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What Hang Gliding Taught Me About Bravery in Life With Chronic Illness

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Recently I went hang gliding for the first (and possibly last) time. My friend came with me and we signed up for a package that included an introductory lesson with individual gliders and a tandem ride with an experienced pilot. When I called to make the reservations, I asked the person on the phone how physically intensive the lesson would be. She said there was some walking and running, but that most people should be able to handle it.

I have fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, and spinal problems which prevent me from doing much physical activity. I try to go on short walks daily and I swim or hike short distances, but I am not really in a condition where I can run. I use a cane for balance (on bad days I need a walker) and I am notoriously slow. So I was hesitant to sign up for the lesson, but I didn’t know if I’d ever get another chance.

When we got to the shop, the first thing I noticed was the steep set of stairs. Immediately I wondered if I had made a mistake. I ascended slowly. We signed our paperwork and the instructor asked me if I’d be able to keep up, since I had a cane. I told him I’d try. The walk from the supply shed to the place where we started from was a little tough on me, but I dragged myself along behind the group.

Our first lesson was how to hook in, and then we ran on the flat ground with the glider. I went last. I paid attention, tried to remember everything, and started running. I fell flat on my face, glider crashing behind. The instructor told me he didn’t think my run was strong enough, and that if I couldn’t get it on the hill I might have to sit out. I knew that was a possibility but I was still embarrassed and frustrated. The grass was soft and wet so I wasn’t too hurt, but I did twist my weak ankle. I tried to roll it out.

Next, we went halfway up the hill. People were taking off from the top. I wanted to soar through the sky like them. This time, everyone fell. But we trudged up the hill and tried again. I did everything right, but my run still wasn’t strong enough. The instructor told me if I could get just a few more steps in he thought I could do it. Now some of us were getting the hang of it. They weren’t soaring like the gliders at the top of the hill but they were catching a little air before crash landing. I tried again, focusing on running with all my strength. I felt the glider lift… and then I was on the ground.

The instructor said to me that if I wanted to sit out I could. I collapsed in the grass, water bottle in one hand and sunglasses in the other. I was going to make it if it killed me.

I expected to be sick and possibly injured at the end of this. My body gets worn out from the simplest things, so an activity that involved walking up hills and running was not going to go well. But I knew that when I signed up. Just like I knew I was sacrificing $250 for this experience, I knew I was sacrificing several days of health. It was an expensive price to pay, both financially and physically, but just this once I figured it was worth it. So I tried again. And again.

This is where the story is supposed to get inspirational. I’m supposed to say I worked hard and refused to give up and I was rewarded with a few seconds of flight. But that’s not what happened. The last time I went, I caught a tiny bit of air. The instructor was beaming. I tried to be happy, but honestly, I wanted to cry. It was a bunny hop before hitting the ground hard. It was fun, but it wasn’t much.

I tried so hard and I really believed I would be able to do it, but I couldn’t. I wondered what else I might not be able to do because of my chronic illness. I thought of all the things I know I can’t do. One of the other people learning with us told me she was so impressed that I was trying this even though I had so many limitations. But I wasn’t able to overcome those limitations, so I didn’t feel very impressive.

Luckily, I was still able to go hang gliding, with some help. For the tandem flight, all I had to do was strap in and hold on. The airplane carried us up higher and higher, and finally let us go 1500 feet above the ground. We caught thermals and floated around. It was like being a bird, or being in an airplane with the outside part removed. When we came down, we swooped in fast. It was reassuring to know there are some fun things I can still do.

Afterward, I had a migraine, I felt motion sick, and I was worn out and dizzy. My friend was gushing about the experience, how it was the coolest thing she had ever done. I said it was worth the pain, but all I could think about was making the pain go away. Even though I felt awful, the experience was worth it. I was glad that I kept trying because I knew I would always wonder what might have been.

I hadn’t told many people about my plan to go hang gliding because I was afraid of what they would say. I was worried they would think I was being irresponsible with my money and my health, or that they would invalidate my actual physical and financial struggles. If I mentioned not being able to do it, people might think I am foolish for trying. If I didn’t include that, they might think I’m faking my illness. It’s always a difficult balance being sick in the public eye. You get people who say they want you to do your best to still get out there and people who say you should just stay home all the time. I’m not sure where hang gliding fits into the equation.

My friend said that this helped her remember that she was brave. I’ve always been brave physically, but thinking about her comments made me realize that I needed to be brave emotionally. I needed to let go of worrying about losing friends and instead push myself to live the best life I can, both privately and publicly.

So, in the spirit of bravery, I’m declaring it now. I went hang gliding, even though I’m sick. I failed at taking off on my own, but I enjoyed the tandem flight. It was a one time experience that caused me a lot of pain, but I was willing to pay that price. I am brave, I am strong, and I am disabled. No one can take that away from me.

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Originally published: September 24, 2020
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