I have had multiple sclerosis for 13 years and have been using a power wheelchair full-time for almost 4 years. However, I have had a mental/emotional/eating disorder for most of my life. It’s hard enough trying to figure out how to find and travel to wheelchair accessible destinations, so it seems pretty unfair to have to manage internal struggles on top of everything else. However, it’s still possible to fully enjoy accessible travel even when physical limitations are not your only concerns.
I have something called emetophobia, which is at its simplest a very irrational fear of vomiting or seeing/hearing others vomit. It’s more common than you might think, being right up there with fear of heights and spiders, although most people who have it don’t like talking about it out of embarrassment. While emetophobia hasn’t been widely studied, many researchers agree that it stems from control issues. This is why so many “emets” have anxiety issues and suffer from panic attacks. Eating disorders are also closely linked to emetophobia, as our relationship with food is limited by the potential for it to make us feel sick.
Just as with many other mental and emotional disorders, my specific variety has a direct (and negative) impact on my ability to travel – and especially to fully relax while doing so. I absolutely love going on cruises, but they pack a one-two punch for me. I’m terrified of all the norovirus outbreak reports on cruise ships, so I won’t cruise during colder months when it’s more common. I’m also scared of being near anyone who might be seasick. I’m probably the only person who loses weight during travel because I fear eating improperly cooked food that might make me ill. In some cases, I will bring my own food, like protein bars. I visit a LOT of museums and public spaces, so I go overboard on using hand sanitizer.
But my experiences are only one example. There are wheelchair users who love to travel but also have to manage disorders like social anxiety, depression, varieties of autism, and bipolar disorder. It’s challenging enough having to overcome physical obstacles to travel like flying with a wheelchair and a lack of dropped curbs in foreign cities. We also sometimes have to plan (and often limit) our outings to revolve around medication, rest, and quiet/private time. In my case, I’m averse to food and have to take anti-anxiety medication before long flights.
So what can we do to battle our inner challenges while fighting those around us as we try to see the world in our wheelchairs? First, I think we need to make sure we know ourselves and our mental/emotional triggers. I’m scared of flying and being around motion-sick passengers, but I still fly and go on cruises with the help of therapy, medication, and encouragement from close friends. I got horribly sick at the end of a trip to Dubai and had to postpone my flight home twice; it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I know it can (and likely will) happen again, but more terrible is thinking of what I might miss if I let my fears get the best of me.
Second, it’s important to bring everything you need with you to help you feel healthy and safe. This may be medication, vitamins, music, a therapy animal, or just a good friend. Third, leave space in your itinerary to cocoon or “turtle up” if you need to get away from something that might be triggering your disorder. That could mean quiet time in your ship’s cabin or hotel room, rolling through a park to get some fresh air, or putting on some headphones for a few minutes. Finally, and this may sound a bit extreme, but be okay with deciding to go home early. Being in a new and/or strange place can be really overwhelming even for people without a mental or emotional disorder. I believe it’s very important to fight to overcome all sorts of travel-related challenges, but there’s no shame in going home to a safe place to fight another day.
Mental disorders are getting a lot more attention in the media these days, sadly for very negative reasons. But when it comes to wheelchair users, people seem to focus more on our physical limitations rather than addressing any mental or emotional issues that might go along with them. But just like using a wheelchair shouldn’t stop anyone from traveling, having a mental or emotional disorder shouldn’t either. After having emetophobia for almost forty years, I know from experience how hard it can be to tack on something like extreme anxiety to traveling alone with only a scooter for company. I can also tell you that it’s worth the effort to figure out how to manage your triggers so you can see more of this amazing planet.
Are you ready to take the first step towards a wheelchair accessible adventure? Contact me over at Spin the Globe/Travel and let me help!