Meet Sylvia Mitchell.
She has Crohn’s Disease. Although Sylvia will discuss her personal experience with the illness, (which comes under the category of an irritable bowel disease or IBD), we encourage you to read and share this post if you or a loved one suffers from ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (not the same as IBD), or any condition that makes travel more challenging.
By Sylvia Mitchell
I’m one of the millions of those who suffer from Crohn’s Disease. Chron’s Disease and travel don’t necessarily belong together in the same sentence, but they are both a huge part of who I am and how I navigate life.
My first adult trip–well, for the sake of separating the regular family vacationing to our annual reunions and Disney–was a 3-day Bahamas cruise with my godparents and family.
It was a happy trip and “uneventful” if you consider that I was as close to remission as I’ve been during that trip. But it was my first adventure at sea. I remember having the experience of being drawn to the ocean and thinking to myself, as I watched the water gently usher us into the port of Bahamas, what a beautiful place this is. I knew I would experience travel differently from others in our group because when we docked and others headed for shopping, I headed for a local experience in a small cafe overlooking the water. I only had tea and a sweet roll but I spent a great deal of time chatting with the cafe owner and laughed over her having the same name as my mom. “Come back anytime my dear,” Ms. Marie said to me as I left the cafe and headed for an afternoon stroll through the local area.
Fast forward through my 20’s and at almost 30, life happened, and I had a severe flare-up that sent me spiraling down to years of surgeries, treatments, and no traveling! Navigating through my 30’s created new boundaries and conditions for me in order to live life according to “my normal.”
In my late 30’s, I had an epiphany. I remember sitting in the laundromat a few blocks from my Sandy Springs apartment on a Saturday afternoon, reading the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Southern Living magazine. No matter how I started out my newspaper reading journey, I’d always land in the travel section. Southern Living would always lead me to the rear of the magazine with tourism ads and inviting landscape photography.
This particular experience on this particular day was just different. I saw a coupon for a weekend in Savannah. There was nothing extravagant or unique about the deal, it just picked me that day. Without any hesitation, thinking, second-guessing or asking anyone what they thought about it or if they wanted to go, I pulled my last load out of the dryer and loaded my bag of clean laundry into the trunk of my Corolla, filled my tank and hit the road. It was the most spontaneous and freeing thing I’d ever done in my life at that point. I drove all the way to Savannah with the windows down, smiling and soaking up the pavement underneath my wheels.
Travel for me doesn’t look like what it does for most people. The easiest and most uncomplicated trips can sometimes turn into extra packing, extra planning, and extra provisions. For years, IBD sufferers have walked a silent, self-induced corner of shame, not wanting anyone to know what we’re suffering with and hiding ourselves away from the world because others have been slow to understand the many complexities of Crohn’s Disease and other similar chronic illnesses. Modern medicine has made it possible for us to travel, to live active lifestyles, and to do the things we thought we couldn’t. For me, that includes travel, international travel more specifically. There are still some regions that I have to be careful of due to my compromised immune system, but I truly try to take the limits off as much as possible.
What every Crohn’s sufferer will tell you is that none of us have the same symptoms. Others will say there are “common symptoms,” but there isn’t a cookie cutter mold that fit us all. Crohn’s can range from one extreme to the other. It may be constipation for some, while the other end of pendulum swings in the direction of frequent diarrhea. I tend to swing on the latter end.
I’ve had three major surgeries to resect and remove portions of my small bowel and that has also left me with deep scar tissue which causes very painful bowel obstructions. Because I take high doses of the steroid Prednisone from time to time, I also experience water retention and swelling as well as the dreaded “moon face.” I suffer from abdominal pain, fatigue, and loss of appetite resulting in weight loss, and muscle aches. More common symptoms can include frequent constipation, frequent diarrhea, loss of appetite, and extreme weight loss.
My first international trip:
3-Day Bahamas cruise with family and friends
Where have I traveled?
Bahamas, Hawaii, Curacao, Puerto Rico, Greece (Athens, Mykonos), Italy, Canada, Moscow, Jamaica, Belize, Naples, Sicily, and now Spain, Morocco, and Portugal. I haven’t even scratched the surface!
So far it’s Mykonos. There’s just something about Greece. Puerto Rico runs a very close second.
How often do I travel?
Whenever I can find a deal and when I’m not experiencing any flare-ups.
Have I ever gotten sick while traveling?
Yes, I have. A few times. I think my worst experience was during a two-week cruise to Hawaii. I down-spiraled into a flare-up but was able to just listen to my body and rest and recover.
What is it I wish people knew about people who have Crohn’s that are travelers?
We don’t fit into any specific mold or group and category. We don’t pack like anyone else and we don’t eat what everyone else eats. We go to the bathroom. A LOT! It helps to travel with friends, family, and others who know your illness and triggers and are able to be more accepting if you’re up all night in the bathroom or have to stop several times during your trip. Patience is important. We don’t want to ruin a trip for anyone.
Tips for others with IBD/Crohn’s who desire to travel:
-Take short trips to start. Two or three days can get a feel for wherever you’re traveling internationally, but not keep you away from medical resources for too long if needed.
-Don’t feel pressured to do what everyone else does on your trips. I travel in small groups or with close friends. But I also take time away for myself if need to rest and recharge. It’s very important to listen to your body.
-Always visually locate bathrooms and know how to ask for them in the language of whatever country you’re visiting. I’ve had accidents while traveling, but I’ve learned to always pack extra clothes, Bleach wipes and trash bags, personal cleaning items, and a lot of patience.
-Don’t be ashamed of your illness. Maturity, patience, and understanding go a long way for people who don’t know what Crohn’s is, what complications and issues you face day-to-day and what challenges you can face when traveling. Traveling can be stressful enough. Don’t cause further pressure on yourself by worrying if someone will accept your challenges when you travel.
-Always take extra food in case you’re not able to eat anything on the menu or are experiencing diarrhea and dehydration. I usually keep tuna packs, saltine crackers, water, and peanut/almond butter with me whenever I travel.
-Know your stress triggers and avoid them when traveling. Even though traveling can be extra exciting and you want to see and do everything, understand your limitations, listen to your body, and develop ways that work for you individually to reduce stress and balance you. For me, it’s yoga and meditation.
-Stay hydrated, take your meds as scheduled, and ENJOY YOUR JOURNEY.
Sylvia Mitchell is currently the Creative Director and Sr. Graphic Designer for a non-profit organization in Decatur, Georgia. She has a degree in Visual Communication and Graphic Design and also runs her own graphic design and printing studio specializing in branding design and printing. She has worked for such media companies as Warner Brothers, Gannett Broadcasting, Cox Communications, and Turner Broadcasting. She is experienced in Audience Research, Sales Marketing, Social Media Marketing, and Visual Communications. To learn more about Crohn’s Disease, or find out common symptoms, please visit http://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/ and talk to your doctor if you or a loved one are experiencing any of these common symptoms.
How to reach Sylvia: