January 31, 2023
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Photography by Agencia/Stocksy United
I was able to follow my own desires — and my own diet! — without concern for how anyone else was affected. And I rediscovered myself.
At the end of 2016, I was living through the aftershocks of an extremely difficult year: I’d had my worst-ever Crohn’s disease flare, which had begun the previous year and necessitated a high dose of prednisone for the duration. The episode shrunk my world to the confines of my apartment and doctors’ offices. Finally, after this horrible year, I was regaining a sense of normalcy.
But now I was chafing to get out and make up for some of the adventures of my 20s that I felt I’d lost to my flare. I desperately wanted to travel. At 25, the only time I’d been out of the country was for a family trip to Jamaica. And having spent most of my flare scrolling Instagram, watching my friends travel to cool places and do things I’d been too sick to try. I wanted in.
The idea of taking the trip solo was born out of practicality: I was single, so I didn’t have a built-in travel companion, and when I started thinking about wrangling a trip with friends, I got nervous. I was out of the flare, feeling a lot better than I had for the past year, but 12+ months on steroids meant that I was still dealing with some of the side effects that fade gradually after tapering off the drugs: fatigue, insomnia, joint pain, anxiety, and more. I was far from being your normal, fit 25-year-old.
The idea of managing a major city alone scared me much less than navigating my loved ones’ responses to my prolonged sickness. I was still coping with my new reality. I thought I might enjoy my first trip post-flare more if I didn’t also have to worry about how someone else was coping with my new reality.
I spent 8 days in London, alone, in April 2017. I chose London because while I wanted adventure, I was still coming off a serious health episode and craved ease. I found the relative lack of challenge in an English-speaking country had major appeal. I also chose London because, having lived in Chicago since I was 18, I felt confident in my ability to navigate a big city and its transit on my own.
I loved London. I saw Othello at the Globe Theater, I bought little rings and boots at Camden Market, I found a new favorite museum in the Victoria & Albert, I had afternoon tea, I sat first row at a musical in the West End, I ate fries called chips. I took the Tube and had a picnic in Hyde Park. I saw Notting Hill, Big Ben, and got lost in the million-plus square feet of retail space that is Harrod’s more than once.
A rare couple of times on the trip, I felt awkward and alone, like when I got lost traveling from Heathrow Airport to my Airbnb, and had to give up and take a too-expensive cab; or when I was at a club in Soho and realized that while I was grateful for the experience, going to clubs alone is not my idea of a good time. But for most of the trip, I felt happy and curious and all of the other ways you might feel encountering a city you’d always imagined visiting. Being alone didn’t cheapen that.
It’s not enough to say that being alone “didn’t cheapen” my experiences in London. In some ways, my trip was incredible because I was alone.
Being alone meant that I was master of my own itinerary. I could choose only the museums I really cared about, the shows that truly spoke to me, the meals that met my stringent dietary restrictions. I could start the day late if I woke up in intense joint pain or slept poorly the night before. I could expend my limited energy on what interested me and skip the rest.
Traveling alone was essential to rediscovering how I, as an individual, move through the world. It allowed me space to shed my anxieties about being a burden to my loved ones.
When you’re living with a chronic illness like Crohn’s, symptoms like fatigue can really limit the time you have in a day. Selfishly, traveling alone meant that as a former English literature major, I could slot in time for the Charing Cross Road book shops and Oscar Wilde’s favorite tea room — without having to make concessions for what anyone else traveling with me might want to see.
But traveling alone after your body has betrayed you is about a lot more than getting your way on the daily schedule. Becoming so seriously sick in my mid-twenties wildly changed my perception of my life. Traveling alone was essential to rediscovering how I, as an individual, move through the world. It allowed me space to shed my anxieties about being a burden to my loved ones.
I don’t think I realized how much stress I felt carrying around other people’s new perceptions of me until I was somewhere new, where no one knew the old healthy version of me, the past year’s sick version of me, or the new half-and-half version I was still coming to terms with. Being fully alone allowed me to see art and eat new food and experience an entire culture without the voice in my head that pesters, “Are you sure that other person is having a good time? You were more fun before you got sick.”
The trip to London took that voice in my head and smothered it. It showed me that it was possible to balance adventure and rest in a way that worked for my body.
To be clear: I don’t think that solo travel is the only option for people with chronic illness to see the world while living free of their fears of being a burden. I have traveled with countless family and friends in the years since that London trip, and they have proven to me that it is possible to balance adventure, rest, and companionship if you surround yourself with the right people. But in spite of that, my solo trip to London remains a formative experience in my life as a person living with a serious illness — and something I recommend to anyone whose physical and financial resources make it possible.
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