Reality is the latch in front of me. Who knew a latch could be so fascinating? I look at its shape, its simplicity, and feel content. It can swing left, or right, or stay exactly in the middle. It can rest at any of a hundred points along its 180 degree range of motion. So many possibilities.
My brain is utterly content watching this unmoving latch. That’s how I know I am already tired. Overstimulated. Looking at the latch is restful, a simple place for my mind to dwell and recover. This is my first plane ride in more than five years, and my first flight after two mTBIs. The noise, the people, the unfamiliarity are already exhausting me, and I have so far yet to go.
My world has changed so much since my first concussion. Instead of a tolerably unpleasant, casually tiring trip across the country, I am now in the middle of an epic journey. I am the star in a great and brave adventure where I travel – on my own – across the country. Where I have spent weeks planning every accommodation I might need, and where I will spend weeks recovering from said epic adventure.
Flying across the U.S. is no small task. Going from a small airport and arriving at another small airport across the country means a minimum of two connections and three flights. I have a good schedule, but 13 hours on airplanes or in airports is still, well, 12 1/2 hours more energy than I can casually spare.
One thing keeps me safe – I have planned for this. Since I am prepared, it is all going to be okay. I follow my plan – it is a good plan, but sometimes rather embarrassing. For example, giant ear muffs (rated for rifle firing) over a set of earplugs brings the noise of the aircraft down to a dull hum.
I look weird, but it is effective. My wide-brimmed hat I can finally remove because the overhead lights have been turned off. Ibuprofen and caffeine rush through my system, helping me deal with the discomfort and over-stimulation of my journey. My rolling “personal item” sized bag fits easily beneath my seat, saving me from the potential headache I might get from carrying it. I am prepared.
My first flight passes with me mostly looking at that lucky latch. A success.
Once we land, I use the wheelchair service for the first time. Awkward… so awkward. I don’t intend to make little old ladies wait while I am wheeled only a few gates away, but I do. I hadn’t anticipated this issue, have no mental resources to spare, so I say nothing. I avoid eye contact, climb into the wheelchair, and we are off. As I’m wheeled through the terminal, I close my eyes to decrease the visual stimulation of people, movement, businesses. I keep my ear plugs in to decrease noise. I feel awkward, but I get what I need – guidance to my next gate without having to think or make decisions.
Once I am at my next gate, I whip out my next accommodation – food. Security confiscated some very aggressive applesauce, but I have bbq chicken and rice to eat. And I do eat. I’m not hungry, but I need to make sure I don’t ever get to the point of hunger during this trip. I am alone, and when my glucose level drops my ability to cope with stress, problem solve, and process the world around me is significantly impaired. So, I eat, even though I am not hungry.
Another flight, another airport. I’m surprised that I am as functional as I am. I’m foggy and have a headache, but I’m still able to think. My energy isn’t high, but it hasn’t bottomed out.
I decide to do something different. As I exit the plane, I walk past the line of wheelchairs. I ignore them. Actually, more, I pretend they have nothing to do with me. I stride slowly up the gangway and don’t look back. I can find my own way.
As I enter the airport proper, I am immediately overwhelmed by people, noise, visual stimulation. As I walk along, there are businesses everywhere, and people, and so much sunlight. In another life, I would have found it quite pretty and interesting. In this reality, it is simply another thing to bear.
I stop in the walkway and look at the signs. This way is gates 50+, that way are gates 50-. Which way to do I need to go? I look both ways, seeing no clues. I could text Mary and ask her my gate number, but I want to do this myself. I know I can do this myself.
First, I need to find one of the departures boards. They always have the gate information. Simple, right? But as I look around, I don’t see any. Where are they? I head toward the business area, figuring I’ll quickly find a departure board there. I walk past store after store and see nothing that fits the bill. Where is it?
Oh, a terminal map. Maybe that will tell me where a departures board is. Maps use to be one of my best friends. Post mTBI, they are an exercise in confusion – too much information, too difficult to sort through. I try; I give it several goes. I glance at the map to see if anything jumps out. Nothing. Then, I read carefully through the legend and figure out the symbols. No help there. Next, I slowly and painfully read through the list of businesses. Nope. Finally, I try to “scan” – to open my mind to any type of information I didn’t already examine closely. Nada. Sigh.
Where the hell are the departure boards? I walk on. Looking. Looking. Another moving sidewalk, and more looking. I am sure I am not the only one who wants to find out their gate. Surely they are around here somewhere.
A stroke of luck – an information desk, staffed. In a previous life, I would have only asked for help in the direst of circumstances. Now, I consider asking for help one of my better coping mechanisms, one of the most reliable ways to find out what I need to know.
“Can I help you?” He says.
“Excuse me” I say. My ‘excuse me’ was planned before he spotted me and spoke, so it comes out of my mouth after his words even though no longer appropriate. A small social bump, but ignorable.
I continue, “I’m looking for the screens, the information.” Frustration. What would other people call the thing I’m looking for?
“The information structure with flights, with the gates.” I say with vague rectangular-shaped gestures. My mind still flails, trying to find the right words, but his expression changes and he knows what I mean.
Before he speaks, though, I spot it. “There it is!” I exclaim, pointing, and walk away. Damn, another social gaffe. To smooth that out, I holler “thank you” over my shoulder and wave vaguely. Some of the smoothness of my interactions are gone, true, but they are adequate. A real success in my world now, adequacy.
The rest of the day goes smoothly. In fact, my entire trip goes smoothly. No catastrophes, and nothing I can’t handle with my accommodations and preparation. It’s a day with a lot of firsts – first plane travel after mTBI, first week long trip by myself, first Airbnb solo, first Uber, first wheelchair assist, first having someone else haul my bag off the baggage carousel for me.
But the most important thing is this – I succeed. By arriving at my destination, I succeed. By staying functional enough to navigate the experience alone, I succeed. By being cautious and follow my accommodation strategies, I succeed. Thank you, Universe, for helping me succeed.