Hot summer nights: ‘Lost in Lanzarote’s mountains, I cried harder than I can ever remember crying’

After watching Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces, which draws heavily on the volcanic landscape of Lanzarote, I was determined to visit. A Google image search of the island made my head fizz: black sand beaches, alien-green ponds, mountains, great pyramids of ochre dirt and dead lava. In the summer of 2016, I finally booked a solo hiking trip there to mark the completion of my first book, Anxiety for Beginners. It was breathtaking, in all kinds of ways.

In the excitement of having written a book, the difficult experiences I had reflected upon in my childhood and teen years (a near-fatal illness and quite a difficult home life) had begun to feel a little academic – I wasn’t connecting to the person I had talked about on the page. I realised it wasn’t just the content of the book I had needed to process, but where I was in my life.

On the fourth night of the trip, sitting on my balcony in the scratchy hotel bathrobe, I had a moment of stillness. My legs ached from the hike I had done that day, but my mind felt clear – finally. The air on hot holiday nights is so delicious, isn’t it? Thick, sweet and other. It was particularly welcome that night, having been ripped open by emotion earlier in the day on the side of a mountain.

Until that day, I had been in heaven. I woke early and roughly mapped my hiking routes, armed with a bulging rucksack of stolen breakfast buffet items. I walked along the coast, all dark craggy rock and frothing ocean. Sometimes, I passed through tiny white brick villages that felt incongruous in the drama of their surroundings. My forehead singed in the dry heat and my eyebrows went blond.

I would stop to eat and think. But nothing was sticking. There was too much to look at: baroque succulents, weird insects, huge ram skulls that made me wonder about the animal’s story. How did it die? Did anyone witness it? I fell asleep before 9pm each night, exhausted, sunburnt and full of papas arrugadas – the Canarian dish of wrinkly unpeeled potatoes boiled in salty water until a crust forms.

On that fourth day, I had woken up feeling queasy – a feeling that, in recent years, I have come to understand as part of my body’s reaction to holding emotion. Anxiety often “comes out” as physical pain or discomfort. Mine is always in the gut.

I had planned a mountainous route towards El Lago Verde, a lake in front of the ocean that glows a vivid green due to the volcanic minerals in the water. Within an hour, I was lost. Surrounded by nothing but mountain and rubble, the only sound was my breath. It was hot, so hot, and I panicked. Then I started crying. My thoughts raced: what the hell am I doing here? This is madness. What the hell am I doing, full stop? I vomited, then sat down, realising I was having a panic attack. On the side of that hazy mountain, my body shouted louder than ever before: listen to me.

Vignettes of where this anxiety had begun, and begun again a thousand times over, flooded my mind. I cried harder than I can ever remember crying. The whole thing felt like a waking dream, too absurd to be real.

It was only back at the hotel that evening that I was able to process what had happened. I bought two KitKats from the vending machine and slept for hours. It was, in hindsight, a volcanic eruption of my own. The swell of feeling that had hit me on the side of that mountain, of aloneness and being emotionally un-met, chimed with how I had been feeling for quite a long time, including in my long-term relationship.

Perhaps it was something in the landscape that brought me to that evening of realisations. I have long been drawn to desolate spaces: the California desert, the eerie plains of shingle beach in Dungeness, even rural car parks. There is something about such expanses that invites introspection – particularly in summer. The movement of your body through such open space, with no company but your own thoughts, can help dissonance give way to clarity.

I vowed to examine my relationship more closely back in London; namely, whether it was making me happy. In the end, the relationship ended in a way I deeply regret – I wasn’t brave. I behaved destructively and it took a long time for pain and guilt to give way to a comfort in living alone for the first time as an adult. But the confronting heat, landscape and isolation of that holiday were pivotal for me.

On my balcony that night, looking out at the blinking lights of those tiny villages on the horizon, I knew that I needed to confront some big stuff. Not just how I was feeling in my home, but how to communicate with my body. I have been trying, ever since, to listen more closely to what it is saying.

Name: Public grooming.

Age: Pre-human.

Appearance: Rudy Giuliani shaving himself in an airport restaurant.

Why on earth would you put an image like that into my mind? I didn’t. Rudy Giuliani did, by shaving himself in an airport restaurant.

Wait, this happened? Unfortunately, yes. A man called Nick Weiss filmed it happening on Sunday in the Delta One lounge at JFK airport.

The former New York City mayor was shaving himself at the table? Yes, shortly after eating a lobster bisque, followed by a plate of brownies.

Is this sort of thing allowed now? That depends. Do you really want your personal grooming icon to be Rudy Giuliani?

He’s a very successful man. Yes, a successful man who once made a speech with hair dye streaming down his head, and is reportedly a fairly prolific public farter.

Maybe he had a good excuse. Perhaps there weren’t any suitable facilities nearby? According to Weiss, the shaving happened a few steps away from a “really nice” bathroom.

OK, fine. But can we really say that an airport restaurant counts as a normal restaurant? For relaxed, leisurely dining? No. But for spraying thousands of bits of your own hair all over the table and floor? Yes, yes it absolutely does.

This feels sexist. Why are women allowed to do their makeup at a table, but men can’t shave? Well, strictly speaking, they aren’t. As etiquette bible the Emily Post Institute states: “It’s OK to quickly apply lipstick at the table if you’re with close friends or relatives in a non-business situation”, but it’s definitely not recommended outside this context.

Why can’t men shave, then? Oh, I don’t know, maybe it’s because applying lipstick doesn’t shoot microscopic hair clippings all over an area where people have to eat?

So that’s the public grooming rule: don’t leave a mess? Now you’re getting it. Applying moisturiser good, clipping your nails bad. That sort of thing.

Smoothing your eyebrows good, plucking your eyebrows bad. That’s it! Let’s try some more. Applying lip balm?

Good. Correct. Flossing your teeth?

Bad. Really bad! Unacceptably bad. Never floss your teeth in public.

This is actually really useful. Can we do gym changing room etiquette next? No, I’m sorry, we cannot.

Why? Is it too complicated? Listen, I’ve just spent all this time teaching you not to shave in a restaurant. Educating you on the subtleties of blow-drying your pubic hair in front of people may take years.

Do say: “Can I have the bill, please?”

Don’t say: “And a great big tub of hair removal cream while you’re at it?”