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How Chronic Pain Has Changed How I Travel

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Just a few years ago, I would have never imagined that travel would ever be scary to me. I grew up loving every moment traveling. I grew up defining myself as a traveler, always ready to pack up and go. And suddenly, overnight, travel became a pipe dream. Chronic pain took a lot from me and the knowledge that my life and my identity would irreversibly change was a big deal for me. I thought I’d never be able to travel again.

Recently, I started getting my pain under control – so I decided to travel again. Now, to be clear, I was terrified – which was an entirely novel experience for me. I was scared in a way I hadn’t been before, not even when I travelled solo with absolutely no plans (including no place to stay overnight) in countries I had never been in before.

I was scared. Concerns from friends and family didn’t help – if anything, they gave the fear dimension. What would I do if my pain became overwhelming? How could I manage carrying so my bags and consistent walking when I could barely walk for 10 minutes most days? Where would I find places to do my physical therapy exercises? Most importantly, what about my medical cannabis which isn’t always legal, even in “progressive” nations like Germany? Could I use my medical marijuana in countries where cannabis is illegal? I couldn’t find any information on traveling with medical cannabis and since I need it to walk, well, it posed its own serious problems.

But, despite the whirling mass of fears and worries, I decided to go. After all, I always felt more human when I traveled, and pain had stripped me of so much of my humanity.

Some big differences between traveling pre-chronic pain and now became apparent. Mostly, I need so much more time than I ever did before. I can’t just take any old bus or connection; everything has to be planned to a T with extra time everywhere on the off chance I need a break. Instead of being confident in catching a 20 minute train transfer, I need at least an hour. I can’t travel constantly either. I also need days between even the shortest trips to return to a functional level – gone are my days where “jet lag” was just a funny phrase.

I can no longer “travel light.” I need so many clothes for enough layers to be ready for the cold and hot flashes I get, not to mention bottles of medications in every form. Two jackets for a short trip? Of course! An extra blanket just in case? Obviously. Might even bring two. You never know!

Even my behavior has changed. No matter where I go, I keep mental notes of where the nearest pharmacy or bench is in case I need some pain killers or a rest. My mind is constantly working, constantly worrying. When will be the next time I can massage some pain out? Where can I take my meds without being stared at? How long do I have until my body decides enough is enough? The energy I need to monitor myself is so much greater, and as a result, more exhausting than at home. And unlike at home, there’s no guarantee that I’ll manage what’s thrown at me as well as I should. Risks and worries seem to hide in every street corner, train station and market.

Here’s the thing though – in spite of all my worries and all the accommodations I have to make, I can still travel. It’s not the same but it’s doable. Something I thought would be utterly impossible is actually well within reach with some planning and care. And that is the thing I am the most grateful for – I can still live my life, even if it’s a bit different or slower than what I thought it should be. The chronic pain I thought would destroy my ability to live life the way I want to, didn’t. It simply changed how I achieve my goals.

Getty Image by encrier

Originally published: March 28, 2018
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