End of One Illusion: No Safe Place

One of the problems with vertigo is that there is no safe place for me, except for sitting down.

I flew to and from Denver last week. I don’t mind flying–flying is easy. It’s the getting on the plane that’s difficult. Walking down the jetway is difficult. Declines are difficult—I don’t know where down is.

I flew Southwest, which is an uncommon experience for me. The problem is that in Boston, Southwest does not have many flights, so they have only a few kiosks, and no express bag check. I had to wait in line to check my bag along with everyone who had not yet printed their boarding pass. That took almost 30 minutes. By then I was dehydrated, because I had drunk all my pre-TSA water.

Then, because Southwest doesn’t have too many flights, they only had one line for security. One person thought it was critical that she rush past me and slide right in front of me to jump the security line ahead of me. I waited almost 30 minutes to get through security. I was barely able to answer the TSA person’s questions, because my aphasia had kicked in.

I was able to get some water before I walked to the gate, so I was able to speak before I had to ask for pre-boarding. I was able to pre-board, but the people who board next are the people who pay a premium on Southwest, and one gentleman ran down the jetway to the plane so he could get his bulkhead seat.

Unfortunately, this jetway was not rock solid. The jetway swayed as did his belly–just not as gently. As he passed me, I lost my balance and careened into the jetway, bouncing off the side. I didn’t fall down. I hung onto the jetway until he passed.

I was terrified.

I was afraid I would burst into tears. I was afraid I would fall over. I was afraid my days of independent travel were done. I was afraid, period. But I only had four feet remaining to get to the plane, so I took one step, then another step and continued until I got to the plane. The wonderful flight attendant took one look at me, realized that I was hanging on by a thread, and helped me to an aisle seat.

We wedged my briefcase under the seat in front of me. I folded my cane into the seat pocket, and I sat down and breathed.

I didn’t cry until later that night when I got to my hotel room. I hate being this physically fragile. I have all kinds of mental toughness, but not when it comes to my physical fragility. Then, I’m a big marshmallow.

The only good thing out of this incident is that I have more questions to ask when I fly on less familiar airlines. It’s time for me to ask for more help in unfamiliar situations because there is no safe place for me.

Public buildings are the safest, because they tend to have not-high-gloss floors, which are slippery. They tend to have low-nap rugs or carpet. They have banisters for stairs. They often have working elevators.

Private houses are quite unsafe for me. People do not always put rug liners under their throw rugs, so I step on them and go boom, fall down. And, people have tables and chairs and all sorts of things arranged so I have to walk around them—as they should.

Many buildings or floors inside a building are not flat. I am quite aware of when the floor is not flat. You don’t need a level with me around. I can tell you!

Sidewalks are horrible. It’s not the crack in the sidewalk–it’s the gap in the sidewalk that’s the problem.

It’s not the fall that bothers me. I don’t know when I’m falling down, so I’m quite relaxed. It’s the consequences of the fall that bothers me.

When I fell in the gym in February, I sustained a concussion and jarred some of my molars. I tend to fall on my left side when my knee gives out, or on my head, as a face plant, face first. I don’t want to lose any more teeth or get more concussions. I’m not a hockey or a football player; I’m a management consultant!

For a person with a compromised vestibular system, there is no safe place. There are safer places, and less safe places. I rely on the kindness of others and other people’s systems to make the world a safer place for me. That’s not very comfortable.

I have to take control of my environment to make the world a safe place for me. Maybe it’s time to take a wheelchair if I fly Southwest again. I suspect I am letting my (false) pride get in the way of my safety. That’s stupid, crazy, and nuts.

I will start looking for ways to create safety in my environment, even if does mean I use a wheelchair. I have to readjust my idea of a wheelchair. For me, a wheelchair has to mean safety in public, not lack of leg strength. That’s a transforming idea.

I will be flying on Southwest again, with Daughter #2 in a few weeks. We’ll discuss how to fly together. When I have company, it’s different. I have someone to give me feedback. I know now, how early to be at the airport. I know how much more water to bring. I know to ask for more help. And, maybe, I’ll ask for a wheelchair. We’ll see.

My big learning this time was that I have to create my own safety everywhere. I cannot depend on others. That’s why I have my bright flashlight. It’s why I carry a refillable bottle.  And, it’s why I have to ask for help anyway.

My independence is an illusion. I am independent inside a very narrow set of boundaries. Facing the end of that illusion is what’s so scary.

3 thoughts on “End of One Illusion: No Safe Place

  1. Joseph

    Johanna:
    If a power wheelchair will give you confidence, independence, stability and safety in public than that is a good thing. It will also keep you from getting fatigued, tired and dehydrated.

    The wrong fall at the wrong time could kill you.

    You are a hero!

  2. Carla

    I remember talking to you at a conference in Sydney about your courage to share your experiences of being ill and finding life difficult because of that. I also struggle on a daily basis with a life-threatening condition and trying to balance mood-altering medication with stress levels – hearing about your experiences is a constant source of inspiration and encouragement for me! Commiserations but also congratulations for keeping going!

  3. LizDanielson

    Johanna,
    No toughness around your physical frailness? OH WOMAN! I beg to differ. How many people would continue to travel as you do given your situation? Not too many. You are an inspiration and you are very, very strong. Crying doesn’t mean you’re weak, either. It just means you are human.
    Be well.

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