Retreat Walking Around Guernsey with My Mother: A Chronicle of Anxiety
“The problem with writing about my anxiety is that I want it to be a closed narrative.”
Six months before my mother turned seventy, I told her that we could do anything she wanted for her birthday. She said that what she wanted was to take a walking trip around the island of Guernsey, which sits in the sea between England and France. We planned the trip for the September after her birthday, which gave me time to prepare.
The last time I walked a lot was ten years ago, when I was thirty and living in Los Angeles five blocks from where I grew up. On paper my life looked pretty good, but it was rotting from the inside out, and I spent a lot of time desperately trying and failing to wedge myself through various small holes in search of some imagined safety that lay on the other side. Some of the walking I did then was practical (because I didn’t drive, because I was terrified to drive), but most of it was an attempt to outrun myself.
When the things that frightened me rose above a certain watermark, I would walk. In the early winter dusk, I would get off the bus two miles early and cut through twisty, pale-under-the-moon bougainvillea-lined streets, walking and walking until being at home, in bed, safe and warm and asleep, seemed like bliss.
I suffer from anxiety and depression. I take prescription medication because I have been diagnosed by doctors. But the doctors diagnosed me because I told them that I am anxious, that I am sad. There is no thermometer I can use to measure how my anxiety has risen or fallen; there is only me, saying what I feel.
As a result, I don’t know how other people’s anxiety works. I only know my own, which colors everything I do and claws deepest when I attempt to prepare for things ahead. In the middle of doing something, mostly, it relents. But when I am thinking about doing something, planning to do something, trying to go somewhere, it clamps down hard and refuses to let go. It tells me that I am preparing all wrong. It comes up with eventualities that I have failed to consider. It tells me it is too late to prepare properly.
Ten years ago, I didn’t have a diagnosis or a prescription. All I had was dread. And walking was the only thing that helped me sidestep it. I stepped out my door, I was moving down my street, I was already doing. The membrane between planning and doing was so thin that even during that terrible time, when I could get so hung up on precisely how I was going to get dinner that I would give the whole thing up as a bad idea, I could still make myself walk. And if, as I headed out the door, I thought to myself, it’s too cold, it’s too late, I’m too tired, it’s too dangerous , I’m hungry , that was okay, too; it was still a win. Because it reminded me that I wanted to sleep, that I wanted to eat, that I wanted to be alive.
Six years ago, I went on generic Prozac. I started being able to drive without constant terror. I started working out as hard as I could, five days a week. I stopped smoking. I was able to make these changes because I had survived, and because I had gotten lucky. Because I was still standing when a series of good things made me feel safe enough to think about my choices, to allow me to make choices at all.
And lately, I have liked my life. Enough to suggest to my mother that we do something special for her seventieth birthday. When she picked a walking trip around the island of Guernsey, I told her that I blamed her love of The Lord of the Rings . I tried making this same joke to other people, and mostly they did not get it because they did not think of The Lord of the Rings as a walking story; they thought of it as a story about danger and sacrifice and hobbits and orcs. It is that, but it is also a story of people walking together, side by side.
My mother and I have done a lot of walking together. I grew up in Los Angeles in a house on a hill that was really two hills—you would go up a long slope, and then you would go up another shorter, steeper slope. And when I was a teenager and my mother and I were the only people living in that house and we could barely stand to look at each other, we would leave the hill and walk in the quiet evening past the convent to the reservoir so we could watch the streetlights come on with a flicker. It was a way for us to know that we were still all right with each other.
To prepare for our trip to Guernsey, I started walking again. I drove down to San Francisco to walk with a friend who lives in the city. It felt like the opposite of those walks I took all those years ago, when I was terrified and despairing. My friend and I stopped by tiny cafes and bought cappuccinos and walked across the fog-covered beach and there was enough time and space to tell each other everything that had been happening. It felt like peace; like luxury. I drove home from those long walks over the Golden Gate Bridge, blasé in my warm car, and although my legs ached, I felt luckier than I ever had. I felt, almost, on the other side of the mousehole—felt, almost, that I had finally wedged myself through.
The problem with writing about my anxiety, with writing about my mental health , is that I want it to be a closed narrative. A story with an end in the past. A story about things that happened before . I want to tell you about how when I was younger I suffered, and then I got better, and eventually I stopped suffering.
In early 2016, as my mother and I were planning our trip, I went on a higher dose of my generic Prozac to see if it would, in the words of my doctor, “knock out” my lingering anxiety. Instead I found myself agitated all the time. I couldn’t settle down to anything.
I stopped taking the higher dose and asked my doctor if that was all right. Sure, he said. Let me know how it goes.
I started sleeping better. I could focus again. But I also started feeling more afraid.
I kept walking with my friend. I kept to my routines. And things got harder and harder. I often broke down crying, which had not happened in years. I was panicking so much that it was hard for me to do things. I didn’t want to go back on the higher dose of medication, because it felt like a failure. Because I was not sure it would work. And because, when things are at their worst, the idea of abandoning that state of terror and sorrow can feel like giving into unreality. No , my anxious brain tells me, this is what it’s really like. It’s awful. Don’t let them tell you something different. Don’t let them lie to you.
One night I went to sleep thinking just that, and woke up remembering when I first went on medication and how angry I was that I hadn’t done it before. Because it didn’t stop me from knowing when things were awful or scary or hard. It just allowed me to keep going anyway, to keep walking, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I went back on the higher dose. And then it was time to go to Guernsey. I didn’t want to go. Walking every day sounded hard; all of it sounded hard. I woke up two days before we were supposed to leave with a scratchy throat and aching eardrums and I thought, oh, I’m getting sick, I guess I can’t go to Guernsey . But I packed my medication, and I went.
Guernsey was, actually, wonderful. Guernsey was more wonderful than I could possibly have imagined. My mother and her friend and I walked up long steps on sheer cliff faces and looked down at the impossibly blue waters and ate crab sandwiches and swam in the sea. I was not trying to wedge myself through anything. There was nothing to win and nothing to lose. It felt like getting to not be myself for a week. Or maybe it felt like the opposite.
In Guernsey, we sat in a prehistoric burial mound and gazed up at the face of a man. There were no guards to keep us from touching it. There was that strange, dazed feeling of the sky being light at the wrong time and the ocean edging its way all around us and a history entirely foreign to us. In that light, I thought, I could be anyone at all.
There were no triumphs; there were no defeats. I went to Guernsey and I came back home and kept taking my medication. But I now feel looser, freer—as though the divide between the things I want and the things that scare me is not quite so stark.
All of it is hard, and all of it is beautiful.
When I first tried to write this essay, my focus was mostly on the pleasures of walking, the mechanics of it. I went into painstaking detail about the flex of my calf as I walked uphill, the Advil I took in the middle of the night when leg cramps wouldn’t let me sleep. I wanted to home in on those details because my anxiety constantly tells me that only wins and losses matter; it is a knife that pares away the rest of the world, other types of experiences.
But in the middle of a long walk, both success and failure seem equally out of reach. The pleasure is in survival, in persistence. The pleasure is in the bird keeping itself balanced, absolutely immobile, on an air current over the ocean. It is in the tiny purple flowers scattered along the path, and in that world separate and outside of my hopes and fears.
Sometimes, now, I call my mother up, and we talk again about Guernsey. “Wasn’t it wonderful?” she says to me. “Yes,” I say. “It was.”