Wallabies + alligators

Perhaps I will be able to walk TOMORROW? For now, here is Chapter 4 of the 60 000 word sort-of-memoir I wrote in Melbourne’s FIRST lockdown. Just in case you are interested! (Thank you so much for all the messages about these chapters. I am so glad you are liking them!!)

Read chapter one 

Read chapter two

Read chapter three

Chapter 4

Walk Three – 8919 steps

Social distancing meant that everyone and their dog (literally) was up with the sparrows, pounding or pressing the pavement in a variety of exercise gear and ways.

You will be pleased to know that I left the stamped envelope – this time a card for my mum with two alligators on it that said ‘It’s been a while!” – on the kitchen table to post later. No need to send any more sweaty envelopes in the mail, I thought to myself. I will post it later, go for a second short walk to the mailbox to before dinner, really get into this active life thing, I thought.

In the park I was surprised to note that I was the only person wearing a sweatshirt dress. I put this down to my own lack of common sense – it was rather voluminous and fleecy - and my dislike of wearing separates (dresses forever!!)

Maybe everyone else was wishing they had a sweatshirt dress, I thought. Perhaps any minute now someone will shout out from a government decreed 1.5m away – “where did you get that giant, shapeless grey frock from?”

Other people were instead wearing the more sensible tracksuits, sleek running tights, and streamlined running jackets. Some were wearing leggings and coats and hats and scarves which seems a little over the top when it’s still quite mild in these mid-April mornings. Someone else was wearing mittens. MITTENS! I kid you not.

Lots of folk had those phone holder things that you strap onto your upper arm so you can go hands-free, but I was just carrying mine, occasionally trying to cram it into a too small pocket and wondering whether I could perhaps wear it around my neck next time, somehow. Perhaps it would pose a strangulation hazard if I worked up a pace? I shelved that idea and vowed to Google ‘alternatives to clutching phone in sweaty paw’ when I got home.

A man ran past me in the brightest fluro yellow shoes I had ever seen and I felt a bit better about my own orange runners and wondered if he could be seen by orbiting spacecraft. (I decided YES!)

Maybe my own shoes weren’t so ugly after all, I thought looking down at my briskly shuffling feet. No they were. They really, really were. 

As I walked wildlife frolicked about me. A raven swept down to a sort of hop-hop landing. A gang of rosellas twittered overhead. A wallaby shifted in the distance. No it was actually a man wearing a grey track suit, but this is Australia and it could have been a wallaby. It all felt very wholesome and I was glad to be amongst nature, breathing the eucalyptus vapours and trying not to listen to the roar of the nearby traffic.

A variety of cheerful dogs emerged from bushes, came into sight around bends ahead and streaked along pathways, their owners in various states of command.

The sign painted onto the footpath demands that dog owners be in full control of their dogs but I wondered if the person who devised such a sign had ever met a dog … or a well-intentioned dog owner … or me. (I don’t think they have.)

Please don’t go wild at me (my Nan used to say that) but sometimes dogs are overtaken by their puppy spirit when they hit the off lead dog part. People like me try with all our might to keep control of them, but it’s very hard if they spot another dog across the turf and remember that that dog is actually their very best friend … the one with the very nice smelling bottom. Try lording it over a dog in such a circumstance.  

That said, I promise to do my best if I take my dogs to the off lead park. Which I hardly ever do. Because anxiety about the sign and my dog control skills overtake me and I imagine the pups running under the wheels of an angry cyclist and propelling him into a nearby tree. Or pond. Or seesaw. Shudder. But I digress.

So there I was walking and feeling glad I did not have cute-but-out-of-control dogs jostling delinquently alongside me. But it was not just dogs I was thinking about. I was also thinking about how much less walking was hurting today. About how my hips were not pinching with each step and my chest was not hard as a rock and my breathing not too laboured. Was it possible to see such improvement in such a short time? Apparently it was, dear reader.

It was not just the walking aches and pains that were easing up. Some other pains were shifting too. The nightmares, for instance. I had officially gone one whole night without a bad dream. Threatening people, lost things, busted, scary, angry, hateful, hurtful night time imaginings. Gone. For one whole night! This felt brilliant.

Was it because I was more tired? I wondered. Was some other mind magic being woven? I do not know but what I was sure about was that it was a huge relief to not wake up and have to shake off the hangover of being very busy and fighting off various attacks and threats as I slumbered. 

Anyone who has suffered a nightmare (i.e. everyone) will know what an awful start to the day they provide. Waking up and shaking off the emotional hangover a nightmare can bring is exhausting, unsettling and often anxiety sparking. I had been suffering nightmares on and off for the last 3 or 4 years, with some respite in late 2019 and early 2020. They’d come back with a vengeance as the fallout from COVID-19 resulted in job loss and the loss of my usual daily routine.

Even one night’s respite from these horrible visions was a bonus. Even if they came back again, I told myself, I now know that it’s possible to have the odd night without them. And maybe walking really was warding them off? Time would tell.

People zipped past as I headed along the dewy grass flanked path. Some were on bikes, dinging their bells as a warning and swerving around me with the speed and menace of a lurching toy Scalextric car doing a figure eight. Some were on foot running at various speeds, shuffling or walk-running or jogging or trotting along with what appeared to be little or no effort. 

The varied exercise garb and techniques made me feel much better about what I had by now deemed to be my own pretty soft-core effort at activity. Surely I should be working up to running, I thought. Surely I could walk a bit faster? Hadn’t I noticed that almost everyone was lapping me?

I had noticed to be honest and I did consider speeding up, but everything I had read about people learning to run stressed the importance of beginning carefully and listening to your body. Surely walking must be the same? I wanted to be in this for the long haul. If I hurt myself or pushed myself too hard I might get injured and side line myself, consequently buggering this whole plan up, I theorised.

Slow and steady was the best way forward, I reasoned.

And speaking of plans what even was the plan? Also, how, in this age of eleventy billion apps like Runkeeper and Apple Health, would I measure what I was achieving? 

Honestly, I did not really know.

Each day I could measure my steps pretty easily, but there were other measurements that mattered too. The nightmare index, for instance. Today it was at ZERO which is excellent progress. Winning!!

I could also convert the steps I’d taken into kilometres and clock up another metric for my own slow poke stats book. Apple Health tells me today’s count is the equivalent of 6.7km. 6.7km! I admit I just puffed up my chest a little. That’s almost as impressive as today’s nightmare index. (Zero!!)

There were other gains too. My appetite was now slowly returning. I was still absolutely forcing myself to make food, but I was eventually enjoying eating it, after the first couple of mouthfuls, which is a big shift in the right direction. I’d say I was now racking up a 6/10 on the appetite scale, up from a pitiful 1/10. An admirable achievement no doubt, but clearly there was still lots of room for improvement.

That’s not the only change I noticed as I navigated by new jobless life. The day before I had mopped the floor of the kitchen at 7pm. A week prior I would have been too deflated, disinterested and exhausted to do this. I might have already turned in for the night, even.

I returned from my walk and wrote thousands of words of this very book. I vacuumed! I washed a throw rug, goddammit. Washed. A. Throw. Rug! Gasp. Who even does that? Certainly not me.

So there are those kind of metrics to consider too, if we’re trying to measure and chart progress.

Granted these developments are pretty hard to quantify, but what I could most definitely confirm was that I felt good while doing those things. Not creaky and out of breath and ache-y a la last week, month, year. That’s an incredible improvement in a very, very short space of time. Just from walking!!

You might be wondering about those other metrics that inevitably rear their heads when we talk about exercise – weigh-ins and calories and the like. 

Truth be told even though I am overweight, I’m not really going for weight loss. If that happens, so be it, but I’m chiefly interested in improving my mental health and staving off a depressive episode. 

Mental health gains are the most important measures for me. While not easily measurable, they feed positively into every single thing that I do, and when I started this walking project just a few short days ago it was my declining mental health that was motivating me. So I’m running with that. Well. Walking with that and so far it’s working out pretty great. Of course, I’m not the only one who has found that a shake-up and becoming more active has paid big dividends.

In Alexandra Heminsley’s excellent book Running Like A Girl she documents her journey from couch to London Marathon in her own quest to improve her mental health (the London Marathon is such a popular transformative experience, isn’t it?!). 

As she works through her marathon training schedule (not sure about her Nightmare Index) she quickly sees other non-running things shifting – for the better - in her life. From the way her body feels, to her social confidence, to her relationship with dad …

“Running was changing everything,” she writes, and this was exactly how my new walking life was feeling too.

This was not my first time around the block on a walking quest, you should know. I had been here before. I’d even walked these very same pathways, 4 years earlier. That was before my life had completely gone to rack and ruin. (Again.) It was teetering on the edge of disaster, I admit. But still, I was in much better shape … indeed I feel like I was an entirely different person. 

In the years that followed a cascade of challenges and catastrophes layered themselves into a rather messy pile of awfulness until I was buried underneath them and often unable to leave the house.

The idea of walking was off the cards, unless it was to the car to duck out for supplies with my head down and as little eye contact as possible.

Thankfully, after waiting way, way too long, I got some professional help and slowly began to recover, getting myself back on the right path both literally and figuratively. I wrote a book about that time, in the hopes of helping others, and was just beginning to feel my life was heading in the right direction.

And then there I was, back on that same path in that same park, four years down the track a whole new person who was feeling very much like the rug had been pulled from under me. (Damn you, pandemic!)

It sounds hopeless but I was feeling strangely hopeful, something I would not have been even a year earlier. I was backing myself, taking control and trying really hard to prevent the kind of falling in a heap that had frankly terrified me a couple of years before.

Now I knew that I was anxious and sad … but not yet deeply depressed. I had felt where I was headed and struck out pre-emptively to help myself feel better. I had not surrendered to the big feelings that were threatening to overwhelm me, instead dragging them out into the light of day, and naming each one. This logical examination and acceptance of what I was enduring meant that all the feelings didn’t mass into one scrunched up, scary mess. They just sort of hung about and waited to see what I was going to do next.

What I did next was head to the park I hadn’t really spent any time in since four years earlier. Putting one foot in front of the other down the street, along the side of the giant grassed area, across the gravel, onto the concrete path (peering out to check for speeding bikes before I stepped out) and away.

I was glad to be on that path again for lots of reasons, but one unexpected one was … all the trees. Years before when I had walked this way there were scores of saplings planted at the very end of the park where it meets the mysterious dark tunnel that runs under the busy main road. Now those trees were so much more colourful. They were bigger and brighter and leafier. Those trees were just like me. Okay granted I was not leafier but I felt like I had grown as much as those trees. When I clapped eyes on them years before I had not fathomed how different things could be years down the track and it’s important to remember that things can and DO change.

As Bryony Gordon says in Eat Drink Run, “one day, things could happen to you that you wouldn’t be able to believe right now – the most astonishing, amazing things. Trust me when I say that all you have to do is hold on.”