Fear seems to be a travel partner on the road with a mental illness, both for the person with the illness and those who love him or her. A serious and chronic illness of any kind can easily hold people back from taking risks and experiencing life to the fullest. My dear friend Jessie Close and I have often talked about the fear that arises when remembering the worst of times that come with a mental illness experienced by a child, even a child that is a young adult and becoming increasingly independent. A mild case of PTSD perhaps but the heart pounds, the mind goes to horrible scenarios, reliving the past experiences, and the very strong urge to control arises. My daughter, Linea, who many of you know through her work with BC2M, left this morning for a 3-month internship with the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, where she will be working with the Mental Health Policy and Service Development. We both had moments of anxiety and worries over the last few months preparing for this move. At one point she questioned whether she would be able to take such a huge step. Although she was organized and started working on this move months ago, I think she found that preparing for this adventure was much more involved and took more time than any of us had anticipated. Anyone would feel anxious about leaving the country for three months, moving to Europe without knowing anyone, and beginning work at a huge international organization. For a person traveling abroad who has a serious health issue, things get complicated, particularly if traveling for an extensive length of time. We know what helps keep someone with any type of health concerns feeling better: Not getting too tired, regular schedules, enough rest, healthy food and exercise (and perhaps taking prescribed meds). International travel doesn’t exactly support this life-style. Adding the history of trauma and the fight for recovery to all of this can be enough to stop someone in their tracks. Too much trouble! Too scary!
My emotions are complicated as Linea is winging her way across the U.S. and on to Europe. There is so much love and pride in all that she has accomplished; mixed in with a bit of worry left over from the experiences we had in the past while she was in the process of a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Those days included emergency trips across the country to her college, a sad and frightening trip bringing her home, taking her out of school on a medical leave, hospitalizations, and a few years of her trying to get stable while battling bigger ups and downs than she could tolerate. It left us all with residual fear and worry. It left us with our own fears about just how much a person with a mental illness could really accomplish.
I have had a few middle-of-the-night worries. I worried that her room-mate in Geneva might Google her and discover that she has bipolar disorder. Linea is completely open about her illness, speaking and writing on a national stage about her experiences…yet, there was a niggling voice wondering if this information would change people’s perceptions of her. And then, I let it go. I worried that the flight and jet lag and stepping into a high-paced intern’s job would cause symptoms to flare. And then, I let it go. It has never been clearer to me that we all need to work together to provide opportunities for normalcy, success, and yes, even failure for everyone, including people with disabilities, health concerns and any other obstacle that whispers, “You can’t.” Linea is a strong, intelligent, fierce, loving and a beautiful young woman. She has proven beyond a doubt that she will fight to stay healthy. She has completed a college degree, written and sold a book, traveled extensively and worked and saved enough money for a great adventure to Geneva, all while keeping herself stable. I trust her to let me know if she needs us. I, too, am healing. She is growing, learning and flying!
Finally, I thought it might be helpful to share a few things that we learned as she prepared for her trip. You likely have many of your own suggestions but perhaps there are a few things from this list that might be useful.
- Make sure you have enough medications for your trip. (No brainer, right? Not always easy!)
- Check with your medical insurance company to get “vacation extensions” so that you can take additional refills of meds with you. (The pharmacist was extremely helpful with this. Linea has a good relationship with her pharmacy and they wanted to help her.)
- Get a note from your physician and a list of your prescriptions to assist through Customs and if you should need more medication while away. (Find out how difficult it is to get refills in the country you are visiting.)
- See if your doctors or treatment providers will email you if necessary.
- Pack all medications in carry-on luggage!
- Be up to date on flu, tetanus and other immunizations.
- Complete an advanced medical/psychiatric directive before leaving.
- Carry travel insurance. It’s not that much more of an added expense and it provides peace of mind if something should happen while you are out of the country.
- Talk with your doctor to develop a schedule for sleep and medications if traveling through many time zones.
- Take care of yourself, trust yourself, have confidence and, as Linea’s dad told her, “Take risks”.
I wish my daughter a successful and confidence-building trip, full of wonderful new experiences, friends and opportunities. Yes, there will be challenges, just as there are for any one of us and, yes, it can be more complicated for someone with health concerns but with planning and boldness the envelope can be pushed, one person at a time. Push your envelope as much as you can. I wish you bon voyage, wherever you take your life.