Why did you walk the camino?
“The simple reason to walk the camino was that I was in terrible shape. Until 6 years ago, I worked for a multi-national corporation with a high-level position. It was a complex and exciting job. I pushed myself and my team to the max to get results. But in the end, it was about selling stuff. What started to bother me was that it was mainly about creating value for shareholders. As of 2016, I changed course completely. I wanted a job with social impact, and I wanted to see the tangible effects of my work. I then became the director of a school. I had started full of enthusiasm and was busy implementing my plans for the school. But in 2017, during a winter sports vacation in Austria, my dreams and ambitions were brutally disrupted.
I was an avid winter sports enthusiast and could ski well. With a good friend, I regularly went off-piste. Being the first to make tracks in the fresh snow gave me a thrill. I can’t remember what happened, but I made a mistake and crashed head-on into a tree. Afterward, my friend told me what had happened. How a helicopter came to get me. I was taken to a hospital unconscious. I awoke a few days later in a white room. In addition to broken bones, I had a severe concussion. It took months before I could return to work. Way too soon, in retrospect. I ignored all the symptoms. In 2019, that led to burnout. At least, that’s what my doctor thought. I didn’t think so. When I had several consecutive mental breakdowns in a short period at school, I knew I needed to face the facts. I already had plans to walk the camino after I retired. Those plans I then brought forwards. The doorstep of my house in Brussels was the starting point of the journey. My wife thought that was very ambitious considering my condition. In retrospect, she was right, of course.
What was the most valuable insight you gained during the camino?
During the first days of my journey, I felt fragile. I had so little energy that I had trouble walking. I often took a break exhausted, and sometimes I even had to hold on to something to keep from falling over. But then suddenly, there was this old lady along the road. She had seen me stumble by panting and groaning. ‘This is not acceptable, she had said. Wait here, I’ll get my car.’ I didn’t want to go at all, but I didn’t have the strength to resist. She gave me a bed and some chicken soup. I still can’t believe it, but I slept for three days after that. On the morning of the fourth day, she dropped me off again at the same spot along the road where she had found me. We barely exchanged a word. But I am incredibly grateful to her. A true camino miracle!
I gained critical insight; I never learned to say no, ignoring physical and mental warning signs. I have always been a career-minded person. Everything had to give way to my ambitions. I suppose I learned that from my dad. ‘No’ didn’t exist in his vocabulary. Only whiners were stopped by illness, pain, or exhaustion. That was the big pitfall of my life. Only on the way to Santiago did I learn to distance myself from that. To accept life as it is. To not solely focus on what I want, but also on what I get. I also learned to respect my own limits. You expose yourself to whatever happens to you by going on a pilgrimage. I learned to go along with that. If you don’t respect your physical limits, you will soon get injuries and risk an early exit from your camino. I saw plenty of people along the way who had to drop out due to physical problems. I learned that lesson through trial and error. I still set goals, for example, the number of kilometers I wanted to walk or a place I wanted to reach. But if I was too tired or in too much pain, I would stop earlier. Of course, I still reached that goal, but a day or so later and in better health. In hindsight, of course, it’s a massive cliche, but it changed my life.”
Carla (36, The Netherlands): Recovering from burnout while walking the camino
Sofia’s (54, Brazil) camino story: ‘At Cruz de Ferro came the sadness’
Nagela Alexa’s Camino Story: ‘The Camino changes your life if you allow it.’
Fabrice (38, France): ‘I realized that walking the camino itself was self-imposed pressure’
Andre’s story (58, Belgium): ‘On the camino, I had to face the hard fact of how horribly I treat myself.’
Emma’s story: ‘I learned to say goodbye on the camino (and in life)’
Maarten’s story: The power of vulnerability
Agne-Henrik’s story: ‘The camino changed my life’