A Solo Trip to Iceland Helped Me Process My Pain and Loneliness After Leaving My Abusive Husband

Prior to marriage, I’d experienced loneliness when traveling, but this loneliness was sharper, and tinged with grief.
Publish date:
November 5, 2015
abusive relationships, traveling alone, Traveling Abroad

Drizzling rain met me upon my arrival in Iceland. I’d left behind a sunny, 80 degree day in Minneapolis for weather that felt like a chill fall day back in my hometown of Seattle. The anti-frizz product in my hair gave up about five minutes after I stepped off the plane.

It was damp. It was gray. And I was thrilled.

In the journey back to “me” that I’d been on since leaving my abusive husband, I’d pictured this trip as a final step, a celebration, or anti-honeymoon of sorts.

But my not-yet-ex-husband had dragged out the process for over a year. Instead, the vacation was going to be an opportunity to refresh, and prepare for the next round. Despite all that, after ditching my suitcase at the gorgeous Art Deco Hotel Borg, the woman I caught glimpses of when I walked by windows had a stupid grin on her face.

I’d arrived early in the morning and the main shopping street Lauvegur had a sleepy feel to it. Locals walked to work, heads down and huddled into jackets. A group of daycare children in colorful rain gear, holding hands, crossed in front of me. Neon pink and yellow gates made of metal bicycles blocked off portions of the street for pedestrians and I could stand in the middle of the road snapping pictures of peaked roofs and gables without worrying about getting hit.

It was so early that only coffee shops were open and after a few blocks I ducked into one to grab breakfast and warm up.

When I approached the counter the barista addressed me in Icelandic, something that happened frequently during my trip. At first I felt a little thrill – I fit in! I don’t look like a tourist! Given that I shared a Scandinavian heritage with the Icelandic people, and the people walking by me would have been at home at any of my family’s gatherings, I wasn’t surprised, until another possible reason occurred to me.

Did he, and others, speak to me in Icelandic because I was alone?

The tourists in the hotel lobby, eating breakfast in the restaurants, or taking pictures in the street, spoke a variety of languages and were a mixed bag of ethnicities, age and clothing styles, but they all had one thing in common: They were with someone else. Sometimes subtly, walking with their steps in sync and heads leaned towards each other, and sometimes holding hands or pointing out an attraction to their partner.

As far as I could tell, I was the only one traveling alone.

Tears pricked my eyes and I had to stop and give myself a talking to – You’re in a beautiful foreign country getting to see and do things that a lot of other people will never have the chance to do. You have the privilege of time and money. Stop the damned pity party, Dena.

Even if no one was there with me, I used the ubiquitous wi-fi to send pictures of brightly painted “Kiki Queer Bar” and the rainbow-painted street that led up to Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s most famous church, to my queer friends. We texted back and forth about how queer-friendly it was in Iceland, and the pictures and comments on Facebook made me feel a little less alone. It helped.

But even as I fan-girled over yarn at local yarn shop Storkurinn, dutifully visited and photographed historical sites, and learned about the oldest longhouse excavated in Iceland at the 821 +/-2 Settlement museum (so named for the year it dates from), the loneliness grew.

During my marriage I hadn’t had anyone to share these experiences with, and my ex wouldn’t travel at all. The trip would have been different if he’d been along. It might not have even happened in the first place. Prior to marriage, I’d experienced loneliness when traveling, but this loneliness was sharper, and tinged with grief.

Sharper because, perhaps, I’d had the appearance of a happy marriage – someone to hold hands with walking down the street, to talk about my day after work and vent about co-workers – but never the reality. I’d brushed up against what marriage could have been, and that ‘almost’ had created a longing for companionship that I couldn’t shake off.

By the end of the day, walking back to my hotel, I welcomed the rain on my face disguising the embarrassing fact that I was crying in public. Once inside my room I stripped off my all layers – raincoat and hat, scarf, sweater, jeans, rain boots – and jumped in the shower. Once I started sobbing, I couldn't stop. I wrapped my arms around my waist and leaned against the heated towel rod.

I’d only cried twice since leaving Mark*, inhibited by either his continued presence in my house – he refused to move out for eight months and I couldn’t legally force him to leave – or because I didn’t want to cry in front of my son. He’d accepted Mark’s moving out without much fuss, but burdening a four-year-old with my pain would have been unfair to him. I thought I was being strong. I hadn’t even broken down in therapy.

I thought that refusing to grieve was a sign of strength, a kind of feminist power, and part of reclaiming my identity. I was becoming a whole person again; not damaged, but scarred, and worthy of love and respect, despite what my ex said. I could eat at a restaurant or go to the movies alone. I’d started attending ballet class again, and found the inspiration to write, something that had deserted me towards the end of my marriage. But I realized something crying in that shower – where, as we know, all good ideas happen.

The pain, grief, and loneliness that had been building up inside me both during and after my marriage needed release. These feelings were valid expressions of what I’d survived. Feeling them was necessary to my healing. Maybe feminism wasn’t just about being strong, but also about allowing myself to be weak without feeling ashamed of that weakness.

The water eventually grew cold. I toweled off and put on my pajamas, deciding to ditch my evening’s plans. Reykjavik is known for its night life and I’d packed my sexiest top and high heels with the intent of going out and finding some fun.

I knew that I wasn’t ready to ditch my newfound single status, yet but I was more than ready to ditch celibacy. At least, my body was. I wasn’t so sure about my mind and heart.

So I curled up on the bed, tucking my legs beneath the heavy coverlet and pulled out my knitting instead.

Even as I settled into the rhythm of the needles slipping in and out of yarn, I couldn't just yet stop crying. I wiped the tears away with the back of my hand at the end of each row, finding the repetition and soft sounds of the clicking needles soothing. I wasn’t where I’d thought I’d be that night – out trying to pick up men – but I was exactly where I needed to be. Frizzy hair and all.

I know that social media and smartphones are sometimes accused of ruining communication, but before going to bed I texted one of my closest friends about how I felt like a failure for not going out and attempting to pick up my first one night stand (yes, I’m in my late thirties and have never had a one night stand). How it felt like giving in to just stay in my room and knit.

She texted me back “Hugs” and "<3" and then went on to say, “Stop beating yourself up, Dena. That was Mark’s job.”

I don’t have a boyfriend or a husband to hold my hand. But I have amazing friends who will text me back at 3:00 AM their time and make me laugh. When I clicked off the bedside light and slid down under the covers I was finally smiling instead of crying.

If divorce was the battle that my ex had been making it, no matter how it turned out I’d already won. I may have been lonely in Iceland, but I wasn’t alone.


* Name has been changed.