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We Shouldn't Have to Tell Strangers We're Sick While Traveling — But We Need To

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I have been struggling with Lyme disease for almost two years, and my “strength reserve” has been running on low as I am in a constant battle for my patient rights, access to proper treatment and trying to regain my health.

On top of these everyday struggles, I have experienced some major setbacks in the last several months. I had to go on full-time disability and give up on my current career goals, I am facing financial difficulty and am having to seriously look at selling the house I worked so hard to buy myself, I learned it may be unwise for me to have children as they will most likely be born sick, and within the last couple weeks the relationship with the man I was in love with collapsed under the burden of my illness.

I found myself in unfamiliar territory — having feelings of defeat, worthlessness and total despair. I have worked hard my entire life to get to where I am, and in a matter of months it all came tumbling down around me because of my illness and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. I found that I just didn’t know how to cope with the ruins of my life. So I ran away from my problems. Literally.

I hopped on a Via Rail train to Vancouver and by being an anonymous traveler, I hoped to escape my despondent reality for a time.

I purchased a middle class seat rather than economy and found that the train ride was quite comfortable. I highly recommend train travel to fellow Lymies —  lots of space to move around to avoid myalgia and joint inflammation, there are very comfortable sleeping berths and the gentle sway of the train encourages restful sleep, and meals and beverages are prepared for you. The staff are exceptional, very friendly and helpful.

It was a wise decision for me to take this solo getaway. I needed time to get past the denial stage, allow myself to process the sadness, needed time to grieve, and attempt to heal my wounded spirit. As much as this was necessary, it was also a very difficult trip and was physically hard on my body. And it turned out that trouble followed me no matter where I went.

I have never in my life been scolded by so many strangers than while on this sojourn. Here’s a few things I experienced:

Even though I had asked permission to use a temporary parking stall while I was carting my luggage to my hotel room so I wouldn’t have to lug it so far, the front desk of a Vancouver hotel called my room to tell me to hurry up and move my car; apparently I wasn’t moving fast enough for them. 

When pre-boarding the flight, my way was barred by the flight attendant who was waiting on a lady collapsing her walker. I wasn’t allowed to pass until that lady did. I could see a sardonic look of curiosity at why I was pre-boarding. Not one flight attendant offered me assistance. Luckily the gate attendant had been so nice to me when I had gathered up my courage to ask if I could pre-board “because I know I look normal, but I have an invisible illness and I need a bit of extra time.”

And finally, a stickler of an employee of the bus service I used from Calgary to Lethbridge made me haul my large suitcase the entire length of the bus depot to go back to the main counter to have my luggage weighed. When I arrived back at the departure gate gasping for breath, sweating profusely and barely being able to speak, she was gracious enough to pull my carry-on out to the bus. Gee, thanks lady. 

None of these seemingly insignificant scoldings would have ruffled my feathers except that I was already in extreme emotional distress, barely keeping myself together, and the tongue lashings just kept coming no matter where I went or what I did. I almost had a secondary breakdown just from people being so rude to me.

All I could think of when on the receiving end of this belligerence was, “If you knew how exhausted I was from lifting the luggage into the car this morning you would be amazed that I’m only three minutes late.” But how do you say something so random to someone in a passing exchange?

The only time I was treated with patience and compassion was when I had plucked up the courage to say to a gate attendant that I needed special consideration because I have an invisible illness.

Should I have to tell every stranger on my travels that I’m sick? No.

Do I have to tell every stranger on my travels that I’m sick in order to get treated compassionately? Apparently so.

I wish I would have spoken up about my illness to make my life easier during my travels. But I was trying to run away from it, not have it be at the forefront of everything I did! I desperately needed a break from being sick. I wonder if I used a wheelchair or using a walker would I have been treated kinder by those who were rude?

Near the end of my travels I thought, I wish my T-shirt read “I have a debilitating illness and I’m having a tough day.” If people could know within three seconds of looking at me and my shirt that I was at a disadvantage, then maybe it would be the same as if I didn’t “look” healthy.

I have a friend that makes graphic tees, so I have decided that I’ll ask him to make me some “travel” shirts. And I will wear these shirts without shame or embarrassment just so I can have some kind of outward sign that I am ill and may need help, or even just a little more understanding than most folks.

Hindsight is always 20/20; even though I didn’t want anyone to know how much I struggled I would push the “re-do” button for this trip and be open and forthright about my limitations, especially with hospitality staff. An invisible illness is nothing to be ashamed of! It is not something you need to hide — it is OK to ask for help! This experience has taught me that people are more than willing to help, if they know you need help. So speak up, fellow Lymies (and everyone else with an invisible illness)! From now on, if I need help, my motto is, “Say it loud, say it proud.” 

Follow this journey on MariLyme.

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.

Originally published: May 31, 2016
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