The past few days have been an emotional rollercoaster ride for me. I was supposed to fly to Israel, a trip I have wanted to do for many, many years but I am writing this at a hotel in Berlin. What happened?
Israel has been on my bucket list for a very long time. I imagined myself walking the old town of Jerusalem, seeing the golden dome from the Mount of Olives and being speechless visiting Yad Vashem, inhaling the special atmosphere of the city and strolling around exploring beautiful little places.
I thought about how I would take a walk by the ocean in Tel Aviv after a good night’s sleep and how I would mingle with people, eat delicious Arabian food and just have a relaxed time.
On my trip to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon the wish became stronger. I visited the gulf of Aqaba with my partner in crime at the time and it felt like you could swim over to Eilat. The gulf is very narrow and you can hear the party crowd in Eilat at night. We couldn’t go though because we needed to go back to Syria and there would have been no way to do so with an Israeli stamp in our passports.
Then there came other journeys but Israel still was at the back of my mind. Recently I was trying to decide where to go next when a friend shared his enthusiasm about Tel Aviv on Facebook. Not long after that I booked my flight and was ready to go and explore the holy land.
Health and traveling
I have never been reasonable when it comes to my health. When I was young I would still participate at my team’s Basketball game with fever and a bronchitis even if that meant using one hand for dribbling while using the other one for my inhaler.
I work too much, spend too much time in front of the multiple screens I use during a regular day and I push myself hard even when I should listen to my exhausted body. I guess I never learned to listen. As a kid I was sent to school even with fever and when I was sick I wasn’t really looked after so the importance of looking after yourself was never much more than a theoretical construct for me although I have asthma and should know better.
Two years ago, before my trip around the world, I had to go to hospital twice. First there was a major asthma attack out of the blue that kept me in hospital for several days. It was terrifying because neither medication nor pure oxygen gave me real relief. I got better after some days and went back to working crazy – my plan was to leave for my sabbatical with all my current projects finished. It didn’t take long and after a meeting I had a sight disorder. The first thought that came to my mind was “That’s it. I’m probably having a stroke.”
I was rushed to the hospital where I spent a week at the stroke unit and underwent MRT, EEG, a spinal tap and all kinds of medical exams. My mind started playing tricks on me when I had to wait for the MRT the whole week. I was so scared that instead of traveling the world someone would come and announce death sentence to me.
The neurologists didn’t find anything and I was told that my symptoms – though atypical – might be related to a migraine with aura. It felt like I got that vague diagnosis only because they didn’t know what else to tell me and I asked several times if those symptoms could be stress-related but that’s not a neurologist’s perspective so I was told no.
After I was released from the hospital I started having panic attacks. I had heard about them and knew the symptoms so I was quite lucky being able to identify them as such right away. The “funny” thing about panic attacks: They tend to make you mistrust yourself and at some point you find yourself doubting your mental health as you’re torn between believing you’re experiencing a heart attack and thinking “my mind is playing tricks on me”.
My sabbatical was six months long and the first two months panic attacks were my travel companion. I would be in the most beautiful surrounding in Northern India, meeting inspiring people and all of a sudden I would feel the panic creep up, slowly and heavily. I stayed at an Ashram and I found ways of facing myself at Yoga and meditation practice and the more I did that, the harder the panic waves would crush down on me.
If you ever tried to swim or surf at the ocean you know how it is with waves: if you run, they are faster and hit you hard, leaving you sitting on your ass. If you try to stay on top the big ones will drag you down and you’ll have a near-death-experience. So if you don’t want to let the waves take full control, you duck-dive. Diving in may be scary but it’s the only way you can be kind of sure you make it back out of the water in one piece.
So that’s what I did. I talked to people, I dived in even though I wanted to run and I spent many hours sitting at the Ganges after morning Yoga, watching the water in the holy river flow towards the ocean and I cried and cried. Don’t worry, it wasn’t sad it was actually like a cleansing. I always had to be strong in my life – when I was a toddler there was a war between my parents, so I had to fight to ever be heard, after their divorce and with a horrible stepmother I had to learn early I could only ever rely on myself. One friend always used to call me her warrior as fighting for what’s right seemed to be my core competence.
On my trip I learned to be a little easier on myself – I didn’t do all I had planned, I stayed longer at some places, skipped others and it was fine. I gained my strength back and by the time I reached Australia, I was happy and enjoyed traveling 100 percent.
Monkey mind or medical problem?
So here I am, two years later, and shortly before my trip to Israel, I experienced dizziness and a sight disorder when on a business trip. While last time, I underwent so many exams this time the friendly doctor at the eye clinic in Leipzig told me right away I suffer from migraine with aura and that the blood vessel in my eyes look like I have high blood pressure. This time the dizziness wasn’t gone after day one. I still get dizzy several times a day, two weeks after the incident in Leipzig.
I had a 24 hours blood pressure test with the result that my doctor said my results were better than his (very scientific approach). I was sent to a neurologist the day before my planned departure and he did an EEG in combination with one of those lamps that can cause a seizure in people suffering from epilepsy. Nothing abnormal was detected. The neurologist told me that this didn’t mean I’m safe. It could be migraine with aura but apparently people usually start having symptoms when they hit puberty – not in their fourties. He said without all the exams I underwent last time there was simply no way to be sure I wouldn’t experience a stroke or that the symptoms might come from a blood clot. At the same time he didn’t recommend anything. I know as a doctor he cannot say I should fly but neither did he recommend anything else like medication, further exams. I should observe the symptoms and a holiday would probably be good no matter what caused the symptoms.
So here I was, not knowing what to do.
Support via Social Media
Two days prior I had posted my situation on Facebook and I am still overwhelmed by the reactions. There are some very open public comments on my Fb page but so many people sent me emails, whatsapps, private messages on Fb or called me and told me that they suffered from similar symptoms.
Working with a health insurance company, I know that migraine and anxiety are very common but it was encouraging and shocking at the same time to find out how many people in my social network are affected.
Everyone told me I should go and enjoy Israel. Those closer to me who know me well never doubted for a second I wouldn’t go. I found out I’m perceived as a role model when it comes to being strong. Knowing that many people with similar symptoms or experiences that are even worse, never had anything more than those really irritating and scary symptoms encouraged me so much I decided I should go.
I was still waiting for my best friend to tell me that I’m crazy and I should stay and look after my health (that’s what she usually recommends) but then she said “of course you go and make sure to share those pictures!”
So here I was with my bag packed, ready to go when I got dizzy again and that little voice in my head started screaming “It’s not worth it! You have traveled so much and probably will do so in the future but do you really want to risk a stroke, a thrombosis or a really severe headache up there in the air?” So I made my peace with the situation and decided to stay and change some things in my life, starting with living healthier. I’m always told I should work less but I think working too much is not the core. It’s more about me not eating healthy, not working out, not sleeping regularly. Ever since the death of my last relationship there was only work, no real me-time.
That’s where the story ends? No, it’s not. I had just started relaxing, when one of my Fb contacts who I haven’t met in real life yet, contacted me and shared his story with me. He encouraged me to go and made sure the little voice inside my head was now convinced it’s my monkey mind sending me those symptoms. So, I grabbed my bag and drove to Berlin to catch that flight and have a great time.
While driving, it became clear I was racing against time as there were several traffic jams due to some accidents on the highway and all of a sudden I was really scared I wouldn’t make it in time. I arrived 20 minutes before the checkin closed but my head was pounding and I was really, really dizzy.
Instead of checking in, I became very calm and continued chatting with that person. This is something I love about life and social media. A (more or less) stranger being there for you when you need a kind of support that cannot be given by the ones too close to you. He then told me he had been very close to conquering Kilimandscharo when he turned around as he experienced chest pain and how this was a turning point in his life. He threw away his bucket list after Kilimandscharo and changed several things, being more attentive towards himself is one of them.
It became crystal clear to me that if I checked in nothing would change. I would have a scary flight with or without a medical problem and I would probably have a great time in Israel, would meet my friend Lauren, dive into Israeli culture as I know Alon and Karni, two very nice Israelis I met in India and I would go back to continue the rat race. So I spent the time chatting with two people and finding a hotel in Berlin where I still am today. I spent the past 36 hours doing basically nothing. Having tea, healthy food, conversations with strangers, taking a little walk and spending as much time offline as possible.
I still feel dizzy every other hour and I need to find out whether the problem is medical or not but while it makes me sad I’m not in laidback Tel Aviv right now, I’m sure this decision will prove to be the right one in the long run.
Thank you all for your support – you know who you are and it means a lot to me!
And to those haters (you know who you are as well!): Keep the anonymous letters coming, go bitch at work and try to bring those who trust me not to do so anymore – I dare you! I’m stronger than you!