Serious, hilarious and adventurous strategies for making it through tough times.
The feeling is always the same—something about my life is wrong and I don't know how to fix it. My body tightens and my mind skitters. The panic of anxiety blocks out complex rational thought, until only the most foundational truth remains: I have to change something about my life, now.
When I was 18 and got this feeling, I packed a bag and hitch hiked to Mexico. At 21 I hopped on a plane and spent the next month biking around Iceland. Throughout my 20s I burned anxiety like fuel, and it propelled me over mountains. I biked, hiked, and hitched thousands of miles around the world, often in sudden, unpredictable bursts. I owned few possessions and saved every dime to fund my next Great Escape. These trips reoriented me and set me on new trajectories. They shaped my life and made me who I am.
None of these journeys were ever graceful or particularly well planned. I biked from Alaska to San Francisco with a set of jeans and a skirt, just in case I stopped to live somewhere along the way. Another time, I spent months in the desert with a full set of snorkel gear, because I had expected to be near the ocean. I have a history of leaving without a map and believing I can survive indefinitely off of hardtack. Unruly, unplanned adventures always worked for me because they turned the disaster of my anxiety into a useful source of energy. Even though I was flailing, I was flailing over mountains.
My Great Escape strategy worked pretty well until last year, when a knee injury left me debilitated for months. At the same time, my partner of ten years broke up with me in an email, and I lost my job. As I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, I could see a familiar anxiety coming for me. But this time all my normal escape routes were blocked. I couldn't just pack a bag and head to the hills; I had to find a new way to deal with myself and my life. I had to find a new way to flail forward.
When anxiety zigged left, I zagged right. Every day I asked myself the question, “What can I do?” If I can't use my leg, what can I use? If my career has ended, what skills can I develop? If my relationship is over, what sense of self can I embrace? I rarely, if ever, had any reasonable answers. But I started having a lot of fun making up absurd ones. And strangely, the absurd ones actually seemed to work.
I bought a used hand cycle, named it “Claw Monster,” and clawed my way up the road every morning with hand cranks. I replaced my ex-boyfriend with a puppet made out of newspapers, and took him on dates to the seaside. I started writing stories about my anxiety-fueled adventures, and people actually read them. Some days I didn't know if I was winning the game or just giving up. I think I was doing both—and that's exactly what made it so funny.
No one was more shocked than me that my oddball solutions actually worked! But when you're 35 years old and scooting around on a hand cycle with a papier-mâché boyfriend and no better prospects, even small victories become gleeful celebrations. I rolled with it.
And honestly? I had the time of my life.
As we all try to make it through a pandemic winter, anxiety will come for us. We can't avoid it, so what can we do? What kind of absurd, flailing, zig-zagging dance will propel us through this winter's darkness? How can we turn the energy of our anxiety, fear, and uncertainty into a useful force?
If you're a person who loves the outdoors but your normal outdoor activities are closed, what can you do? If you can't get on a plane to go to that special ski slope, what else is open? Have you tried cross country skiing in your local park? How about competitive, socially distanced, snow-angel making? What would happen if you ran five miles a day for a month straight? If you don't run in the winter because your hands get cold, can you get a better pair of mittens? What if you ran in a fleece penguin onesie? And then what if your friend chased you in a shark onesie? If you struggle with motivation, what would motivate you?
If Tom Hanks's volleyball Wilson can provide emotional support on an island, then your socks can be friends in a pandemic. Draw faces on them and get to know their personalities. You'll have two new personal trainers: Left and Right. Sound crazy? Well, the world is crazy now, so these are the types of things we just might have to roll with. What do we have to lose?
Absurdity in this context is an act of defiance. We flail, we zig, we zag—and nothing can stop us. If normalcy shatters, let’s roll with its wreckage. Let’s keep getting outside, moving our bodies and staying safe and healthy. If we're going to flail, let's flail over mountains.
Do you have a “strangely useful” solution for staying active during pandemic winter? Laura wants to know! Message her on Instagram at @laurakillingbeck.