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Facing the Truth About Traveling as a Young Disabled Woman

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Ever since I was a little girl I’ve had a deep craving for travel. It should have come as no surprise — my mother would constantly talk about the aches she would feel in the core of her stomach when watching Stacey Dooley shows or reading books set in an idyllic French summer. She described it as a gnawing, a pain she couldn’t quite soothe. My grandmother was nicknamed “Gypsy” by family members and friends, as she could never stay in one place for very long. Even after losing her tongue and teeth to cancer, she still manages to talk excitedly about a new trip in her travel brochure. I’ve grown up with a strong female influence from women I loved, heavily feeling the pull and lure of adventure.

It was because of this that I was so enticed by the idea of exploring the world. I would stay up late at night, scouring the pages of a National Geographic and reading about famous explorers, picturing myself traipsing through the depths of South America on a brave and unattempted expedition. My first job in a corner shop was ideal — I could keep the leftover travel magazine inserts and save for my own travels at the same time. I was excited to start my life as a heroic jungle explorer, saving lives and telling stories. I thought I could have my cake and eat it too — after all, my mother and grandmother were both able to live extraordinary lives traveling the world, so why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I, indeed.

At the age of 15, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an incurable and lifelong autoimmune disease largely affecting the gastrointestinal tract but also targeting other parts of the body. I was a teenager, which meant the deterioration of my digestive system had a knock-on effect on my body image — no young girl could stay completely unaffected by bouts of psoriasis, hair loss, blepharitis, and extreme uncontrollable weight change. I withdrew from friends and family as I was diagnosed and put on several high doses of strong medication, and started to believe that after a life just out of reach of nearby dreams, I would be destined to spend the rest of my years bed-bound and bitter.

I spent a long time believing this, pushing away my nieces and aunts when they came bringing flowers and chocolate, and shutting myself away from family celebrations and events. By the time the NHS offered therapy to deal with my dire diagnosis, I had already left school to be homeschooled due to an inability to leave the house.

These dark days were far from what I had imagined my teenage years to be like. A new course of steroids resulted in severe weight gain in my face, and my lack of leaving the house due to pain and embarrassment meant that any prior fitness started to evaporate. I lost my ambition, and the deterioration of my body was only a physical manifestation of how I was feeling within myself. At the same time as I felt isolated, I also felt suffocated. I couldn’t stand staying still in one place for so long, and so I started to work on resurrecting past dreams.

I was still being homeschooled, but I started to think of that as a positive rather than a negative. There were so many plus sides to consider — I only had to study for two or three hours a day before I could go off and explore the country! The beaches of Brighton and streets of London awaited, and I was not going to let them hold out any longer.

Traveling helped bring back my confidence, and despite acute anxiety, I was forced to socialize in order to get around. I would meet new people in new places, and it almost made up for the past year of utter desolation. I went to temples and featured on Thai TV. I went to churches and somehow found myself spending each Tuesday afternoon in an old ladies group where we would sit and listen to jazz and drink tea. I had to pee in a hole in rural Italy and got stung by a jellyfish in Turkey. It wasn’t quite wading knee-deep in Amazonian rainforest, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t living.

At the same time as I was growing to accept my disease, I also faced a lot of prejudice. Females tend to face a lot more difficulties when traveling than men, and I found that to be even more so as a disabled traveler. I received a lot of negativity both from people back home and people on the road, and it didn’t help during times of flares. I have some not-so-wonderful memories of cities like Amsterdam, where I would spend an hour clutching my stomach in pain as someone yelled at me from the other side of the toilet stall. I knew it was due to a lack of understanding, but when something affects your life so negatively and drastically, it’s hard to stay unaffected by other people’s reactions.

Whilst I have faced tribulation while traveling, I have also found support. I have been forced to talk about my disability due to the harsh nature of it, but over the years it has become an easier feat to mention. No longer do I fear confiding in someone, and no longer do I try to pretend I’m “normal” and able-bodied. By being open about my disease, I am reclaiming my own body. I have met encouragement and understanding, and have connected with other people who live with gastrointestinal diseases. It doesn’t quite make the pain worth it, but it definitely brings something good to such an adverse situation.

The truth about traveling as a disabled woman is that it’s immeasurably hard — it’s often unfair, awkward and disheartening. The truth is also that it can bring empowerment and a new source of confidence, in yourself as well as other people. I have had to come to terms with my disability and overcome both the physical and psychological hurdles that come along with it — and I feel like a stronger person for doing so. Being able to educate others on the struggles of people with “invisible” disabilities has been more rewarding than I could have imagined. In turn, my diagnosis taught me that I needn’t sacrifice everything to live a life of travel. It may be three times more difficult, but disabled women can still do it.

All women face hurdles when traveling. Both my mother and my grandmother have had to overcome immeasurable feats to be able to get a glimpse of even a small part of the globe. Crohn’s disease is my hurdle, but I refuse to let that stop me. The Amazon rainforest awaits!

Originally published: April 26, 2020
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