Living with chronic illness I often cycle between gratitude for life’s hidden meanings, a subtle aching for a cure, and a spiral of despair when one fails to appear. But now I’m seeing those aren’t the only options.
Muscle pain, exhaustion, and mental fog have been a daily part of my life for most of the last four years. The diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) doesn’t provide an adequate medical explanation, since the condition is still poorly understood.
At the beginning, I couldn’t help but interpret this situation through a mystical lens. It had to be part of a “spiritual crisis.” Only that perspective made any sense—that “the universe” had unforeseen plans for me.
The illness has undoubtedly sent me down a path of self-development that I might have never have found in “normal” health. My search for answers led to holistic facilitation paradigms and body-oriented therapies, which in turn awoke in me a desire to be a facilitator. Now I’m building a practice offering group workshops and private sessions focused on communication and awareness, driven by a mission to empower and liberate people.
Yet despite this new purpose and direction in my life, I couldn’t shake the desire for the symptoms to magically and permanently vanish. It would creep up on me every time I thought I had found peace with my fate. An inner voice would say, “There’s no way you’re going to deal with this your whole life!” Yet I had exhausted all known options in the realms of allopathic medicine, alternative medicine, shamanism and beyond.
I found a few gems, no doubt. The renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, had a surprisingly holistic viewpoint on CFS. They discredited an old explanation that Epstein-Barr Virus had caused the condition. The doctors believed my nervous system had become over-sensitized, and that certain lifestyle changes implemented gradually could result in a drastic reduction of symptoms within a few years. They gave me instructions for nutrition, physical activity (especially yoga), social activity, sleep—and even pamphlets on forgiveness, perfectionism and assertiveness. My gentle, meditative, independent yoga practice has indeed provided pain relief and emotional groundedness.
Then in late 2014 I saw the movie Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical book about walking the Pacific Crest Trail. The story of her literal and symbolic path of personal healing and transformation sparked a fire within me. With the state of my health, I thought it would be absurd to attempt hiking 2,000 miles up and down mountains in the wilderness. But I recalled a friend’s story of walking Spain’s Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) spiritual pilgrimage in 2013. I thought this relatively flatter walk between villages might actually work for me.
Early this year, I heard that the Deep Democracy Institute (DDI) would be holding their annual 10-day intensive in Barcelona this October. The global think-tank provides training in leadership and large group facilitation that can be put to use in situations as diverse as international conflict resolution, organizational and governmental communications consulting and grassroots movement coordination.
This was enough for me to make a loose plan to walk the Camino, part before and part after the DDI Intensive. Actually my first goal was to walk only 60 of the Camino’s 500 miles, the bare minimum for a pilgrim to be awarded a “Compostela” (i.e., a certificate of achievement). Even that seemed a little crazy, given my experience of debilitating pain and fatigue. But while meditating in May, I was struck by a calling to attempt the whole Camino del Norte—the less populated route along Spain’s northern coast.
I held onto that dream through the unpredictable ups and downs of life with CFS. I expected the warmer weather to result in less consistent symptoms. It didn’t. When some relief appeared, I was always haunted by fears of crashing again.
A wave of hope arrived in June when I finally participated in my first cacao ceremony. I felt clear and energized afterwards, so I began experimenting with daily cacao intake at home. While too early to say conclusively, it appears to lower my overall pain levels while boosting my energy and determination.
Then I launched a structured Camino training program in mid-July. Within three weeks I surpassed my schedule for daily weight and distance, and I remain on that trajectory. Each day I am simply astounded. My legs feel more muscular than they have in years. After all the unsuccessful trials with health practitioners, medications and supplements, maybe I’m now making the kind of progress promised by the Mayo Clinic.
Many fears have arisen throughout this process. What if I can’t walk as much of the Camino as I’d like? What if I can’t make it to a pilgrim’s hostel and have to sleep outside without dinner? What if I experience a huge crash and spend some time feeling really sick in a remote Spanish village?
Yet when I’m walking the daily mileage with my pack on, all that seems to fade away. Instead I just feel focused on the trip’s mission, which allows me to transcend pain, exhaustion, and fogginess. I feel connected to my instinct, which will surely guide me through difficult situations on the Camino.
I don’t expect to be cured when I get back. I don’t expect all of life’s questions and confusions to magically become answered and clarified. Though I do expect to feel more genuinely me than I ever have before. And for that reason, this could turn out to be one of the best projects I have ever undertaken.
1) Chronic fatigue syndrome. Mayo Clinic.
2) Wild (film)
4) DDI Intensive 2015, Barcelona, Spain. Deep Democracy Institute.
5) Ceremonial Grade Cacao—Experiencing Chocolate as the Magical Partner It Is. Ceremonial Cacao.
Author: Nick Meador
Editor: Travis May
Photos: author’s own