The portion of the Camino de Santiago approaching the Spanish village of O’Cebriero was a massive hill, unforgivingly steep and relentlessly long. My friend and I had split up at the start of the ascent, agreeing to regroup at the summit. I had been climbing and sweating in determined silence for the last two hours, invigorated by the effort. Emerging from a forested portion of path and into a small hamlet, I paused to catch my breath and refill my Nalgene at the public fountain that marked this a pilgrim-friendly town. The water that gushed from the spigot tasted of earth and minerals, and I savored it as I drank, feeling whole and undeniably good. At the beginning of the trip, I hadn’t been sure if the experience would deeply change me. Now, three weeks and hundreds of miles later, I could feel a shift.
The night before we set off together, my best friend and I had stayed up and lit a candle, talking about what we hoped to achieve from the trip. My fear, I realized, was that this experience wouldn’t be meaningful—I worried I would go home tanned and well-traveled, but essentially unchanged. That idea terrified me. I couldn’t stomach the thought of this journey being nothing but a glorified vacation. I needed something good and lasting to come of it.
The months and years leading up to my decision to walk the Camino were fraught. I was diagnosed with clinical depression in my late teens while struggling with anorexia. Though my physical health improved by the time I graduated college, my mental health was still unstable at best. Then, in an attempt to regain the control that anorexia had given me, I found myself turning to self-injury. Scars began to litter my thighs—and still it wasn’t enough. During the year prior to the pilgrimage, my depression deepened, and I began to entertain suicidal thoughts. Feelings of pessimism and worthlessness plagued me; the act of getting out of bed to haul myself to my office in the mornings became staggering. I was lost. I couldn’t see forward from where I was. I couldn’t imagine a future where I felt happy.
After countless midnight phone calls, my best friend—the same amazing woman I would walk the Camino with a few months later— convinced me to get help. I started seeing a therapist. I took medication. I decided to leave a job where I’d never been happy and move to a new city, one that excited me with possibilities. As a celebration, I decided to join this friend on an ancient Spanish pilgrimage as she prepared to start law school. The winter thawed. The sun began to shine. I remembered what hope felt like.
One of our hospitaleros called the Camino “a great leveler of people.” Nowhere was this more apparent than at the dinner table. At hostels with pilgrims of various backgrounds, the act of preparing food and sitting down together built a feeling of community. As we ate, we narrated the day’s journey to each other and commiserated over the aches and pains that resulted from the weeks of walking, accepting each others’ hurts. Meals were simple and hearty—foods that restored weary bodies and souls. I had been fighting my fear of food for five years, but I relished in the juice of ripe Spanish peaches and the mouthwatering smell of fresh baguettes. Food became a joy again—something I could have a connection with.
That hike and those meals taught me, over and over again, to love myself. I didn’t just remember hope, I felt it fiercely. My life did change in those six weeks, and powerfully so. There has since been a fundamental shift in the way I view the world. Although I know that my depression will likely be a lifelong issue, I no longer find myself succumbing to hopelessness. I am able to count on the moments of goodness in my life and savor them in a new way. More importantly, when I begin to feel worthless or afraid, I am able to remember that I am the same person who made this incredible journey. I remember the certainty I felt on that dusty road.
The scars criss-crossing my legs have been a frequent source of shame—signs of vulnerability, imperfection, and powerlessness. However, a little over a month ago, I added a new and different scar, one that I’m all too eager to show off: a tattoo. On my left shoulder, I emblazoned the clamshell that is iconic to the Camino. To pilgrims, it represents a number of ideas. It was used as a drinking vessel, a source of sustenance and life. On the road itself, it marks the direction to take when the path diverges. It symbolizes rebirth. It identifies pilgrims, both to each other and to those around them.
To me, it is all these things and more. It means accepting goodness into my life. It means being grateful. I am grateful for where I am and where I’ve been—good and bad—and I’m grateful for recognizing that the difficult, even ugly parts of this journey have been as integral to my character as the easy and beautiful parts. Above all, the clamshell is a reminder: Every time I glimpse it in the mirror, I am reminded of the journeys I’ve taken, both physically and emotionally, and how they have left a lasting imprint on my life. It turns out I found the source of the lasting change I was looking for after all: hope.