Ever since developing chronic illness over a decade ago, summer vacation as I’ve known it is just a memory. Long gone are the days where I could spend endless hours on my feet in the hot sun, standing in line at an amusement park or walking about a tourist attraction.
But as is often the case when one thing ends, another begins. About five years ago, I began to experiment with other types of vacations. I still wanted to travel, but knew my body could no longer handle the stress – both physical and mental – of doing too much amidst too many other people. What kind of vacation is it when you wind up bedridden from pain for the entire next week? So I decided to give resorts a try.
Although I’d never been to one before, I knew quite a few people who had vacationed in Mexico or the Dominican Republic. When I asked them what it was like, they all literally told me the same thing – “PARADISE!!” Apparently, regardless of location or owners, most beachfront resorts share basic characteristics. They are centered upon the water, both ocean and pool, and total relaxation. If you’re someone with chronic pain issues, this is essentially your siren song (although I’m sure it doesn’t sound too bad to healthy folks, either!) All the activity is centered around your lodgings, almost like a neighborhood, so you don’t have to walk too far and also so you can return anytime you feel like a nap or to get out of the outdoors. Staff members are abundant, making sure you have generous amounts of food and drink, fresh beach towels and anything else you might need or want.
Having lupus, I was initially a bit frightened of all that sun. Admittedly, there’s a lot of it in most resort locales. But I knew that I could limit the amount of exposure I had, both by going indoors periodically and by applying generous dollops of sunscreen as I sat beneath the trademark thatched palm beach umbrellas.
I’ll be the first to admit; I’ve spent the bulk of my life as a goal-oriented go-getter. I’ve never been one to lay around doing nothing for long. So at first it was a bit of a shock, setting out for a place where that would be my job for an entire week. I needed to do something!
Yet there’s a certain allure to it. Unless you live like the English aristocracy in Downton Abbey, it’s not often that most of us have the opportunity to wake up in the morning, head to a leisurely buffet breakfast, then know that there’s nothing more urgent to accomplish the rest of the day other than sunbathing on the beach or reading a book by the pool. By the time the week ends, you actually feel rested. Throughout the year, I must say that’s a feeling I rarely get to experience.
Of course, there is a bit of a hassle in getting to that Shangri-la. While most people generally don’t enjoy navigating an airport and then the flight itself, that experience is something entirely different for those of us with chronic illness. But with a bit of pre-planning and a few adaptations, you can make it through as painlessly as possible.
First, don’t be embarrassed to use a wheelchair at the airport - that’s what they’re there for! It’s a free service and as an added perk, the attendant knows the various gates in a way that a traveler can’t. He or she will get you where you need to go in no time, and you won’t have to be aching and exhausted before you’ve even stepped onto the plane. Just make sure to contact the airline ahead of time so that a chair will be waiting for you, not just upon arrival at the airport but also at any other airport if you have a connecting flight and also at your ultimate destination.
Then of course, be sure to pack your carry-on bag well. Don’t forget to bring your medications with you, as well as a snack and a drink if you can. In my experience, if you ask nicely and explain that you need to take medication, most flight attendants will be happy to bring you a cup of water even if it’s not the regular beverage time.
Also be sure to bring any items that can increase your comfort, such as a neck pillow (a godsend!), light blanket or sweater in case it’s chilly on board. For many of us, being the wrong temperature and being forced to sit too long in an uncomfortable position will increase the odds of being in pain or elevating pre-existing pain, so if you can at all avoid that, of course you should.
Time of travel can also make a huge difference. Whenever I’ve headed to the Caribbean, I’ve taken a red-eye flight from my home in Connecticut. As much as I detest waking early, I know that if I can leave at six a.m. I can arrive at my destination by lunchtime. After quickly dropping my luggage off in my room and freshening up, I can actually get in a good afternoon by the beach or pool! That way, my body has a chance to heal from the stress of getting there.
Maybe you’re like me and you’ll follow me lead to the sandy joy that is a resort. Maybe you’ll be shaking your head vehemently before you even finish reading my descriptions. Either way, just know that chronic pain doesn’t have to mean an end to everything that once made you happy. If you enjoy travel, you still can. If you look forward that that week away from regular life all year long, don’t stop marking it down on your calendar. You’re still you, after all. Just start thinking outside the box a bit, and you’re bound to find something new that brings you joy. Who knows? Maybe it’s something you’ve always been meant to find, and it was actually something you always considered bad that forced you to detour on your intended life road.