How You Can Travel Despite Serious Illness
This ‘You Can Travel’ inspirational feature comes from Cassandra of Simple Wonderer who despite having a serious illness and struggling with mental illness, has found a passion for minimalist travel and the great outdoors. Travel has truly empowered her and in 2016, Cassandra quit her job to travel the world despite being told to never leave her home country of Germany.
Travel had caught my attention at a very young age. My Dad gave me books filled with travel photography when I was a little girl. He asked me to mark every place I would like to go. Easy enough – he got the book back with marks almost everywhere. Deserts and Antarctic ice didn’t look interesting to my 5-year-old self though. At the time of writing this post, I just returned home to Germany from a 6-month-long trip to Southeast Asia (and India), plus I am almost off to London. Does this sound like a straight line? Well, it wasn`t one. I had to overcome severe physical and mental illness. 6 years of my 20 years on this planet were lost in those serious health struggles. In fact, one of my most vivid memories is of a health professional telling me at age 11 that I wasn`t going to turn 18. He gave me a 5 % chance.
During the same meeting with the doctor he told that I wasn`t allowed to leave Germany since any other climate would make my condition worse (and therefore kill me quicker). I was diagnosed with a rare, rheumatic autoimmune disorder. I still don`t know how a grown human being can say these things to a child. I was devastated. I got a bunch of pills from different health professionals to keep me alive.
The next years are like a bundled mess in my memory.
I clearly remember how it started. I had something on my toe, got a medicine to put on top of it. I slipped on stone stairs just enough to get a small cut on the side of my toe. It just hurt a little bit for a second. Nothing a child wouldn`t constantly get playing around. I kept putting the medicine on top.
2 days later I was in a hospital. An inflammation had built up. So bad, that my toe was swollen and white. I had a bad fever and wasn`t able to walk two steps. The doctor thought most of the inflammation was the swollen mess and assumed it wouldn`t run deep. He told my Mom that he would quickly cut it out. Just one or two tiny cuts with a scalpel. Well, the doctor had an interesting perception of the words quick and small.
20 minutes later at 11:24 am one-fourths of my toes flesh was gone. I was able to see my bone at the end. In the meantime? He had cut it all away without giving me any form of anästhesia. Cut for cut. In between I heard him saying in surprise: “Wow, it goes even deeper“. I, a tiny 10-year-old girl felt everything. Squeezing my Moms hand until she pulled it away because I would accidentally break it. Back then, I thought it was the most amount of pain I would have to endure. I had no idea what was to come.
I stayed in the hospital for two weeks, the wound didn`t heal well and the inflammation in my blood didn`t get less. Then I had to stay home because I couldn`t walk. My feet and hands would get purple/white when I was out in the cold February air.
That was when the real horror began. After a month I went back to school and my doctor told me that the wound needed some time (Pretty much 9 years. And it’s still sensitive).
My immune system didn`t agree. It didn`t recover. Inflammation remained high in my blood. It spiralled out of control, started to attack itself, especially my connective tissue. 2 – 3 years later being hugged hurt my entire body, putting on clothes hurt, a blanket over my arm felt like the nail I once accidentally pierced my hand with.
Most of my inflammation was in my feet. I was barely able to walk 10 meters. I remember sitting on the ground crying out of pain after taking 7 steps from my room to the bathroom.
Later on, I developed inflammation around my lungs. I was only able to take shallow breaths. Just enough to get air into my lungs but not enough to speak clearly. For a little over a year talking was so painful. It did a lot of damage to my 15-year-old teenage self, my friendships, my school performance. I made it to school 2 times a week and the rest of the time, I would just lie in my bed. trying to ignore the pain my mattress and pillows inflicted. My laptop was an escape. Typing was painful but nowhere close to talking. Sometimes I fell asleep to documentaries from countries far far away. I dreamt of them. There was no way that I could ever make it there. Sorry, Dad.
I got into High School.
A class trip abroad was scheduled.
I had missed trips previously.
My class was supposed to go to Rome. 300 € would be the week`s cost, including flights. It was still too much for my mom and me. However, I continued to try and convince my doctors to let me go. It took a long time, but I made it.
What happened then is something I will forever be grateful for. Thanks to my tutor and headmaster most of my trip was paid for. I couldn`t stay home. I had to go. I would have felt so bad to use tax money to pay for my trip and not try. My tutor and his wife were amazing at looking after me and making sure, I was okay at all times. I missed some activities, but I went. At that point, I couldn`t really talk, weighed barely 35 kg, was too weak to lift my chair on the table after class, had constant headaches, lots of issues with concentration. I am still not sure if the aeroplane seat on the way to Rome was made out of razor blades. Thanks to my classmates making fun of me (it was my first flight), it was over quickly. Or maybe I was more worried about us all crashing. Before I knew it, I was in Rome.
A different climate! I am two hours flight away from home! It looks and feels different here! That`s so pretty! What the heck? I think I can breathe a little better here? How???
You can tell, I definitely had fun on the bus ride to our guest house.
My doctors had told me I would never be able to do that. But I did. Once I got home, I noticed that it was easier to breathe down south.
Something clicked in my head.
I started to trust my own gut.
Shortly afterwards, I wasn`t able to breathe while I was lying my bed one late afternoon. I couldn`t move. No way to grab my phone to contact anyone. I passed out. Luckily, I did wake up again.
At that point, I made a decision. If I was going to die in a year or two, I would at least see one other place. My pills had a ton of side effects, which were more of a problem than my illness with my humble wishes of what my everyday life should look like. I decided it was over. No more pills. Not a single pill more. If you ever go off pills, transition slowly. I didn`t care since everyone told me I was about to die anyway, I couldn`t wait to get rid of the side effects. Then I wouldn`t be sick enough to not go somewhere.
I started walking everyday a little bit more. 200 m, 300 m, 400 m, 500 m, …. 1 km! When I walked my first 2 km without taking a break everyone thought the biggest miracle we would see had just happened. I didn`t stop walking. There was more.
My 18th birthday came around. I am alive.
I applied for university. I got to explore parts of northern Germany when I went to tests. I did my final exams at High School. I was able to study for them. I am able to focus! No headaches.
A visit to my doctors was due. My illness was inactive. My blood tests came back and looked amazing. They told me I wasn`t only not sick enough, I was pretty healthy.
I kept walking. A little more everyday.
Then I got accepted. Moved away from home.
A plane landed in Stockholm within 16 months of me deciding that I would go again.
Something happened around that time. It quietly crept up on me. My body was fine as my mind turned against me.
I had chosen my profession for other people. I made the decision to be with someone who was important to me at that time, to make my grandparents proud, to let my mom stop worrying, to make everyone wonder what has happened, to impress.
Fear was also a reason, I went down a route that just wasn`t for me. The fear that I couldn`t do what I wanted to do.
It just wasn`t for me. I made it through a winter without pain. There had to be more. However, I didn`t act. I went on for a couple of months burying the bad feeling inside of me. I couldn`t fail. I would disappoint everyone.
A friend of mine wanted to go to Thailand but was scared to go alone. I decided to join. A series of events later, I was alone in Bangkok with a ticket home in 3 weeks.
I had a blast. I will always be grateful for the experiences and the people I met.
When I returned to work, the voice got stronger. I told myself that I just want to have more fun and that the job wasn`t the problem. I started writing and filming again, it helped a little.
As I went back to university depression and anxiety became my roommates. I knew them well from previous encounters. At some point, the spark was gone. Depression and anxiety felt like friends to get cosy with. I couldn`t go to university anymore because I got massive panic attacks when I tried. If I made it, I was an unresponsive mess.
Once a professor asked me to answer a question while I was deep in my own thoughts figuring out how to kill myself in order to get out of there since quitting wasn`t an option. I noticed the professor when everyone else in the room started to laugh. Yes, they laugh at you. Dying would be good to end this mess. I replied to the question. Correct. Silence During that silence I mentally slapped myself. After everything you went through and made your family go through, do not ever dare to say that again!
I found a doctor, who gave me the paper to not go to university for a while. Later, I did quit. I went to the library in the university to learn what I could about business and marketing. I set up my blog. After that, I searched for a one-way ticket to Thailand. I booked it.
My first country ended up being India before I went back to Thailand. The first 2 months of my trip were a mess. Depression said goodbye to anxiety and me and only visited us for short periods of time. Anxiety stayed with me and went crazy in some places. Others destinations calmed it. 6 months on the road by myself taught me exactly what going to Rome had taught me 3 years earlier: I am the only person who decides what I can and cannot do.
My body is amazing. My mind sometimes wants to create a mess.
When that happens I need to tell the little monkey called anxiety to relax. Then the other monkey curiosity starts to play with him and they create a dance. This dance is a fundamental part of who I am.
If you truly want something, nothing will be able to stop you. Most importantly, do not let you own limiting beliefs stop you. I took pictures of places I saw pictures of as a little child at age 20, despite doctors beliefs that I would not live until 18 years old.
What else should stop me? Why would you let something stop you?