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What People Don't Understand About Chronic Illnesses During Winter

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I live in Colombia, which is very close to the Equator, so we don’t have seasons. Depending on the altitude, there are a variety of climates that stay relatively stable throughout the year (the exceptions being the rainy and dry seasons).

I’m currently in Europe for vacation. I’ve been to Fatima, Madrid, Salamanca and, currently, I’m in Avila. It’s a beautiful town with gorgeous walls that surround the city center. Most importantly (for me at least), it’s the native home of my favorite saint of all time: Saint Therese of Avila. Long story short, spirituality is very important in my life, since I’m currently going through a major depressive episode. I felt I needed to come to my saint’s town as part of my recovery process.

Oh, I’d like to share two small, tiny, little details. First, I have fibromyalgia, asthma, some remains of a reactive arthritis I got a month ago, major depression and anxiety. And second, it’s winter in Europe. You can see where I’m going, right?

I’m not going to talk about the depression and anxiety in the winter time. That’s a topic for another story. Instead, I’m going to talk about physical and chronic illnesses during the winter, which is new for me but a reality for many, many people around the world. 

Let’s start with the fact that if you have a chronic illness, it’s hard enough to travel because of the physical toll it can have on you. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ungrateful. I love traveling, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit some amazing places. I believe going to Avila and Fatima during such a hard time in my life has been good for my soul. I’m absolutely thankful for this trip, and I will travel in any climate just for the love of getting to know new places or going back to cities that stole my heart.

But it’s hard, people. You’re chronically fatigued, so, therefore, all you want to do is sleep. And most journeys require you (in general) to wake up early and stay up late, walking and touring around. It can be exhausting for people with no conditions at all! Now imagine those of us who have conditions that make you feel tired all the time. Fun. There are long walks, stairs in museums or churches and your jet lag certainly isn’t helping, either.

But let’s focus on winter, shall we? You don’t want to get sick (or in our cases, sicker), so you have to wear a billion layers. Thermal underwear, special socks, pants, a shirt, sweater, winter coat, two sets of gloves, a hat and a scarf. You can’t even bend your joints!

Fibromyalgia problem #1: Your extremities swell up. Therefore, all of this clothing (if it fits) gets way too tight and makes it even more painful.

Asthma problem #1: You’re supposed to wear a scarf thicker than a concrete wall in order for no cold air to get into your lungs because it makes you sick. But you’re already short of breath because of the weather. Therefore, you can’t breathe and you breathe even less with a huge scarf covering your nose and mouth. So you lower it in order to breathe and then cold air gets in, which is bad. And, well, I don’t need to explain this vicious circle, do I?

I’m 22 years old, so everyone expects me to be happy, full of energy and active. And I’m not energetic because of all of the things I previously explained. Well, at least I’m not active all the time, and I’m even less so when it’s cold outside.

So go slower, make some stops and constantly enter to places where there’s heat to breathe better. Suggest to take a taxi or a bus. And as considerate as people may be, some just won’t get it because you may look like a “lazy” young woman who doesn’t want to walk and see new places. They don’t get that cold temperatures can lead to pain in your joints and muscles and can collapse your lungs.

And yes, I know there are inhalers and painkillers, but it’s not enough. Plus, it’s absolutely frustrating to be in this limbo where you aren’t healthy like other 22-year-old tourists, but your disability isn’t visible to others.

For all of you who have fibromyalgia or arthritis (or both) and live in places with seasons, I’m very empathetic and admire all the courage you have to manage your symptoms and live your daily life in such cold weather for whole months out of the year.

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Originally published: January 17, 2017
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