Over May of 2016 I walked over 800km from France into and across Spain along the famous pilgrimage route the Camino de Santiago. I did this walk for Project Pilgrim which is my attempt to eradicate the stigma around mental health and mental illness. To do this, I spoke to the people I met along my walk about their thoughts, opinions, and stories concerning mental health. I posted many of the photos I took along the way on the Project Pilgrim Facebook and Instagram pages and have consolidated a selection of the photos into a book which I will be publishing in early August, 2016.
However, many times when I met people they were more than happy to talk about the subject, but were reluctant or unable to have their photo taken and their story shared. As well, because of my own mental health experience, I found that I was reflecting much on my own mental health and that the Camino allowed me to work through some things that I wouldn’t of had the opportunity to do otherwise. I wanted to share a few tidbits with you of what I was going through from my own mental health perspective. I have decided that on this page I am going to publish 20 stories, thoughts, reflections, discussions, and revelations I had while walking the Camino. Please, before you read any of them, realize that they are my or other’s opinions and should not be taken as fact. All of us have different mental health and not one thing or situation will be the same for someone else. These writings are not advice from a professional and are simply things I found interesting and notable while I walked along the Camino. I in no way am trying to make my mental health sound better or worse than anyone else’s nor am I trying to change the world. I am simply trying to give you insight of what it was like for me to walk across Spain and challenge myself by having some of these difficult conversations.
I hope you enjoy reading these pieces of writing and feel free to share, comment, or take any part of these and use them in some of those difficult conversations we all need to have.
Now, for those of you who know what the Camino is and how it works, you can skip this part. For those of you who want to know a little bit about what I was doing everyday, read on and it will give the background info needed to help out in understanding what just I was doing while I was walking.
From May 3 to June 2 I walked along a pilgrimage route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. This part of the walk was around 800km in which I completed over 30 days. The walk took me over mountains and desert through snow, pouring rain, and days of endless blistering heat. On average I would walk 25-30km a day starting around 5:30 or 6:30am and finishing up in the early afternoon. My longest day was 43.7km which took me 10 hours to complete. At night you stay in Albergues (pilgrim hostels). The Albergues are in every big town and majority of the small towns along the pilgrimage route and would cost between €5-10 for a bed in a mixed dormitory with up to 200 people in the same room as you. There are cafes and small restaurants along the way which pilgrims can get a cheap meal or caffe con leche (coffee with milk, an essential) from. Basically, every morning you would wake up before the sun and fumble around to pack your bag and get ready for the day. Minutes later you would be on the road carrying your heavy pack (mine was 24.6kg) for several hours along a clearly marked route until you became tired, too sore to walk, or both. You would get into your first-come-first-serve Albergue usually by mid-afternoon, shower, tend to your blisters, eat dinner, and be asleep by 9pm. Sometimes the Albergues were full and you had to continue walking on sometimes up to 10km (~2 hours) or if it was late they would give you a corner on the floor to sleep on for the night. Then, the next morning you would get up before the sun again and continue walking. This routine was my life for a full month except for the rare short day to see one of the few big cities or to take a rest day (I took a rest day. I had sun stroke. It wasn’t fun). Along the way, you’re walking with many other people. I estimate that you may see up to 100 or so other pilgrims day (Except for near the end. The last few days there were several hundred people around you at all times). At the end of the walk in Santiago de Compostela it is very emotional for everyone. The conclusion of the walk is in this big square in front of a massive cathedral and many pilgrims sit in the square to cry and hug each other. Then, when the tears are all shed, pilgrims can receive a Compostela, an official certificate saying that you completed this pilgrimage. From there, many pilgrims continue on walking for a few more days to Finisterre or Muxia which is a nice conclusion to their walk as it ends on the beach facing out towards the Atlantic Ocean. I went to both Finisterre and Muxia and I found it to be the perfect close for my month long walk.
Why do people do the Camino you may ask? Historically it has been a religious walk for Christians to see the body of St. James, one of Christ’s 12 disciples, in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. However, nowadays many people do it for self-reflection or to discover themselves. When I did the Camino, I only met two people who were strictly doing it for religious reasons. The majority of people were doing it because they were between jobs, boyfriends, homes, countries, or because they were doing it for someone (a passed away family member, an unborn baby, etc). My reasoning for doing the Camino, for a project, book, or cause, was not rare either. I met people who were walking for brain cancer or because they loved writing poetry or painting along the Camino and wanted to publish a book. Unfortunately, I found that these people had different Camino experiences than those who were looking for some self-discovery. Yes, they did walk the whole distance across Spain and endure all the pain that everyone else was, but I think that they were unable to fully take time to themselves and reflect about what they were going through. They, like me, were more concerned with doing their project or cause and that took priority over the therapeutic experience. I think my Camino would of been drastically different if I had done it for me, rather than for Project Pilgrim, but I can save that for another time later in life. I did the Camino for Project Pilgrim and to get people talking about mental health. I believe I succeeded in my goal and I am proud of myself for getting over all of the hurdles that were in my way to do just that.
I hope that brief outline of the Camino de Santiago allows you all to understand what I am about to say in the next 20 pieces of writing. If any of you have any questions, comments, thoughts, or feedback about anything to do with Project Pilgrim or my trip I would encourage you to send me a message on the Facebook Page or at projectpilgrim.org. I promise to get back to you. Now, enjoy reading. I hope at least something I say in all of this reaches and connects with each and every one of you.
Connor McCracken (@ccracken)
Up Next: Depression On The Camino
I have depression. That’s something I have had to come to terms with over the last few years and unfortunately it is something that affects me most days of my life. Coming up to my trip along the Camino, I was nervous as to how my mental illness was going to affect me as I was walking. My depression debilitates me. It shows itself by draining me of all energy even if I’ve been exercising regularly, eating well, and sleeping a healthy amount. I was nervous that if a wave of depression hit me while I was walking, I would be rendered useless. I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed or walk and I definitely wouldn’t be able to talk to all of these new people about mental health. In the months coming up to my travels I admit I wasn’t doing well. The school situation I was in was not where I was happiest and I wasn’t exercising enough. Because of this, I had almost done no training for the Camino and that just added to the uncertainty around my walk.
However, to my surprise, my depression seemed to slip away from me while I was hiking across Spain. There were days that I forgot depression was a big part of my life outside of the Camino and that’s one of the last things I was expecting. Everyday, as I would talk to people about mental health explaining my story and why I was doing the Camino, everything I said about myself seemed like it was a world away. I remember there being a point where I looked at a calendar early on in my trip and realized that just two weeks beforehand I was confined to my bed unable to eat and unable to study for exams. I would need friends to force me to get out of bed and do things like shop for groceries with me or get me to study. Out of the last year, March and April were some of my worst months mental health wise and the polar opposite way I was feeling just a few weeks later was confusing to me. What was it that I was doing now that was different than where I was at two weeks ago? Was it because I was exercising practically all day by walking for six or seven hours? Was it because I wasn’t in school anymore and that many stresses in my life were temporarily absent? I couldn’t nail down what the reasons were that I was feeling so well and that was frustrating to me. I wanted to be able to take how I was feeling then, to how I was going to feel when I went back home. I felt like myself again and I admit that I hadn’t felt that way in a few years.
It was only later on in my walk, when I begun talking to people about how I was feeling so “normal”, that I begun to gain some insight as to why I was feeling this way. I remember speaking to a South African girl named Anja about how her and I had similiar situations. She had to leave school as well to address her mental health issues and she was only doing the Camino as a last hoorah before returning to her studies. She explained how, like me, she had never felt better than she did on the Camino.
“It is as if the weight I am now carrying on my back has replaced the weight that has been on my mind these last few months. This bag with a month worth of clothing and gear, feels infinitely lighter than what depression feels like to me. When my depression is at it’s worst, it feels as if I have just left a blood test where they maybe took a little too much. I am weak, tired, sick, and the only cure is to sleep and rest. But with depression, sleep and rest is a poison. It isolates you, it replaces your social or work life, it prevents you from doing anything productive. Your mind convinces you that you need more sleep when it only adds to the vicious cycle that depression can keep you in.”
I walked with Anja for a few days. Most of the time we remained silent, pondering as to why we both felt extraordinarily better on the Camino compared to life back home. Neither of us could nail down a reason. We so desperately wanted to find out the secrets as to why we were feeling the way we did, but it is as if our now dormant depression was preventing our mind from discovering it.
A week after I completed the Camino, I was sitting in a cafe in Portugal and received a call from Anja. She was back home in Johannesburg and her depression had come back with vengeance. She was crying on the phone frustrated with how we never discovered why we felt the way we did while we were walking. I admitted too that ever since I stopped walking and living the daily life of a pilgrim, my depression had returned. It robbed me of my motivation and energy and it made life travelling abroad an extra level harder. We talked for what might of been an hour and at the end of the call she said this:
“There is something therapeutic about living so simply. Outside of wondering where you are going to rest your head for the night or where you are going to have your next coffee, there isn’t much to think about in your future. The Camino offers someone a break from real life and allows them to work through some things they may not of been able to do otherwise. The people I’ve met, like you, have helped me work through some of those things that I couldn’t of done on my own. The Camino could be seen as a giant group therapy session where your therapist is time. The longer you walk, the more you can work through things and the more you feel better. For every hour you walk, the closer you are to being at optimum mental health.”
I think she put it perfectly. Without realizing it, I had embarked on a 800km long therapy session that would help me whether I liked it or not. Everyone who was walking around me was at a different point in their recovery, but we were all working on getting better.
I still keep in touch with Anja and her and I check in with each other to see how we are doing most days. She, like most people I met, were on the Camino as a way to spend some time on a break from life. I think she got what she was looking for, I did too.
Connor McCracken (@ccracken)
Up Next: Travelling, Alone, and With Social Anxiety