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My Strategies for Traveling to Europe With Crohn's Disease

I have wanderlust.

I’m also a homebody.

The reason I’m a homebody has a lot to do with the fact that I have Crohn’s disease which makes me a pretty terrible traveler, sometimes even to somewhere as close as school or the grocery store. A short journey can get pretty dicey for someone who has a chronic illness that causes them to make urgent, unpredictable bathroom trips.

But I’ve long dreamed of exotic places and trekking out on exciting family vacations. And in early 2015, I had the opportunity to go on a school trip to Europe with my teenage daughter. Ecstatic beyond words, I was also quite nervous about the quality and location of available bathrooms in two countries I’d never visited and had a rudimentary knowledge of their cultures.

Here in the U.S., it’s almost a given that there will be a fast food restaurant or gas station within a minute of almost anywhere you might be. That gives me great comfort. As someone with partial intestines and active Crohn’s, sometimes a minute is all the lead time I get to find facilities. And therein lies the source of my travel anxiety.

Before the trip, I met with a physician friend and confessed my worries. What if I had to go now and there was no restroom nearby? We’d be in Paris, Rome and multiple airports. I have no frame of reference to know what to expect. She made a shocking suggestion: Wear adult “protective underwear.” I balked and resisted. It felt like I would be giving over to an illness that had already imposed enough limits on me.

The departure date of our adventure-of-a-lifetime grew near and my anxiety hadn’t eased a bit. I decided I’d go to the nearest drugstore and at least check out the “garments.” They weren’t expensive and the box promised to “look and feel just like underwear.”

I bought them. Then I stopped caring about it. I decided if these little darlings made me feel less freaked out about not being able to find a bathroom when I needed one, they were worth the small investment. I also figured, if astronauts can wear diapers, there was no shame in my adult garment game.

Throughout the spectacular cities of Paris and Rome, I sported these bad boys (and they came through on their promise to look and feel like regular underwear). And while I (thankfully) never needed them, they gave me a great deal of confidence, especially when I discovered that, despite many assurances, there were not public restrooms available unless we were in a restaurant or tourist attraction. So the long-distance walks and shopping excursions throughout the cities were devoid of restrooms save for a sole portable bathroom at the Eiffel Tower. I’d made a very smart decision.

Besides bathrooms, there’s something else to consider when traveling with a chronic illness: fatigue. Whether you have inflammatory bowel disease, thyroid disease, fibromyalgia or any other chronic illness, you may suffer from fatigue that can be quite debilitating. I do and having never traveled across “the pond,” I had no idea how jet lag would affect me. Like being hit by a Mack truck, that’s how, as I discovered.

The exhaustion of a fast-paced, guided tour coupled with jet lag was just too much for me and I found myself on the morning after our arrival sitting in the Louvre coffee shop with not a drop more energy to use. My dear blogger friend who’s an American living in Paris phoned to talk me through this: “Are you feeling like you’re coming down with something?” Yes. “Do you feel weepy and emotional? Exhausted?” Yes, yes, and yes. “Darling, you have terrible jet lag.” She instructed me to get a cab, go back to our hotel, and rest. “Create a cocoon around you,” she suggested. “Learn the surroundings of your hotel and just enjoy the immediate local culture.”

two women in front of eiffel tower at night
Melanie and her daughter in front of the Eiffel Tower.

And so I did. I missed some attractions in Paris, yes. But I enjoyed some delicious food in the nearby restaurant. I got some writing done. I had a long and beautiful solo cab ride throughout Paris, seeing the sights that the others on the trip didn’t get to see, so it evened out. My daughter got a little independence staying with the group and was able to experience everything. We saw the Eiffel Tower together on Valentine’s Day night and we’ll treasure that.

A third thing to consider is consulting your doctor before you travel very far or very long. My gastroenterologist stocked me with any medication I might need. Considering complications I’d suffered over the previous couple of years that had a potential to recur, he anticipated medications I may need that would “get me back home” so he could treat me. I suggest talking to your doctor before you travel.   

Traveling is exhausting for a person who doesn’t struggle with chronic illness, so listen to your body and make plans that are flexible in case you need to rest. Don’t overschedule. Do what you’ve got to do, even if it means embracing the concept of an adult diaper and do not feel ashamed about it. You have an illness but it doesn’t have to mean you can’t experience pretty amazing things like Montmartre and discovering that Italian toilets have no seats (I know!).

Accommodate yourself and make no apologies for it. Let people know along your travels what you need. Most folks have some level of understanding and compassion, and I hope you encounter them on every leg of your adventures.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were traveling that was either incredibly challenging or where you faced adversity. Tell us how you handled it or wish you had handled it. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.