Escaping From Reality

I have been on an airplane almost every week for the past three months, scraping pennies from the bottom of my drawer and babysitting for flight tickets. It is not work for which I travel. I travel to escape from the reality of the past year, which has brutally reminded me of what chronic illness truly entails.
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The doors of the gate are slowly swinging to a close as I look on, ten feet away. Sweat drips from my temple and a lump forms in my throat. I dig my feet into the soles of my sandals and run toward C12.

"Please," I beg. "I'm on that flight."

The agent looks me over: mussed up hair, courtesy of my river shower the night before; a bra, wildly out of place under a drooping dress; and two full bags that are surely bigger than federal regulations.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but this is the last flight of the day and--"

I jolt awake before she can finish that sentence. I run my hands over my body; I am covered in cold sweat. I look around, just in case, but it's fine. I have made it home, after all.

I tiptoe out of bed as not to wake the sleeping man next to me. In the bathroom mirror, I cough into the spare robe hanging from the door. I rinse my mouth with saline and, wincing in pain, gurgle Magic Mouthwash, which temporarily relieves the rawness of my mouth, so inflamed by the crying I did in my dream. I swig from my version of a flask: Tylenol cold and cough.

I have been on an airplane almost every week for the past three months, scraping pennies from the bottom of my drawer, babysitting for flight tickets, and living off my parents' generosity.

It is not work for which I travel; I haven't worked full-time for over a year. I travel to escape from the reality of the past year, and especially the past few months, which have brutally reminded me of what chronic illness truly entails.

Chronic. Never-ending. Exhausting.

And worse: oblivious. Oblivious to your plans to go to the San Juan islands. So oblivious that it renders you speechless and in significant pain for most of the trip, making forging connections with new people nearly impossible. Oblivious to your favorite trip of the year, your annual camp with First Descents, an organization that sends young adult cancer survivors on outdoor adventures in an attempt to help them heal and connect. Oblivious to a good friend's wedding, oblivious to the joy you might've found on the dance floor as you laughed with old friends.

Obstinate. Tiring. Confusing. Uncaring. Chronic.

On the flight home from my friend's wedding on Sunday, I cried and cried, thinking about whether people had to ask me if I had fun, because it sure didn't seem it, seeing as I had left on the earliest possible shuttle back to the hotel, filled with elderly relatives. I cried thinking about how much illness has taken from me and how suddenly it was taking more; it was siphoning away my few strong talents: my humor and ability to connect.

And I pitied myself more than usual because when my illness isn't landing me in bed, it is distracting me from interaction. It's stopping me from fully being myself, as I engage in new relationships. It marks the night with wild night terrors that leave me kicking in my sleep, waking and scaring us both.

This has been a challenging year, one of the worst in my 27 years of handling illness. It seems one thing has come after another, with freak accidents thrown in -- a fall down the steps caused a break in the elbow and collarbone, making kayaking with First Descents in Montana impossible.

I have wanted to give up. I have wanted to give up so badly that I have actually considered it. I have actually hoped for a way to go to sleep and never wake up. I've looked at the pills in my bag and thought it would be enough.

But when I do, I remember that despite the wreckage cancer and lupus can cause, it does not wholly destroy me. I still had fun at the wedding; I still bonded at FD, where friends and cancer patients helped me, despite their own weakened bodies; I still ate pancakes and listened to music and drank watery cocktails with friends in the San Juan islands.

These diseases cannot take away the pockets of joy I find in the three days a week I spend with my niece. They cannot completely obliterate my spirit: once so strong and hopeful and loud, it is now somewhat silenced.

Hope is a funny thing; people often tell me to have faith and hope things will be better. I hope they do, of course, but I don't have faith things will. I'll do what I can to be better, but when it comes down to enjoying days that have me vomiting from pain, only I can summon the strength to go on.

Only I can truly break my spirit. Only I can truly stop living my life. Only I can make the decision to stop traveling, to give up on love, to slip quietly into the night.

And as how hard as things get, I know this: I don't plan to do that.

Not now. Not ever.

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