdie’s harness on and put on my headphones so I could keep listening to the podcast. I put one foot in front of the other, and I told myself we’d just go a half a mile. That felt doable without being overwhelming. It was three right turns and then I’d be home again.
The first thing I realized, about five minutes into the walk, was that I’d stopped crying. The second thing I realized was that I was actually in the middle of doing something. I immediately scolded myself: It’s just a walk.
But no. As Gerdie peed and sniffed every other bush, and as her tail wagged and wagged, I realized that yes, it was something. If not for me, for Gerdie.
The loud voice in my head was always telling me to do more, be better. As I walked, as every step felt like I was wading through tall grass, this was the most I could do, the best I could be. I didn’t have to be juggling All The Things to be a worthwhile member of society. I just needed to exist. And if I needed to feel like I did something, anything, well, here I was. Doing just that.
I took a selfie and posted it in my Instagram stories, thinking, Okay. Let’s begin.
I’d created the goal of going for forty walks over two and a half months, and so far, I was keeping up with it pretty well. As excited as I wanted to be about it, I was hesitant about whether I’d reach this goal. I’d failed plenty of past goals when it came to exercise. Even though this one was far less about losing weight and more about just moving, I was still equating the two in my mind, and I judged myself when I skipped a day to just stay home.
The one difference was that this time, when I judged myself, I actually listened to the voice in my head that told me I wasn’t a failure for not completing every goal every day. The judgment lifted, at least for a little while.
One afternoon, my husband suggested going for a walk with Gerdie and me around town as part of our five-year wedding anniversary. I’d barely seen him with all the overtime he’d been working, so he hardly ever went on walks with Gerd and me. I was thrilled until he said something halfway into the walk that was so benign it shouldn’t have warranted a reaction at all, yet it made my heart start racing: “Let’s make a left here.”
Ryan wanted to venture into a part of town we hadn’t explored in our two years of living here.
“Oh, okay,” I stammered.
As I started to bite the upper left half of my lip, he must have seen it, because he took my hand in his. Not knowing my way around a place always spikes my anxiety. For years, the first day of a vacation—the travel day—has made my heart race and my breathing spike. On top of all of that, I had been taking the exact same route with Gerdie every day, and this was breaking that. Even though Ryan knew all of that, he also knew bringing me closer to him would remind me that I wasn’t alone. That I just needed to breathe.
Around the corner, it turned out a beautiful offset trail with tall trees and a splattering of fall leaves awaited us. My heartbeat reset to normal.
I was crying again. A lot. And with it came an image of myself with a gun against my head. We don’t own a gun and I don’t know the first thing about how to obtain one (nor do I want to), so this image was purely fiction, but it was so overwhelming when it appeared that I broke down in tears and couldn’t stop.
Just before this, Ryan and I had isolated ourselves from everyone and everything for the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving so that we could see his parents safely. Prior to this, I went for walks with friends and spent some time with them on our front porch or in the yard, but to make sure we weren’t exposing his elderly parents, we quarantined. We ordered groceries online and we said no to everyone who wanted to get together. The lack of human contact sent me back into a deep depression.
Every step felt like I was wading through tall grass.
On top of that, a publisher had recently requested I pitch them a series of ideas, and while the possibility of them accepting at least one of them had given me some excitement, they’d passed on all of them. The magazine work dried up completely, and I wasn’t inspired by anything to create pitches. The one thing I’d always felt I was meant to do—write creatively—wasn’t panning out. I started to feel like I wasn’t meant to be on this earth. That’s when the suicidal thoughts began.
I decided I’d take Gerdie for a walk. But unlike it usually did, even that didn’t help. As I walked my normal route, I tried to focus on a podcast, on the real world in front of me, but the image kept appearing, and all the failures I’d had, and the tears kept coming.
After returning from my walk, I video called my psychologist. It was a Monday night, our usual scheduled time to chat, and I knew this was going to be the hardest call we’d had. I told him I felt I needed to go to the hospital, and he supported my decision. I called a string of people, most of them barely understanding what I said because of how incoherent I was, my words garbled and hiccuped as I unsuccessfully tried to hold back my tears.
All I thought, as I called each person, was that I was failing again. Particularly as a writer. It was getting close to a year and a half without a book sale now. Friends were posting about their next book deals and I was retreating from Facebook so that I didn’t keep seeing their announcements. My one piecemeal job that had been gaining traction—writing for magazines—was gone. And with it went any confidence that I’d get it back. The fact-checking continued to dwindle.
And with all the isolation, I’d convinced myself I was just plain failing to be a person who deserved to live. I hoped the hospital would help me feel like I did before the pandemic.
It was a brisk spring morning, and I felt optimistic about the New Year. It’d been four months since my hospitalization, and I was so happy to be home. The experience had been one of the hardest things I’d ever gone through, and when I told the psychiatrist on the last day, “I think I’d be better off at home. I go for these long walks every few days and they really help with my mental health,” I’d meant it.
Returning to my regular walks had been hard with the cold weather, but I’d bundled myself up and reminded myself of how I’d began: with one foot in front of the other and no judgment about the length of the walk. I was proud of myself for making it through the most difficult months of the year. It had also been three and a half months since the crying jags stopped and three months since I started a medication that kept me feeling stable. I still had my low moments—publishing sure as hell kept that possible with a few more passes in that time—but I was mentally more stable than ever.
I was also feeling an extra wave of enthusiasm about the day because it had been four years since I sold the book that was now launching. This book had been a roller coaster of its own over the years—with an imprint acquisition, new editor, delayed launch date, another new editor—but it had all culminated into something I was incredibly proud of, and now the world was going to see it.
I couldn’t decide which accomplishment I was more proud of. By the time I got home, I realized it was all of them. Actually being proud of myself and not immediately catastrophizing everything? Maybe my anxiety was finally getting in check. Maybe regular walks were doing more for me than I had even expected.
It was a typical Friday for me to walk Gerdie after I woke up, as it had been a difficult few weeks. After months of notes and revisions, I’d just found out that the IP middle grade book proposal I’d been working on for the better part of a year and a half had basically been rejected by its last editor. It’d been two years since I’d sold a project, despite having gone out with something like eighteen projects in that span of time. I felt like my dream of being a writer was dying right before my eyes. I considered walking away from my writing career entirely.
But during this walk, I tried to focus on the positive. I had Zoom calls with two friends coming up, and I was waiting to hear from the woman whose book I was ghostwriting about what she thought of the chapters I sent her. There was still hope for another project. After directing Gerdie to the left—“No, stop sniffing that pile of poop, let’s go!”—I got an email from the ghostwriting client. “Hey Gina, this is AMAZING!” she wrote. “Shivers shivers shivers, amazing work.”
In just two sentences, my self-confidence in my writing bounced back. It could have been my Italian stubbornness. It could have been disillusionment. Whatever it was, I didn’t care. I chose to believe that a tide would turn. After all, a few months earlier, I never would have guessed that I’d be at walk 208. While I might not have sold any full book projects over that time, I had reached my proudest accomplishment to date, and it had nothing to do with writing. As I took Gerdie’s collar off of her, I realized I’d done that hundreds and hundreds of times. I’d pushed myself to walk on days I didn’t want to—which I didn’t always do with writing—and here I was. Accomplishing something I didn’t even know I’d wanted less than a year earlier.
And that accomplishment had brought with it so much more than what I’d first set out with. When I started, a walk was a way to get out of bed and stop crying. Now it was something I did without even thinking about it. Something that I had in my back pocket whenever my mental health was taking a dive. Something I did when I was proud of an accomplishment. Something that became its own accomplishment. And something that I can be proud of, no matter where my writing takes me.
Gina Loveless writes for three year olds and fifty-three year olds. For adults, she’s written about mental health and a series of profiles for Men’s Health. For children, she’s the author of five books, most recently the humorous, all-gender inclusive nonfiction book Puberty Is Gross but Also Really Awesome. Normalizing the conversation around mental health is a deep passion of hers. This is her first personal essay.