10 ways the El Camino de Santiago is like sobriety…

As a challenge, a friend and I decided to walk the El Camino De Santiago in September 2016. We walked the pilgrimage from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in southern France to Finisterre, on the North West Coast of Spain. A total of 600 miles over a period of 30 days. I was just over two years sober when we went and having it as a goal helped me maintain my sobriety. Here is what I experienced:

1) Carrying around to much baggage will only cause you problems.

It was said to me in recovery; “Imagine bad experiences are like stones. As you progress through life you pick them up and put them in your backpack. Eventually, it gets too heavy and you have stop to get rid of the shit that doesn’t serve a purpose. It’s hard to part with somethings but you’ve got to lighten the load. A light rucksack makes progress much easier.” And it is true. All the work I put into removing the sharp edged, heavy stones of the past, helped make my journey through recovery easier.

Four days before starting the El Camino, I was sitting in a sauna in the lotus position, focusing on my breath and relaxing. I was interrupted by the words “Excuse me,” knowing full well there was only one other person in the sauna. I opened my eyes and turned to face the man. “Are you meditating?” he asked. I explained that I was just relaxing but do practice meditation on occasion. What ensued was a deep conversation about life, religion and spirituality. During the conversation, other people entered the sauna, yet we continued to put the world to rights. The man asked my take on religion and spirituality. To which I explained that I was taking a pilgrimage but not for religious reasons but to hopefully get a better understanding of… anything. “The El Camino?” said another voice in the sauna. “Yes, do you know it?” I replied. “Yes, I have walked it many times,” said the man in a thick Spanish accent. “What is it like?” I asked. He explained the wonder he felt making the journey and the experiences he’d had. How he longed to make the journey again but finances were tight. He explained the mistakes he’d made in his first Camino and how he’d taken too much weight with him. He then explained that all I needed to take for the full thirty days was:

  • 3 x T-Shirts
  • 3 x Underwear
  • 3 x Socks
  • 2 x shorts
  • 1 x raincoat
  • 1 x flip flops
  • 1 x first aid kit
  • 1 x toiletries
  • 1 x charger
  • 1 x camara/phone
  • 1 x sun hat
  • 1 x snood
  • 1 x hiking boots

When I weighed my bag it was 6kg. The Spanish dude was right; it is better to walk with a light rucksack. So get rid of what you don’t need to carry around.

2) Sometimes the road was long and I asked myself the question “Why the fuck am I doing this?”

The first day was an uphill struggle. It tested my mental and physical strength. It seemed impossible at first. I wanted to quit and go back but I just kept going. Eventually, I made it and when my head touched the pillow that night, I did it with pride. I had heard the first day was the hardest and I had made it. Some people make it with ease but many struggle. I was happy to have made it through the difficult first day. I just kept telling myself it would be worth it in the end.

3) At times it became unbearable and my only option was to keep going forward

After the uphill struggle of the first day, it seemed like it would be plain sailing from then on. But I was in pain and wanted to quit. The heat was on and other people were asking for help. Quitting wasn’t an option as I knew it wouldn’t get me anywhere. I had to keep going. Some days I thought I would quit but made it, usually down to the people around me. In the beginning I was happy to make it through another day.

4) There is always someone willing to help if you’re not too proud to accept it.

You meet plenty like minded people on the same journey as you are. They will notice you are struggling and offer help. Or if you need to, you can reach out for help. There are plenty of people willing to help. In sobriety many people have offered me sound advice and help, which I am eternally grateful for. In the drinking days, I saw getting help as weakness. Which I now understand as bollocks. We all need a helping hand sometimes.

The guy in the picture saw my friend limping and offered help. I asked if wanted a cup of coffee for his troubles. He declined and said “On the Camino, we are all family.” What a guy!

5) Rest is important

I began to listen to my body’s needs and gave it what it needed to keep me going. I drank plenty of water, ate well and slept well when possible. I became more in tune with my body and realised that caring for it is important. After the punishment I had given it, it was time to take care of it.

6) I had to reward myself

Walking the El Camino and sobriety are both remarkable achievements. I had to remind myself of that often. Some days were punishing and as an incentive I had to have a carrot on a stick approach. Well, more of a cake on a stick approach. So much of my internal dialogue was “When I get to *whatever milestone* I will have a cake.” I didn’t expect anything of myself and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. It is a long journey…

7) As I progressed, I grew stronger

One day at a time, it got easier. As my body and mind adjusted and I overcame new challenges, I became stronger, more confident and more healthy. The worry that the sight of a uphill climb gave me began to slip away and I began to relish the challenge.

8) I felt connected to something greater than myself.

All the extra time spent exercising, meditating and being in nature calmed my mind. It also made me feel part of something wondrous. I was happy to be alive, with a renewed spiritual connection. The people I meant along the journey were like no one I had met before. It was exhilarating to see another side to life. One that I never knew existed.

Along the way I got talking to an Irishman called Frank. He explained that he came to walk a section of the Camino each year for a holiday. When I asked him why, he said “The world has gone mad for things. It is obsessed with things. Here is humanity. Here is the human touch.” The same could be said about the many people I’ve met in recovery.

9) I see the world differently now

A world that was once shrouded in darkness came alive as I began to see differently. It was like the colour and contrast had been adjusted giving it a vibrant and lively look that resonated with beauty. Each new scenery was like a freshly painted picture just for us. Each new sunrise a different colour from the last. The world was alive and for the first time in years, I was happy to be part of its glorious wonder.

10) Reaching my goal wasn’t the end. It was just the beginning of another journey.

One step at a time, I reached the milestone and when I achieved it, I realised it wasn’t the end. It was all a learning curve to help me on my next journey.

It had taken me a huge amount of effort to clear the wreckage of the past and get to the start of the El Camino. Then through the searing heat and pain I’d finally made it to Finisterre, the end of the road. I sat on the rocks at the lighthouse, looking out to sea as the tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t believe that I had actually achieved it. A few years earlier it had seemed impossible. As my life, my body and my mind were in complete turmoil. Now, I felt like the future was mine. Now, I felt free and it was all thanks to sobriety.

Get yourself a Pilgrim passport https://www.csj.org.uk/prepare/get-your-credencial/ and hit the trail.

Buen Camino,

Charlie.

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