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First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

In times of distress, there’s nothing more a mentally stable friend wants to suggest than going for a walk.

Feeling tired?

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“Go on a walk!”

Are you overwhelmed with the seven papers looming over your shoulders and the full-time job that you are barely holding onto?

“You know what will help? A brisk stroll around the neighbourhood.”

Oh, you can hardly get out of bed, you barely have the energy to shower, you’re feeling unmotivated and are completely numb inside?

“Hmmmm, have you tried getting some fresh air?”

These comments are often said with nothing but the best of intentions, so I shouldn’t really get mad about them. But speaking from experience, all I ever want to do is strangle the person who sees me struggling and tells me to “walk it out.” It infuriates me just as much as someone recommending I drink more water. If the 60 per cent of the water I’m made up of isn’t going to fix my problems, I do not understand how an extra eight ounces is going to help.

On March 3, 2021, at 11:22 a.m., I hit a low point. A point so low that I did what I thought I’d never do … I went for a walk – with the hope that it would somehow change my life. I remember the date and time exactly because I took a picture of myself sobbing in the middle of the forest – tragic, but also hilarious. I swear the squirrels were laughing. In the span of one week, the former love of my life called saying he found his future wife, the “situationship” I was in abruptly ended, my childhood best friend stopped talking to me over spilled secrets, I was no longer speaking to the majority of my family and I had a massive black eye from an incident I shall not discuss. On top of this, my grades were slipping because of the depression and anxiety that had completely taken control of my every thought, feeling and behaviour. Half-empty cups filled my room: wine glasses, coffee mugs, water bottles were everywhere. On the bright side, there were no bowls or plates in sight, perks of not eating because of tremendous stress. One less thing I would eventually have to find the motivation to clean.

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Once I saw a pair of empty eyes looking at me through the tiny grey mirror that sat on my desk, I knew I was at my breaking point. I didn’t recognize myself. These weren’t my sweet baby blues anymore. They looked so serious, so sad, so lifeless. This was not me. So I took the advice I fought so hard to ignore, the advice that I thought wouldn’t work in a million years.

I went on a walk.

I took my dog on a brisk stroll.

I embraced the fresh air everyone seemed to be talking about.

And it did nothing.

I was just as sad as I was before, but now I was cold, too. I looked out into the world searching for any sign of hope. I looked for a sign telling me tomorrow would be better or even a sign that I was making the right decisions, even if they were hard to make in the moment. I couldn’t find anything. And I cried. I couldn’t help it. I had somehow let my world turn grey, but I wasn’t ready to give up. If all else failed, at least I could control a part of my life for once.

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I went on a walk every single day for more than a month.

Some days I could barely make it outside, but I managed to push through. I often wore a pair of old sweats with absolutely no makeup on: my go-to quarantine outfit. I figured the birds and deer wouldn’t care if I didn’t look put together. Sometimes I cried into the nearby river, sometimes I walked to the top of a mountain and yelled, sometimes I sat in utter silence. The silence was by far the loudest. I took a picture every time I went. I think I wanted to document myself trying and putting in effort.

On March 31, 2021, at exactly 11:34 a.m., the unthinkable happened. I was climbing down the rather dangerous cliff that leads to the river and found myself smiling. Not fake smiling. The real “I am happy and I have life again” kind of smiling. I realized I had patiently waited all morning to go on this walk. What I once dreaded had now become the best part of my day. I figured this was potentially a fluke, so I embraced the sunshine, enjoyed the hike and continued my day like I hadn’t just had a huge breakthrough.

But then the next day, and the next, and the next turned out the same. I found myself longing to be outside, longing to “get some fresh air.” As stupid as it sounds, I found myself somewhere along the way. I think I even became my own best friend. I danced along the trails, stopped to look at the overwhelmingly beautiful blue skies, listened to music and climbed trees like I was a kid again. I never had a destination in mind. I just stepped outside and put one foot in front of the other: A simple task I had once found nearly impossible.

I’m glad I took pictures because there was a noticeable difference in my face. I slowly started to look less tired and defeated. My eyes began to look like they had life again. I started wearing makeup and putting on something other than pyjamas. I started trying. It’s funny how finally going on that damn walk may have saved me from myself. I don’t know why I refused to take this particular piece of advice for so long. I guess I didn’t want to believe that something small and seemingly meaningless could actually make an impact on my physical and mental well-being.

I hate to say it, but if you’re having a bad day, a bad month, a bad year or even a bad life, I desperately think you should try going for a walk. Please don’t strangle me. But if a walk can improve my life, then it can certainly improve yours, too. Sometimes all we need to do is try.

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Olivia Tjosvold lives in Calgary.

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