On a pilgrimage like this, with nothing between you, your thoughts and the sound of your feet meeting the trail, you meet yourself.
Having been invited to join my sister and her friend on their journey, I got organised and tried to train well. Things I did not understand – I wear my heart on my sleeve and needed to learn to hide my heart along with any pain and any thoughts. I was travelling with the ‘suck it up’ team.
In my job as a carer, I hear adult children bewildered by finding out a loved one has a serious illness they have not disclosed. The ‘stiff upper lip’ brigade we call them. Family are devastated that they have not had an opportunity to be included in the process and now it is too late. My travel companions subscribed to this mode of being, don’t mention it, don’t dwell on it, get hard or go home.
Steep learning curve for the soft one but I eventually learned to keep my thoughts to myself, that because I live alone, work autonomously and have no one to share these things with it is being self-centred to talk about myself or mention thoughts or feelings. This was a trigger for all of my issues with being ‘not enough’ in this world. Or perhaps a better expression is being ‘too much’ in life.
I started the journey out of shape, 30kg overweight, recovering from a bad cold and a fitness level that was well below par. In training I walked up to 15 kilometres on the weekends and tried to do 3-5km during the week. This gave stiff muscles time to recover and never gave my feet a taste of what they were in for. In my wildest imaginings I could not have imagined what my body would feel like day after day, walking a half marathon. So yes, I walked regularly, but did nowhere near enough.
To be fair, no one really has any idea of the endurance and tenacity needed to walk 800km in temperatures ranging from 15-35ºC. Cool mornings, brutally hot days. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun… Oh, how often that phrase danced around my brain as I willed myself forward in the blistering heat.
Weirdly enough carrying a pack, and walking everyday saw my life long back issues pale in comparison to the pain in my left knee which was to become my nemesis. It was an old injury so before leaving I went to a physio who showed me how to strap it and sent me off to buy K Tape. I diligently strapped the knee and off we went. On day one, the mountain climb to Orrison, I limped to bed with all the ligament attachment points throbbing. The next day, we went over the Pyranees, following the signs, I took the steep path down the other side, trying to protect the knee. The others went down the road. Not knowing there was another option, my knee got worse.
After nearly 10 days, I was limping on what felt like razor blades right around the knee. Strapping was useless. The joint was on fire and none of the drugs on hand was really touching it. My companions were annoyed with my lack of ability to suck it up, an area I still needed training in.
In Pamplona, we went in search of a knee brace, the pharmacy had a good selection. It was not cheap and it was the best investment I could have made. Pulling the brace on was like magic. Around 75% of the pain disappeared. Hallelujah! After that, unless I twisted or wrenched the joint, I was able to cope with the pain.
Twice I really twisted the joint, limping into Santo Domingo after twisting it early in the day by stepping badly on a rock and slipping. My companions, who also had sore feet, knees and hips didn’t need to hear me whining. I climbed into bed with a rolled towel under my knee, swallowed more ibuprofen and tried to suck it up. The second time was on the descent into Leon, a short day, we were there late morning. I stumbled on the way down the hill into town, wrenching my knee, setting all the razor blades going again. We spent some time in the town shopping, heavy packs notwithstanding, I was not coping well and in tears by the time we got to the hotel, determined not to mention the pain but I was sooo bad at sucking it up. Ordering room service to have something to take medication with, I swallowed 1600mg of ibuprofen and waited for it to kick in. I am sure my companions would have preferred me to take my drugs and holiday elsewhere at that point and I got the burden talk again. That day was the anniversary of my father’s death, on top of not coping it was just a hard day. Pouring a huge gin and tonic on top of the drugs did wonders. After that, I started each day with ibuprofen for breakfast and shut the fuck up.
According to Louise Hay, knees are about pride and the ego. Related to the inability to bend, fear, inflexibility and kidney problems. Well maybe this is what I have to work on… Later, I was to buy a brace for the right knee, to stop it becoming more of a problem.
So went the days of walking, trying not to rock the boat, suck it up and shut up. In spite of doing my best I was still ‘The too much woman’ – I was too loud, constantly being shushed, too clumsy, dropping my pack too heavily when taking it off, too destructive, if I sat at table and bumped it I was like an earthquake waiting to happen. One night on closing a door, locking it with the key that had a huge metal tab attached, which clanked. I was then of course the most heavy-handed person ever, not being able to do anything quietly. Judgement that may have been warranted however it was not kind.
The more I felt judged, the clumsier I got, the more I shrank inside myself, the more I tried to disappear, simply agree and pray that that was not the wrong thing to do in the moment. As I walked mostly on my own the problem with being too much everything weighed on me and the tears flowed a lot as I tried to hustle at my best pace to not fall too far behind.
I cried for who I thought I was and wasn’t. I cried because life had not been kind. I cried because I was rejected by the man I had loved for 35 years without realising he never loved me. I cried because I couldn’t phone Mum and talk to her and I was mad at her for dying. I cried because my relationship with my sister was not what I had thought it was. I cried because I was lonely. I cried because I had no one to hear me. I cried because for most of my life I have not been heard. I cried because I simply had too many tears to contain them. I cried because I could, because no one was there to judge me in the moment, because I had miles to walk and my knee hurt, because my heart was sore and I have no idea what life holds for me when I go home. I cried because I did not want to go home.
Stopping in various places we gathered with other hot sweaty pilgrims. I observed those that like me are overweight and struggling quietly pick up their packs and move on, their insecurities pulled to the fore by the relentless heat and energy expenditure. And I know, in that moment, I am not alone on this trail. There are other women out here that are ‘too much’ in life also.