Going on My First Trip Post Diagnosis and Pandemic

Of course I was very excited to explore Mexico and the USA, but I had no idea how things were going to pan out. I had planned as much as I could, but as we know with conditions like AS, the only thing you can predict is that our bodies will be unpredictable!

Self isolating for a year and a half had left me feeling very nervous about leaving the house and being around strangers. A train into central London felt like a stressful ordeal, never mind an international flight!

Nevertheless, I somehow found the courage to head to Heathrow and embark on my first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

Getting over there

On the day of the flight, I dragged myself out of bed early and had to skip my daily stretches and morning bath. I had been up late the night before doing some last minute packing so all in all I was feeling pretty exhausted and very stiff. I decided to use my travel walking stick to get me through the ordeal of boarding a plane at the busiest airport in Europe. Wheeling around a suitcase with a walking aid whilst being in pain is not the easiest thing in the world. Fortunately, a very helpful member of staff offered to arrange a wheelchair onto the flight. As a young man it’s not always easy to accept such offers of help, but I swallowed my pride and was very glad I did.

The flight itself was probably the part I was most concerned about. After shielding from COVID for so long, I had huge anxiety about being in close proximity to others. By the time I had received my two Covid vaccines and felt brave enough to leave the house, the British public had largely stopped using face masks. This had heightened my fears dramatically, so I was very relieved to discover that masks were being enforced on the flight and that all the passengers around me were abiding by the rules. I can’t lie, 12 hours of constant mask wearing did get a little painful, but luckily I am no stranger to taking pain and I had just enough beard to cover the attractive red lines that the mask left on my cheeks!

The kind lady at Heathrow also arranged for me to be picked up in another chair when I arrived at Mexico City. This was much needed as the flight took a lot out of me. Despite the extra legroom I had managed to secure, sitting in the same position for so long made me seize up even more and I could feel my knees starting to swell.

This also came with the added bonus of being wheeled to the front of the arrivals queue. The only minor inconvenience was that the flight attendant had incorrectly assumed that I was Mexican and not given me an immigration form. Fortunately, my broken Spanish was enough to get me through that mix up and it wasn’t long before I was wheeled through onto Mexican soil, ready to start my adventure.

How I coped physically

As excited as I was about this adventure, I knew that it was going to be a huge physical test for me. There were plans for every day, walking around exploring places, travelling to the next city and a wedding thrown in the middle - and I was the best man.

My friends and I had spoken about these plans and they let me know that they completely understood if I needed to drop out. They were also kind enough to make sure I could have one of the beds when an Air BnB mix up left us with one less bedroom than expected. Miraculously, I didn’t have to drop out of any plans. One day I needed a little extra time in bed, but overall I was so proud (and a little shocked) of how well my body was coping with it all.

The change of weather definitely did my body the world of good. I felt a lot less stiff in the mornings when I woke up, and I think the heat also helped tire me out which enabled me to get to sleep at a more acceptable time.

I think even my mischievous immune system knew how tough the past few years had been for me and decided to take a holiday too.

It did get challenging

Well this was the case until around day 11 of 14. These last few days were a little tough. My body was starting to feel the almost 2 week absence of Enbrel in my system and all the traveling around (and tequila drinking) was starting to take its toll. I actually had to take time out from a night out drinking to do some stretches on the floor, much to my friends’ amusement.

Our final day was most definitely the hardest. We had arranged to go on a day trip to LA and I had not realized how huge the city was. It was by far the most walking we had done for the entire holiday. Luckily, I had packed my travel walking stick and it was the first time it had made an appearance since I arrived on foreign soil.

I was also very relieved to see how many people were wearing face masks; something that I hadn’t seen in the UK for a while.

How I coped mentally

What has worried me most about the trip was how I would cope mentally, particularly in social situations. In the 3 years since my last holiday, everything had changed. A year of being unable to walk from my AS diagnosis was followed by another 2 years of being forced to stay inside to keep my immunosuppressed body safe from COVID.

I went from being a super confident outgoing person into somewhat of a hermit. Being forced to stay inside for so long led to me feeling a little afraid about going outside and being amongst others. On the few occasions that I had plucked up the courage to leave the house prior to this holiday, I could tell that I wasn’t acting like my old self.

Many of the guests at the wedding hadn’t seen me since my diagnosis and I was worried that I maybe judged by them if my anxieties had me acting differently around them.

However, I’m pleased to say that this was not the case at all. I think the change of scenery allowed me to come out of my shell a lot more and have a complete mental reset. Being in a place where Covid protocols were still being followed made me feel a lot more at ease as well. I was able to revert back to my old social butterfly ways, talking to anyone and everyone and having a lot of laughs along the way.

A whole new outlook

It probably sounds strange, but I realized that the world outside my apartment does still exist and it’s a wonderful place. I remembered how much I enjoy exploring new places, meeting new people and learning about other cultures.

There is more to life than just surviving, which is essentially what I had been doing for the last few years.

My diagnosis and the pandemic had knocked my confidence a lot, but this trip ended up boosting it massively. I had spent two years locked inside without being able to make a trip to the barbers which had led to me resembling Tom Hanks in Castaway. But after a much needed haircut, I somehow managed to attract a bit of attention from girls on my trip (they must have had even more tequila than me!). This certainly wasn’t happening while I was stuck indoors looking like a teen wolf lookalike.

Sitting inside to hide from the virus for so long constantly reminded of my disability as it was the reason why I was being forced to be so careful. While I was away, I felt a lot more comfortable speaking to people and it made me feel normal again. It was the first time that I had a chance to meet new people in person since my diagnosis and I realized that outgoing and confident person that I had used to be was still there, he had just been hibernating for a while.

This trip let me know that it is possible to have AS and still be able to get out there and see the world. It was beginning to look like my life was going to consist of staying at home being disabled and hiding from a never ending pandemic. It was a huge relief to discover that this was not the case at all.

Final thoughts

Usually the end of a vacation comes with a few days of holiday blues, but this time I experienced the complete opposite. Obviously I was not thrilled that I my adventure had come to an end and I had traded days in the Mexican sunshine for drizzly, cloudy British skies. But I returned with a completely refreshed mentality and a new confidence that it is possible to have AS and live life to the full.

Ironically, I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone in order to finally feel comfortable going out and enjoying myself.

It’s given me confidence to start to go out more as I have learned that I am physically and mentally capable of doing so. Hopefully, I will be able to make new memories, as I’m sure my friends are bored of me repeating old stories from my time in China by now!

What was your experience with your first vacation after getting diagnosed or following the pandemic?

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