Air travel

I use to travel, a lot. Multiple times a year, different countries, long trips and short trips, all of which I did with relative ease. I started traveling at a very young age, the simplicity and near-comfort that I felt with the entire airport routine (regardless of my location) has been a part of my identity for most of my life. From being the one who knew all the tips and tricks for getting through different airports quickly to feeling elation at landing in every new city, I reveled in the energy and unexpected adventures of frequent travel. 

With my broken body, traveling, especially airport traveling, has taken on a new light. It almost feels like a bad breakup. I keep getting hurt, staying away, and then going back for more. 

Recently, I took a short flight for a friend’s wedding. It was the first flight I’ve taken in a year and it was a quick two-hour jaunt between two major American cities. In the past, I would have simply booked the trip as an overnight. Fly in the morning of the event, fly out the morning after. That simplicity no longer works with my new normal. For what should have been an easy one-night excursion, I had to book a four day trip and allow for three additional hours on either end of my typical arrival and departure at the airport. Here’s how it boiled down.

Packing took place over the course of a week. Double-checking my prescriptions and supplemental medical stuffs to make sure I had enough for the entire trip, as well as a few extra days in case of emergencies. Choosing clothing that wouldn’t be too painful yet appropriate for the event and climate. Picking out shoes that I could wear for the entire commute and ones that I could suffer through during the wedding. Packing toiletries that didn’t aggravate my conditions. Choosing snacks that would help boost my blood pressure, not trigger vomiting, and were easy to digest. Figuring out how heavy was too heavy for my carry on luggage. Not a carry on. My carry on. The one that I would have to pick up multiple times, pull through the mile-long corridors, and place overhead on that tiny plane.  

Deciding how to get to the flight was the next obstacle. I currently reside about two hours from the airport. While there are multiple ways to get to the airport, only one of them would reduce my walking time. I took that path. After spending the night tossing and turning (who sleeps anyways), I loaded up my car and drove the two hours. Driving isn’t extraordinarily painful for me. It can definitely aggravate my pain and I need to readjust frequently but overall, my biggest issue with concentrating on the road is the possibility of a migraine flare-up. I got lucky and this wasn’t one of those days. After the drive, transferring to an airport shuttle, and walking to the entrance, I began the hardest part of my trip, the airport and flight.

Utilizing my prior flying expertise, I paid for an “upgraded” seat. You know the fancy ones on the aisle with two(!) extra inches of leg room. I don’t fly enough to pay for the U.S. TSA precheck/clear line. The times I have, they ended up being just as busy as the regular lines. Really, first-class is the only designation that makes a difference with security and boarding times. But I didn’t feel like paying $600.00 one way for a quick flight. I hold this wacky belief that all airline passengers should be able to sit with reasonable comfort in any seat. As the seats, bathrooms, and knee space continues to shrink, I don’t think the airlines agree with my standards. But I digress, sorry. It was at that point of having my boarding pass, seeing the security line, and knowing where my gate was that I had to decide whether or not to get a wheelchair. 

While many people do not, I currently have the luxury of choice when it comes to being in a chair. My condition is worsening but I can usually bear 10 minutes on my feet at a time.  I have a large mental block when it comes to needing a wheelchair. Part of me feels that I don’t deserve to take up that space. Another part worries about what people will think and say seeing a “normal” looking person using a chair. A part is ego and worries about how people judge women in wheelchairs. The most ashamed part worries that I am not disabled enough to use an assistance device and that it is infringing on someone else’s needs. So, like usual, I decided to step forward into the security line and pretended that I was perfectly able-bodied. 

I was fortunate to have a relatively quick line. Taking off my shoes and coat were easy because of my planning. I was aware enough to know that I needed to sit down as I put my bag and clothing back together. I had given myself an ample amount of time to get to my gate without rushing. There were a few tough moments as I stood on the train, stood in various lines, and walked for ages to get to my flight, but I made it. 

Boarding a flight is a frustrating experience for even the most physically fit person. The slow shuffle down the long gangplank, dealing with rude passengers, lifting your bag above your head and shoving it into a tiny space as you hurry to stuff yourself into a miniscule seat. I happen to be tall. Once I’m seated, my knees almost always hit the seat in front of me. My arms don’t fit easily inside the boundary of the armrests. When I need to stretch my joints or relieve pressure on my skin, I try not to hit my head on the bins or trip over someone with my numb feet. If I’m super lucky, I will get an exit row seat. I am not sure if I can open the door during an emergency, but I would happily dislocate a few fingers if it means a bit of extra room on the flight.

Finally, we landed. It was a smooth flight and my nervous system only had to do its typical summersaults instead of trying to keep up with fluxes caused by turbulence. I asked a burly gentleman to grab my bag and he was kind to oblige without questions. That hurried pace getting off the plane kicked in and I moved/limped along with the wave of bodies rushing for everywhere. Three days later, rinse and repeat. 

The time I spent away came with challenges. Lots of resting, people not understanding my nonparticipation, wanting to do more than my body would allow, vanity issues resulting in emotional darkness, and so forth. But also, lots of fun. I picked where I stayed carefully. I’m getting much better with my hate for planning. My hotel was across the street from a market, coffee shop, and some restaurants. There were easy delivery options and my room was set up in a way that I found accessible. My friends were kind and understanding of my limitations. Overall, the journey was worth it.

It took me about six days to recover once I arrived home. There were tears and anger around how much of a toll the trip took. I think about answers to this problem a lot. What would make traveling an enjoyable experience for those of us with diverse bodies? How can useful mobility and accessibility devices be developed in a cost effect way? What can airports and travel centers do to help us reach our destinations safely? How can we fully engage in travel and the joys it brings? I’m not sure yet but I know there are always solutions to problems which affect millions. One of us is bound to figure it out. 

I look forward to my next trip. Wherever I can go, no matter the pain, it is a privilege.

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