"Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in." – Alan Alda
I love this quote. So simple, yet powerful. And, for me, it touches poignantly on a rather irksome tendency of the human mind: to take most anything for granted. To suppose that our circumstances and the world at large simply are a certain way, thereby dirtying our windows and blocking the light of possibility, so to speak.
Enough philosophy, though. Allow me to make a point:
Our preconceived notions have the ability to hold us back. But only if we let them.
Following a multiple sclerosis diagnosis at the age of 27, my wanderlust is one of the first things that came to mind. Openness to exploration is a value instilled in me from a very young age. And my parents made sure it was strongly reinforced by extended vacations taken at least once a year, usually consisting of road trips cross-country to explore new regions. My cherished childhood memories are of scenes like canoeing the lakes of Glacier National Park, tracking down bison at Custer in South Dakota and pulling over to marvel at the otherworldly shapes and colors of Joshua Tree.
In later years, I set my sights on international voyages, including a semester abroad in Australia during college. Visions of sailing the Whitsunday Islands, diving the Great Barrier Reef and swimming beneath Paluma National Park's waterfalls all flashed through my mind after hearing the words, "multiple sclerosis," roll off of the neurologist's tongue. Surely this disease signaled the quelling of my venturesome spirit.
And the hard truth is, after my MS diagnosis, my first couple of trips were nightmares. A once insatiable passion for new places, experiences and people was now overshadowed by doubt and fear. An initial attempt to spend five days in the Dominican Republic possessed my mind with potential problem scenarios. I had always loved hot, humid weather, but I found myself checking the forecast obsessively pre-departure, deciding that sub-tropical temperatures soaring above 85 degrees were just too much. Even when my husband reminded me that our accommodations had air conditioning, I assumed keeping up would be impossible. At the same time, I lied to others, saying how MS would never get me down or take away such a huge part of my life. I was too scared to go, but too proud to stay.
And so it goes that my notions about how things would be led to dangerous levels of worry and stress. By the time we reached the Dominican Republic, I'd so fully exhausted myself that I spent the first 2-3 days in bed with hives. On the way home, fear of falling in the busy airport led me to request a wheelchair through the security line. (I had never personally fallen but had heard horror stories.) Whether I could have walked on my own that day is neither here nor there – my anxiety was calling the shots.
From there, although my fears remained, I continued to plan trips maniacally, spurring bouts of insomnia and serious exacerbations. But the worst part was the fright cloud hanging over my once intrepid spirit. Should I simply give up and resign to a life without travel?
Thankfully, the answer to that question was and is absolutely not. To borrow from Alda's metaphor, instead of sitting in the darkness, I got up and scrubbed my windows.
The first thing I did was start therapy. Realizing how screwed up my thought process had become, I swallowed my pride and made the appointment. Admitting our fears is difficult, particularly when they drive at the heart of who we are. But admission allowed me to stop rationalizing scenarios with no basis in reality, thereby opening my life back up to the beauty of uncertainty.
Two years and many a city later, I'm proud to report that my husband and I just returned from an 18-day European adventure spanning five countries. I strolled the canals of Amsterdam, tried out my French while sipping wine at Parisian cafés and explored the delightfully damp wings of Austrian mountain catacombs. I brought my acknowledged fears with me, but in a new, travel-size format. One that leaves room for what I really want to pack - an openness to new people, cultures and experiences.
The truth is, I now view travel as not only an adventure, but added therapy. It's a conscious decision to live outside of my comfort zone for a little bit – adapting as I go, and learning from others and their unique worldview. And, of course, shaking things up a bit helps to debunk any assumptive notions stuck in my head, making it much easier to embrace whatever each day brings. To adventure is to be inspired, engaged and stimulated, and for those of us who live with MS, letting this kind of light in is always a good thing.
For travelers with accessibility needs, the U.S. Senate has the opportunity to ratify a treaty that would affirm the rights of Americans with disabilities who not only travel but work, serve, study or live abroad. A Senate committee recently approved the treaty and we are hoping that the entire Senate votes on it soon. Contact your U.S. Senators today and urge them to vote YES on the disability treaty.