My long climb back to the dream of a Hi­malayan selfie

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chemist’s but noth­ing was work­ing. This ob­vi­ously wasn’t just a sim­ple case of the flu, so I went back to my GP, but he couldn’t work out what was wrong ei­ther. As a last re­sort, I saw other physi­cians for a sec­ond opin­ion but even they couldn’t es­tab­lish an ac­cu­rate prog­no­sis.

Fi­nally, one doc­tor re­ferred me to the Uni­ver­sity Hos­pi­tal of Wales where a con­sul­tant did an ex­ten­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tion. I was di­ag­nosed with myal­gic en­cephalomyeli­tis (ME) and fi­bromyal­gia, and I also de­vel­oped mul­ti­ple chem­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity or MCS, an al­ler­gic-type re­ac­tion to low lev­els of chem­i­cals in ev­ery­day prod­ucts, which is a symp­tom of ME. All these con­di­tions com­bined meant that I was un­able to lift my body off the bed or even feed my­self.

The con­sul­tant was un­able to con­firm that my ail­ments were the di­rect con­se­quence of the vac­ci­na­tions, how­ever he was un­able to find any other prob­a­ble cause. The ini­tial symp­toms ap­peared when I had my first few jabs and pro­gressed rapidly dur­ing the two months while hav­ing the rest.

Travel was im­pos­si­ble as I strug­gled to re­mas­ter the ba­sics of daily living. I was house­bound for a long time and only glimpsed the world through friends’ post­cards. My pre­oc­cu­pa­tions for the day were rudi­men­tary: How was I go­ing to get dressed? How was I go­ing to eat? Life be­fore then was ad­ven­ture-filled, with trips to Europe and des­ti­na­tions fur­ther afield such as Egypt and Rus­sia. I wanted des­per­ately to again ex­plore beyond the four walls of my bed­room.

Fi­nally, in 2009, af­ter 14 long years of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and ther­apy, I got the chance. It had been more than a decade since I had last seen the sea, so I or­gan­ised a trip to Find­horn near In­ver­ness for a coastal re­treat and walks along the beach. When I ar­rived, I was like a child – full of joy and ex­cite­ment at the sight and sound of wa­ter lap­ping against the shore. I dipped my feet in the cool wa­ter and felt so grate­ful that I was less re­stricted than be­fore. Sure, I still packed a walk­ing stick, but I could walk on my own. The dis­tances were mod­est and I am­bled along small stretches of the sixmile sands. There was a real sense of free­dom ex­plor­ing alone for the first time in so long. My new­found con­fi­dence was bol­stered by a lot of prepa­ra­tion: sev­eral weeks of map­ping out my itin­er­ary, ex­tra sup­port from a per­sonal as­sis­tant, re­search­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion that was suit­able given my chem­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ties, con­tact­ing pro­pri­etors be­fore­hand with health re­quests and book­ing travel as­sis­tance at the air­port.

It took me an­other seven years to muster the strength and fi­nan­cial means to go on a sec­ond trip, which also re­quired tak­ing a plane. But, last year, to cel­e­brate my 45th birth­day, I flew to Ed­in­burgh to spend time with a friend, Ella, at her home in the Scot­tish cap­i­tal. I was elated. I me­an­dered along the Royal Mile and New Town, stop­ping at the Scot­tish Po­etry Li­brary, the Scot­tish Na­tional Por­trait Gallery and the Fes­ti­val The­atre, where I saw The James Plays. On my first few days there, I was ex­hausted from all the stim­uli – cars and buses honk­ing and bag­pipe mu­sic play­ing in the air. It had been years since I had last been in a fre­netic cap­i­tal out­side of fa­mil­iar Cardiff and Lon­don. But, I felt a real affin­ity with the city and a sense of achieve­ment from all the sight­see­ing, even if I didn’t say any­thing. I think he knew what I meant. As the wa­ter lapped against the reeds, I felt a sense of peace.

Af­ter our ex­cur­sion, I stayed for a long week­end in a cot­tage in the grounds of Coity Mawr, an old manor house nes­tled on a hill above Taly­bont-on-Usk reach­able only by a nar­row, wind­ing lane. I don’t of­ten meet other peo­ple with MCS, so I was sur­prised to learn that the owner had also suf­fered from chem­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ties. He was ac­com­mo­dat­ing of my re­quests, which can some­times come across as bizarre to ho­tel staff who don’t un­der­stand my con­di­tions. Can I have a room that hasn’t been re­cently re­dec­o­rated or newly painted or car­peted? Is the ac­com­mo­da­tion a new-build? What clean­ing flu­ids and wash­ing pow­der do they use? Could they per­haps use Ecover Zero, an al­lergy-ap­proved clean­ing prod­uct? If not, then I would need to bring my own sheets and pil­low­cases.

The owner didn’t think I was bonkers or a pain in the back­side. In fact, he was un­per­turbed and thought­ful, and I had a fan­tas­tic stay whiling away the days in front of the wood burner and tak­ing strolls in the nearby for­est. Un­like peo­ple who need a wheel­chair, my con­di­tions aren’t out­wardly as vis­i­ble, so it’s un­der­stand­able that the word dis­abil­ity doesn’t quickly spring to mind. While there’s still a lot of work to be done to raise aware­ness and make travel fully ac­ces­si­ble for peo­ple like my­self, my mo­bil­ity con­tin­ues to im­prove and I re­main hope­ful. My re­cent trips prove that there is light at the end of the tun­nel. My next stop? Sin­ga­pore, where my sis­ter has lived for the past three years. And who knows, one day I might even be able to fi­nally take that selfie on top of the Hi­malayas.

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