I have fibromyalgia. That is my unavoidable reality. I also hunger for travel and cannot imagine life without poking around in distant corners of the globe. So when I was diagnosed, to battle my plummeting self-esteem, I threw myself into the world like a guinea pig to figure out how to make travel and fibromyalgia coexist. It hasn’t been easy and the tantrums of my body can be extreme, but I am slowly figuring out some guidelines that help me step out my front door.
So here are the nuggets of wisdom I’ve gleaned over the past three years. You might call them my “Cardinal Rules.”
- Know your body’s limits. Our body gives us signals – some gentle, some urgent – that we need to rest in a couple of hours, a few minutes, or now. Respect and listen to your body. If you push past what I call “the wall”, you’ll just land yourself in a hospital or bed for the rest of your vacation. Anytime I’m tempted to ignore my body (we are both as stubborn as mules!), I remind myself I didn’t pay to crash and burn far from the comfort of home. Find a park bench, a cozy cafe, a sparkling beach, or a hammock.
- Schedule time to rest and recharge. Ignore the snarky comments of family, the disappointed eyes of friends, and your own tiny perfectionist voice. Frantic days of packed sightseeing will only lead to burnout. Select one or two must-see sites or activities a day. Then really savor them. Drink in your favorite paintings. Sit and contemplate the breathtaking cathedral. Whittle away the afternoon people-watching at a sidewalk cafe. Bonus? You’ll intimately know that slice of your destination.
- Pace yourself. Remember who won the epic race between the hare and the turtle? That’s right. Sun yourself, sample the tasty treasures along the road, confidently pass up the weary rabbit collapsed in the grass, and meander comfortably across your finish line.
- Allow one or two days free of any plans. On longer trips, I will even schedule one blank day per city. We have chronic health conditions. Our bodies are complex pieces of natural engineering that don’t always work according to plan, no matter how well we maintain them. If I suddenly flare, I know I have the time to reshuffle plans and rest.
- Forgive yourself. If the worst happens and you land in bed for all of Rome or Tuscany or Paris, be gentle with yourself. Beating yourself up for ruining a dream trip will only send your stress skyrocketing, and isn’t stress ultimately our mortal enemy? (And your trip isn’t ruined. You just got the chance to drift into lazy sleep while the fresh, warm scent of the Parisian bakery outside your window wafts through the curtains. Reframe the experience. Works wonders on the self-esteem.)
- Be flexible. Travel means encountering the new and unexpected, leaping outside our comfort zones. A scary proposition for those of us with chronic health conditions. Remember, things will go wrong, flights will be delayed, luggage will be lost. Stay serene and embrace the experience as an adventure to entertain your friends when you return home. Don’t let the stress destroy your trip. (Example: The bus broke down and we’ll be in this middle-of-nowhere town for a couple of hours? Where’s the local hangout? I’m totally there.)
- Try the local method of relaxation. Every culture has their own unique way of banishing stress. We’re hardwired to buckle under the slightest whisper of stress. Make the local traditions part of your experience, while working wonders on your body. Vienna’s shabby elegant cafes encourage long afternoons of browsing newspapers. Swing in a beachside hammock in Belize. In Iceland, simmer in the hot waters of the geothermal pools that ease away muscle and joint pain. In Hungary, it’s the Turkish baths. Many cultures have spawned some incarnation of the steam sauna, whether the smoke saunas of Finland or the communal YMCA-like public saunas of South Korea. In SE Asia and Britain, it’s the various elaborate rituals of drinking tea. Whatever it is, ask a local and indulge.
- Pack light. My rule is one carry-on suitcase only, no matter how long the trip. I can always do laundry. The less I pack, the less I have to lug around and the happier my muscles. There’s also less stuff to keep track of, such a blessing on deep fibro-fog days. (Besides, do you really need that many pairs of shoes?)
- Only pack good walking shoes. Our feet are our heroes. Pamper them. I only pack shoes that will still be comfortable after a full day of walking. This rule applies to my dress shoes. Well-made ballet flats and Ecco walking shoes are my travel warriors.
- Maintain your health routine. Just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean you should neglect your regular health habits. Eat well. Hydrate often. Follow your physical therapy. If you ditch this because, “Hey, I’m on vacation!” you’ll flare every time.
- Cook for yourself for at least half of your meals. You’ll have control over what fuels your body. Hard to do in most Western hotels, but the secret is to seek out farmstays, bed and breakfasts, and hostels that allow you access to a kitchen. And yes, hostels are for adults. Do your research and select one with private rooms, real beds, and a more mature vibe.
- If you don’t have good medical insurance, always purchase special trip insurance in case of a medical emergency. The options are dazzling – select a package tailored to your trip’s activities. You’re already paying for the trip. Think of this as an essential piece of the puzzle, like the visa or passport. Do you really want to pay the total hospital fees and evacuation costs if you break your leg while skiing the Alps?
- Above all? Don’t let your fear of “what if?” stop you from living. If you have a dream trip, make it happen. Do whatever it takes. I acknowledge my limitations, my physical reality, and then I work with it. If you’re physically handicapped, do your research and seek out places and accommodations friendly to your needs. (My aunt, wheelchair-bound, went on an Alaskan cruise with my mother. They had a blast.) Just don’t let yourself be haunted by “what-if”.