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Laura Weld: My Pilgrimage to Peace With Diabetes

Each year, one hundred thousand peregrinos, or pilgrims, set out for Santiago De Compostela in northwestern Spain to visit the bones of St. James buried beneath the cathedral. Called El Camino de Santiago, it's one of the world's largest Christian pilgrimages. Twenty years old and flat broke, I had an itch to sea the world from the seat of my bicyc1e. When I learned that the pilgrimage could be done on a bike, I was hooked.

For just one or two euro a night, I stayed in churches, abandoned schools, and converted homes, all official albergues and refugios provided for the pilgrims by the Catholic Church. I slept on the floor or on a thin pad, face to face or face to foot with other exhausted and malodorous wanderers. Each morning I rose at dawn, ate a breakfast of bread and café con leche, and bought food and water for the day's ride.

Out on the open road I ran into a steady rhythm, talking myself through brutal moments of fatigue. It's one thing to climb a fifteen percent grade with nothing on your bike, but it's another thing entirely to do it with forty pounds of gear. My lag muscles morphed into iron fists. When I was not dazzled by the scenery or coaching myself to push harder, I thought about the past and tried to figure out what had motivated me to take this pilgrimage.

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was twelve years old. It was my introduction to the randomness and unfairness of life. One day I was an avid soccer player and one of the fastest runners in my school, and the next I was on a strict meal plan and couldn't eat sweets. Everything that went into my mouth had to be measured and its carbohydrates calculated. Suddenly my world shrank, my freedom disappeared, and an early fog of adulthood crept in.

When people asked about my condition, I chose my words very carefully. I was not diabetic; instead, 1 had diabetes. The distinction was important because I did not want to be identified by the one part of myself that was sick. I distanced myself from the illness as much as I could.

Begrudgingly, I went through the motions of checking my sugar levels and giving myself injections, but my heart wasn't in it. The only way that I could deal with such an overwhelming challenge was to pretend that it didn't exist. If I let myself think about the risk of complications, I cried and felt sorry for myself. My own body had betrayed me, and I could not forgive it. Why should I take tare of it? After all, what had my body ever done for me?

One of the most challenging passages of El Camino is between Ponferrada and Cebreiro, a medieval stone village on top of a mountain. During that ascent, the reality of my refusal to face diabetes finally hit home. The hill ceased to be merely a hill and became a metaphor for the challenge of living with an imperfect and treacherous body. My legs throbbed, but I would not quit. To get off my bike would be to admit that I was fundamentally weak. The important thing was to not give up.

While climbing that endless hill, I realized that after my diagnosis of adventurous dreams and fantasies. I gave up on the idea of being healthy and living a long life, and I gave up on ever having good control of my disease. Tears flew from my eyes and down my cheeks and I began to take aloud, encouraging myself to continua, assuring myself that I could do it. I demanded that I prove my strength. Finally, in utter exhaustion, I fell off my bike and lay by the side of the road. I had not reached the summit, but I had given it every atom of muscle and willpower that I possessed. I was unashamedly proud as I sat by the side of that road smiling to myself. If my legs had not been jelly, I would have danced a victory jig. Instead, I dragged myself back onto my bike and tackled the remaining few miles.

When I at last arrived in Santiago with thousands of other pilgrims, I rest my bike in the shadow of the great cathedral and let the tears fill my eyes again. My pilgrimage had re¬ignited a part of myself that diagnosis had extinguished. It had been a journey to recover my lost faith in myself, a pilgrimage to my own strength and resilience. My wholehearted, whole-body, whole mind effort had restored the health and my spirit.

By the end of El Camino de Santiago, I'd shown myself that I could still rely on my body. I was stronger and healthier than most people without a chronic illness. I'd climbed mountains and fallen from my bike in exhaustion rather than give up. The pilgrimage was indeed un camino, a path or way, that led to a new understanding of my diabetes and myself. There will always be challenges to this disease, but I learned along El Camino that 1 am stronger than I think and I can trust myself. Buen Camino, as the pilgrim says. Good Journey.
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