My set plan was always to gain two years of career experience after university before thinking about travel. But that would all change.
With the beige anoraks and cashmere black overcoats flurrying past me in my blurred peripheral vision, the sound of hundreds of pairs of shoes walking sharply past my ears, I knew something was wrong.
I can’t feel my finger or toes and I have to blink a few times before my eyes come into focus on the iconic curving walls of the tube station in central London that I have seen so many times before. I've fainted, this would be the first time.
Why paralysis made me want to take on the challenge to travel to every country in the world
I fainted on the tube in morning rush hour.
The few empathetic commuters look down at me fretfully. “Who can we contact?” and “Where are you going?” are questions I was asked.
But for the last few months an increasingly thick fog has shrouded my memory.
This particular morning, was a whole new class. I couldn't even answer these simple questions. It was a stomach-aching mixture of dread and panic.
As I came round I could finally gather my thoughts and drink some water.
Despite the obvious warning signs my body gave that morning, I spent the next nine hours on the phone, in meetings and making money for the investment company I worked for at the time.
Missing the Warning Signs
During the previous six months, I was so distracted by the weight of a messy breakup, my mum battling cancer and the $120 million I was required to bring in at work, I ignored what others would see as warning signs.
The other invisible-to-the-eye symptoms grew like ivy inside me, silently entwining the systems within my body, all the while being stubbornly unattested by me.
“To everyone lucky enough to have the choice: go and do what you really want as soon as it is feasible because the opportunity of that choice could be taken away from you in a second.”
My friend once dubbed a hangover “one of the worst days of her life”
There was, she described, a belt tightly wrapped around her brain as it swelled with each heartbeat; at each smell or noise, waves of nausea ran down her body, and she had the shakes with her body being so weak.
Hearing aloud her list of ailments for this one day, it struck me that she had identified the symptoms of my day-to-day life. One of the worst days of her life was a normal day for me.
What the hell was happening to my body?
After six months of feeling like my body was suffocating from an ever-growing unknown vice, I was correctly diagnosed in May 2014 with PoTS and M.E.PoTS, or Postural Tachycardia Syndrome is an abnormality of the functioning of the involuntary nervous system*. In a diagnosis of PoTS, an individual must experience a substantial heart rate increase of 40 beats per minute (BPM).
Resting my heart rate was 67 BPM when standing it would rapidly rise to 111 BPM, which went explained my fainting.
M.E., or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, is a chronic fluctuating, neurological condition that causes symptoms affecting commonly the nervous and immune systems.
Learning to Live with PoTS and M.E.
The relief of being diagnosed ignited me from within: my mind hadn’t been playing tricks on me after all, and I was told my pain could be helped. But the flame of hope was quickly stubbed out: there was no cure for these illnesses, and the chance of recovery was very slim. I was told I needed to learn to manage life expectations.
Managing Life Expectations
What did that even mean?! Was I going to have thoughts in my mind that felt like wading through mud forever?
Was the heartbeat of pain in my skull and joints ever going to subside? The doctor could give me no answers. Instead, all my ailments were met with coping strategies rather than recovery plans, all getting me comfortable wi h a life dictated by an endless list of invisible symptoms.
My Life Before
Before this all happened I had rowed to a top national level, I worked my arse off for the things I wanted. On a night out, I was in the group to always be out the latest; I put effort into being social and being a loyal friend. But everything I knew to be me, to what made a person the best version of themselves, stopped here.
Living in Denial
Despite knowing this, I spent another 8 months of my life in denial. Wanting to appear swan-like. My exterior appeared tranquil, easy-going and capable all to try to keep my life in London.
Underneath, however, I was kicking like hell, slowly being defeated by uncompromising HR policies, aversive managers and pay cuts all mixed in with my body’s ever-weakening capacity to keep the pain of my illnesses at bay.
December 2015 came and it was the worst month of my life to date. Infections of my chest, eyes, sinus, and bladder sat on top of my M.E. and PoTs. It was the most defeated my body has ever felt even the idea of walking for water or the toilet was too much.
PoTs took its chance to strike and I was forced to lie in total darkness to try to stop my migraine. Thanks to the symptoms of vertigo it felt like the room was spinning, and to add to this I had no feeling past my thighs.
I knew these were possible symptoms in extreme cases of PoTS but my doctor had patronizingly put ‘mild’ in front of my PoTs diagnosis. I had taken his word for it and assumed this extreme symptom wasn’t a possibility for me. But then again no one enjoys considering a life of paralysis, so why would I think about it happening to me?
Change of Plans and Life Goals
My set plan for two years’ work then travel was no longer on schedule. I pushed so hard to keep to this plan, yet only realized the true importance of prioritization when the opportunity of traveling had been taken away from me. Why had this not come first?
I didn’t even want to work in a corporate environment, I have always wanted to try and work for myself. Why had I put this set plan of years of corporate work experience before something I knew I wanted since I was old enough to understand the tales my parents often recalled about traveling?
I thought back to when I was a little girl, fascinated by their stories of travel in the 1970s and 1980s. I was captivated by their tales of facing 40-foot waves on an Atlantic crossing, being called ‘Angel’ as the first white person the Cong0lese tribe had seen canoeing through Africa, and of their treks through an unexplored Indonesian rainforest on expeditions.
I realized I put what others were doing and copying it as a priority over the value I put on travel. Why did it have to take no feeling in my legs to realize what was most important to me?
Triumph and Recovery
But here I am writing this today in the Andes of Ecuador, five months into traveling, knowing that recovering from what I had was a miracle.
The hardship of the uphill battle I faced recovering, felt like it was all risk and no reward. The whole journey was so incredibly lonely. The struggle had so many mental and physical debilitating setbacks.
Over 30%* of people with chronic illnesses also suffer from mental health problems, as I did because of this. No doubt because they have had a once rich life pulled away from them and can see no path back to normality. You are here in life, suffering, and feeling like you are never truly living.
Every choice in my two years of recovery was solely based on health, from what food I ate, when the dishwasher could be put on, to when I could take a shower. Everything else in my life was sacrificed to try to help my health.
In March 2017 my doctor told me I was in remission of my illnesses. My thoughts? I have a choice again. I can make choices I previously thought had been permanently pulled from my life.
I know I am incredibly lucky to recover the way I did. I will never take it for granted. I still felt like an average woman but to not do something with my second chance at life felt like a waste. I wanted to give back, to travel and try to make a dent in others’ lives for the better.
Going back to a job I had previously would just make my life feel like an ongoing bunch of Tuesdays.
Embracing a New Lease on Life
I am the same woman, but everything in my life has been changed for the better. I am now aiming to become the first chronic illness story to travel to every country in the world. As I do this I am presenting to the younger generation all over the world on the subjects of health and travel.
My hope is that my story can inspire while making invisible illnesses, including mental health, a topic that should be openly discussed and taken seriously. I am a woman doing this alone and none of this daunts me when compared to my battle with health.
To everyone lucky enough to have the choice: go and do what you really want as soon as it is feasible because the opportunity of that choice could be taken away from you in a second.
Phoebe Howlett is currently traveling the world.
I want to show that you can really make the most of your life through travel so started, The Chance of Choice.
I am aiming to be the second documented woman and first chronic illness story in history to travel to every country in the world! I write about once in a lifetime experiences, travel, health and provide guides to each country I have traveled in.
I do this with the hope you guys can see traveling and staying healthy is easier than it seems. Everyone can make the most of there life no matter what you want to do!
If you want to follow my journey you can do so on Instagram, facebook, twitter, pinterest and youtube. And on my travel blog: The Chance of Choice.