In the summer of 2012, I went on Pilgrimage across Spain along the Camino de Santiago. There were a few things going on in my life at that time. My marriage had just broken down, I’d been made redundant from my job, and found myself with nowhere to live, no car, no job etc. But what was the actual reason for me deciding to walk across Spain then, and why am I doing it again?
Well, since I was physically attacked at age 17, I have struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My first diagnosis was Agoraphobia, because I was afraid to go out. Later, my diagnosis changed to include Social Anxiety Disorder as it was the fear of being around people that lead to me being afraid to go out. But it was the constant flashbacks and nightmares after my assault that lead to me being so afraid of people.
For more than 10 years I kept my mental health problems a secret which really wasn’t difficult when you consider that I only spoke to family on the phone and saw them a few times a year. Smoke and mirrors and all that…
Despite my difficulties, I had a good job, got married and had children. My wife was the only person who knew about my struggle with my mental health and she did a sterling job of not only looking after our two children, but of making sure she covered up for me when I was too afraid to go out. She made sure everything worked as it should in the family home and that to everyone else, everything appeared to be “normal”. It wasn’t. And when our marriage broke down at the same time as loosing my job, the realisation that I was loosing my only support was not a pleasant feeling. I had to do something.
I’d heard of the Camino de Santiago, and had watched the film, The Way. I decided that I had a rare opportunity to disappear for a month or so with no financial or work commitments to hold me back. It seemed like the Camino might just be what I needed. I could go there and completely be myself. I could be “openly” afraid and try to work through my anxiety by immersing myself. I would have no escape. Where I would usually chicken out and get in my car or go home, I would not have that option. I would be in a foreign country, surrounded by people, sleeping in dormitories with strangers, sharing meals with strangers.. you get the idea. This wasn’t going to be easy, but it was going to make me better.
It did make me better, to an extent. The beginning was terrible and I remember so badly wanting to quit and go home. I had my worst panic attack ever at Stansted Airport on the morning of my flight. The first week or two on the Camino I was terrified a lot of the time. I was so anxious that there were times when I would vomit while walking. In the mornings I was so shaky and nauseous that I couldn’t pack my own backpack. But do you know what – by the time I reached Santiago I was happy, confident, and was really enjoying life! It was the best feeling to be out in a busy city with other people all having a great time – without feeling anxious!
What went wrong and why am I going back?
When I returned to the UK feeling positive, I got a job driving HGVs for a parcel company. The job only lasted a few months as business slowed after the Christmas rush. I then got a new job working for a healthcare company. I was going out to care homes and peoples houses servicing medical equipment. Wow, just writing that makes me realise how far I’ve slipped. I was sometimes anxious about going to a certain area etc, but generally I felt fine and despite the low pay, really enjoyed this work. Helping the sick was a lot more rewarding than driving trucks, that’s for sure.
A few more months passed and I was really struggling with pain. I put it down to a Hernia repair that I had done after returning from the Camino, but it turned out that I had cancer. I had to have surgery and Chemotherapy and had to give up the job that I enjoyed. Not being able to work, I ended up shutting myself away, though not intentionally to begin with. But the fact that I wasn’t going out and being around people meant that my anxiety slowly began to get worse again and before I knew it, I was back where I started – worse even.
So that is the reason I am returning to walk the Camino de Santiago again this year. It worked before, and although I’m afraid, I know that if I put myself out there and work for it, it can work again. I refuse to accept that this is it – sitting in a house alone with a phone that never rings and no friends to see. So, in the not too distant future I will be facing my fears once more and embarking on a journey not only of recovery, but of self discovery. The Camino really is more than just a long walk…