My long climb back to the dream of a Himalayan selfie
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.