This blog post is adapted and expanded from a tweet thread that I posted a few days after walking the Sligo Camino in early July 2018.
The Sligo Camino is a 36km one day challenge hike through the Sligo countryside from Dromhair to Coolaney. With an ascent of just 270m it’s not terribly high or steep, but the challenge is more in maintaining stamina over varied terrain for a long distance. I actually saw this event last year and planned to sign up for it in the summer of 2017. I’d never walked this distance before, and I knew I’d need to build up to it first, so started to train around April. But life unexpectedly took me a different direction and I realised I wouldn’t be able for this hike by July 2017.
I had just been through a year of intense and sustained stress; the end of an abusive relationship had left me both physically and mentally shattered. I thought the Camino would be a healthy focus to get me back on my feet and out of my head, so I started to train with the hope that it would kick start the recovery process. But I very quickly ran into two big problems.
The stress of the last year had caused a big flare in my rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes my immune system to attack my joints. I had added a new medication into the mix I was already taking, but my RA had still not settled and every session in the gym resulted in a lot of pain. Day to day was getting easier, but any strong activity left me struggling with flares and exhaustion for a few days after.
On top of that, despite the fact that I was no longer in an abusive situation, I was still dealing with being treated poorly and toyed around with in the aftermath of that relationship. Once I found the strength to cut myself off completely from all that drama, I thought I would feel better; but I didn’t. Depression came on hard and fast. I struggled with PTSD-like flashbacks, panic attacks, emotional overwhelm, nightmares, and constant feelings of stress and fear.
It engulfed me.
I couldn’t make it to the gym, I couldn’t organise myself into any kind of training schedule, I could barely get out of bed, struggling constantly with a lack of focus, mental fog, confusion, and absolutely no motivation to do anything other than sleep and work. It was completely unexpected. I had thought that once my abusive ex was out of the picture I’d feel so much better. I wasn’t prepared for being overwhelmed by all the emotions I experienced in the aftermath. Don’t get me wrong, I felt a huge relief and even elation at no longer being trapped in the cycle of abuse. I just hadn’t expected the weight of everything to come crashing down on me when I was finally free. I eventually just gave in and gave up on the idea of doing anything remotely like the Camino.
In the previous year I had lost a lot of weight being unable to eat due to stress. Now, I started to eat my way through the depression. Food was literally the only thing that made me feel in any way good, so I indulged and indulged and indulged. I hated myself through every moment of that indulgence, but I didn’t want to stop doing the only thing that brought me relief. It felt like an addiction, and I found myself understanding why some people find themselves so overweight. It’s easier to eat than to face deep emotional pain. I hated myself, but I hated feeling bad even more. My sense of self self worth was already in the gutter, what did it matter if I added to the pile?
While I ate and slept my way through 2017, I also went to therapy. Sessions with my therapist were one of the only places I could talk about what I was going through. I was essentially dealing with grief and trauma, but it’s hard to explain grieving an abusive relationship to others. It wasn’t the abuse or my ex that I was grieving, but more the person he had pretended to be and the future he had faked for us. It’s incredibly confusing to grieve the loss of something that never really existed and, having never dealt with anything like it before, I got utterly lost myself while trying to cope with it.
It felt like I was experiencing all these huge emotions, going through a massive shift in how I viewed my entire world, overwhelmed but essentially trying to appear normal in my daily life. I felt raw and on edge constantly, while at the same time deeply depressed and often suicidal. I felt a lot of shame for being so naive and trusting of someone who had so many red flags right from the beginning. I felt a lot of confusion about what was real and what wasn’t about the relationship, the lies and pretense had run so deep that I had no idea who my ex really was, and that confusion consumed me.
I was afraid to talk about it out of the humiliation that I had allowed myself to be treated badly for so long. I was afraid to draw any further attention to myself, to allow my ex to know that I was still hurting, to show any weakness to the world, to admit the massive misjudgment I had made in even considering a relationship with someone I knew had been abusive to women in the past. I often felt that I deserved what I had gotten for trusting someone like that, for buying into the narrative about how he’d changed, he had learned, he’d had such a difficult time and just wanted a peaceful drama free life. How had I ever allowed myself to buy into any of it? I was so shocked and disappointed with myself.
It didn’t help that even long after I had cut him out of my life, he refused to give me the peace I needed and continued to send self absorbed messages full of victimhood, guilt trips, manipulation, and a bizarre surprise that his abuse might still affect me long after we had parted ways. Each message, each push past my boundaries, sent stress levels up again briefly and left me feeling like there might never be an way to put all of this in the past.
It had me reevaluating my entire sense of how the world worked and whether I could trust myself to judge people correctly. It was hard to see a way out of the mess, to imagine a future where I’d feel myself again, where the pain would end. I could barely make it through the day without a panic attack, the slightest thing would trigger tears, how could I make it the whole way through 36km of hiking without breaking down? I could just about squash these big emotions into my regular day at work, there was definitely no way I could control them during such a tough challenge. Instead I spent a year walking Dublin city, walking my way through the restlessness of being constantly wound up and afraid.
So in therapy I talked. I talked and cried, and cried and talked. It felt like I was constantly close to tears and always on the edge of an uncontrollable emotion. But slowly, slowly, we worked through everything; unravelled the mess I had become, discovered ways to deal with the overwhelm, baby steps to start eating well, coping with each wave of pain that crashed over me, managing the PTSD triggers and the fear of facing my ex on the streets of Dublin.
With those first steps I found myself unable to clear my head and get organised enough to eat well. Going into supermarkets was strangely confusing, I found myself disoriented, unable to make decisions about what to buy, and easily overwhelmed. So I fine tuned my goals to just having one meal a day that wasn’t bad. Changing everything at once wasn’t possible. Most mornings my sister would video call with my young nephew, and we’d eat a really simple breakfast. A banana and yoghurt, and a bit of a giggle with my nephew.
Feeling like I had control over one meal helped in a big way. Feeling cared for in those few moments chatting with my family each morning was another big step. Throughout the abuse I’d experienced, denial of any care was one of the worst things I’d gone through at the hands of someone I’d loved, so feeling those daily pieces of care from my sister and nephew had a big impact. From there things grew, but I had to accept that progress was desperately slow and that setbacks were frequent at first. In therapy I continued to talk, but I cried less and talked more about myself than the drama I’d been through.
I reached a place of acceptance around where I was at. Instead of fighting how I felt and what my life looked like, I embraced it and let myself feel it all. I learned to be okay with not being okay. I learned to accept my mistakes and to stop judging myself so harshly for them. I let go of any care about who my ex had really been and what the truth was about my relationship with him; none of it mattered anymore.
I found a lot of solace in the words of people like Matt Haig who talks and writes so openly about mental health, and encouragement in podcasts from Blindboy Boatclub who speaks about self care, depression and mindfulness in a completely relatable way. Reading other people’s stories of depression, anxiety, abuse, and recovery gave me hope to hang on to. I found places to share my own story, felt heard and understood. Where I had isolated myself socially in the past, I started to join the world again by reconnecting with people on social media, reconnecting with old friends offline, and making my way out into the world to meet new people and have new experiences. I was getting used to allowing myself to be seen again after hiding away for so long.
It took the guts of a year to start feeling like I really might get better, that there was actually a light at the end of all that darkness. There were a lot of emotional setbacks and tough things to deal with. I had to find a new home for my beloved little cat, disastrous attempts at dating when I wasn’t remotely ready, my ex husband and I were finally able to get divorced after being separated for several years. I had nightmares about being engulfed by huge waves and often felt like everything was all too much.
But even though each wave that came along felt like it might drown me, I found that I was somehow staying afloat.
While things were starting to improve emotionally, physically I was getting much better too. The new medication really kicked in later in 2017, and with reduced stress I found myself able for a lot more activity again. Early in 2018 I started going back to the gym and found that the exercise gave a massive boost to my mental state. So I kept at it.
I started to take back control in lots of other minor ways: I began a daily skincare routine that added structure to my mornings and evenings, I made lists and used a diary to help out with the lack of focus the depression had left me with, I planned small trips and hikes that gave me a sense of self reliance, I talked to my sisters and good friends about everything and continued to process and heal. All these small things helped me to feel like I was human again, that I had some kind of purpose to my days, that I was going to be okay.
The Sligo Camino popped up again on my radar and I went for it, enlisting my brother who also loves a good hike. The Camino is just one of many physical challenges that pop up in Ireland every year. But to me it meant so much more. After a year of hell, a year of being utterly lost and feeling like a crazy person, I finally felt able to plan, work toward something, and achieve it. Those 36km had turned into a huge journey for me, not just a physical challenge but an emotional one too. Even just signing up for it and feeling like I might actually be able to do it after a year of chronic physical and emotional pain was empowering.
Working hard at the gym in the months beforehand continued to improve my mental health. I felt able to wind up therapy, I’d finally stopped crying and no longer needed it. Along with that came motivation to really get my diet into shape, and I found myself actually enjoying the process. I was getting the same boost from eating well as I had been from eating badly. It felt good to know I was doing something so positive for myself and to feel able to stick to it.
When the day came around I was already full of a sense of achievement from having come through the dark night of the last year. The Camino trail itself was beautiful, the Sligo countryside is good for the soul; but I won’t lie, it was a huge physical challenge for me! What really made the day was the sense of camaraderie. The locals who helped along the way were so encouraging and kind. The other hikers were fun, supportive, friendly, and helpful. It felt like everyone was undertaking an epic journey, bound together with a communal sense of the difficulty of the challenge ahead. I was touched by the kindness and care offered by complete strangers and it echoed the experiences I’d had over the last year; all of it rekindling my belief that most people are kind at heart and will help rather than hurt, something I’m still relearning.
The first 10 kilometers were amazing, we sauntered through Sligo enjoying the views and wildlife. Up to 24 kilometers we felt the challenge get heavier but still bearable. But the last 12 kilometers were the hardest. It was mostly along quiet country lanes, but after all the hills and challenges we had already overcome, the final stage was the most difficult. You could see people start to slow down, see people in physical pain, lots of micro breaks. But everyone encouraged each other along. For the last 10 kilometers there was a sign marking each kilometer and you could hear the cheers ahead as people reached a new sign. Each one felt like a huge milestone, each kilometer a new challenge. I’d spent all day sweating, my face was grimey with salt and dust, feet blistering, backpack felt full of stones.
But, we made it.
I didn’t consider giving up once, despite all my anxieties I wouldn’t make it through. I wanted badly to finish, I knew I could make it if I just kept at a manageable pace. The same way I had managed the last year, step by painful step I slowly made progress, felt the pain and pushed myself forward regardless, hungry for the reward of making it through something so hard.
At the finish line I genuinely felt elated. Not just for making it through my first big physical challenge, but for conquering the last year of chronic physical and emotional pain. A year previously I had barely been able to get out of bed, I was hanging on to a life I didn’t really want by a sliver of hope, saw no future and no way that I’d ever feel like myself again. And yet there I was, I’d managed to regain the mental focus, motivation, desire, and physical health to make it to the end of the Camino. I hiked 36km in one day and survived!
I’m not saying everything is better now, because it’s not. I still have a long way to go before I feel safe, before I feel out of reach of depression and emotional triggers, before I feel I can rely on myself or trust anyone again. The kind of abuse I suffered was crushing. I cannot fully express the long term damage done by someone you love purposefully and covertly hurting you while trying to convince you that they are not. How it leaves you unsure if you can trust anyone at all, even yourself, and living constantly on edge waiting for the next bad thing to happen. How it leaves you afraid to be kind and warm to others, wary that people will use your good nature to manipulate you.
But I recognise how far I’ve come, and the Camino solidified a lot of the hard work I’ve done in the last year. Even almost two weeks later, I still feel grounded and more here than I have felt in a long time. I feel stronger, both in body and mind, even though I know I have yet more strength to build.
I’m sharing all of this now because out there in the world there are people like me who are in the same place I was last year. They’re depressed, hurt, lost, and struggling to see a way out. I spent a year hanging on to other people’s stories because they gave me hope at times when I was drained of it, at times when I came close to ending my own life, unable to handle the pain I was in. I spent a year afraid to talk about what I had gone through, but now I’m embracing my story. I want to add it to the collective and let anyone struggling know that there is hope, there are ways to get better, there are deep pools of strength within us that are accessible if you search for them. Abuse takes a long time to heal from, but every small step forward is still a step away from the past. It’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to find it hard to resurface, it’s okay to let yourself feel it and give in to it.
But you’ve got to reach out for help to get better. I finally found myself on the Camino path, but without the support of others I’m convinced I wouldn’t be here. It’s hard to do it by yourself. Find a therapist, find Matt Haig’s books, find a podcast that speaks to you, find small ways to take back control, find a challenge that gets you out of bed.
Find the story that speaks to you and let it give you hope.