On the day I’m scheduled to travel I wake up with a sense of dread. Will I be having a good RA day, in which I’m limber and peppy, ready to prance across the airport, or will I be traveling on swollen joints, dragging my bag and my body every step of the way?
I spend the days leading up to any trip acting responsibly so that it’s the former. I try to get decent amounts of sleep. When I pack my bag, I take breaks to sit down and rest, trying to fend off accidental swelling. I ice. I elevate. I get a flu shot. I even meditate.
“Hail Mary, full of grace,” gets thrown in for good measure.
I count my pills so that each prescription lasts through the trip. My walking shoes are placed right next to my bedroom doorway, in my line of sight, so that there’s no way I’ll forget them. I go up a few extra milligrams of prednisone three days before my departure to preemptively attack whatever is coming. I even make enormous personal sacrifices, cutting down on potato chips and other potential bloaters. I am ready.
This time, none of this works.
I wake up on the day of my departure, and as soon as I bend my knees, I can tell something’s wrong. The right knee isn’t straightening out all the way. The left one feels itchy and warm. I swing my legs out of bed and as soon as I stand up, I wince. The swelling has frozen my right knee into a slight bend. Standing on two feet is a gravity-defying, cringe-inducing balancing act because I have to figure out how to stand on two legs that are not the same length. Cue hip pain on top of everything else. I start to fear the mundane: standing in the shower, hauling my suitcase from the car to the curb. Most of all, I fear the TSA line. I pray I won’t topple over before I hand over my boarding pass and i.d.
“The Lord is with thee. Blessed art though amongst . . . air travelers?”
There is nothing to hold on to, let alone lean against, in the dreaded TSA line.
I could be mitigating some of this. I could pay extra money to move into Economy Plus, so that I might stretch out a little bit more en route. But I promised myself I’d stop wasting money on small indulgences, which are adding up. I could also catch a ride at the airport—on one of those golf carts. That option sounds obvious, but I’m full of stubborn pride and vanity. I’ve ridden one only once, after I decided to take a flight two weeks after arthroscopic surgery. It was the only time I could justify it—to myself. Still, I felt humiliated, caught under a spotlight of judgment. Most of all, I was certain I was taking a seat from someone who needed it more. And the magic golf cart is often very slow. You might lose time on it.
Sometimes, when I’m in very bad shape on the day of my journey, I head to the front of the boarding line after those who need “extra assistance” have been expressly invited to step forward. Oh the looks I get when I shuffle past others. Last time I tried this, the guy boarding the flight (Hey, Delta!), looked at me and rolled his eyes.
“How much time do you think you need, ma’am,” he asked.
I forced some laughter and kept on walking.
“Keep moving so he doesn’t stop me,” I coached myself.
As I moved toward the airplane, I might have exaggerated my limp, just a little. Let him see what I’m going through! Unfortunately I’m a terrible actress, and also, unsurprisingly, I have no physical dexterity. Faking an already-existing limp turns me into Igor from Young Frankenstein. I bump into more things than I would have if I’d just stuck to my unadulterated impediment.
It’s a privilege to have the means to travel—to go to conferences, to meet new people, to accompany my husband on his journeys. And I love it. I’ve caught myself marveling at the clouds like I did when I was little, amazed that we’re above them.
But despite my prayers, the last month was particularly rough. I traveled from my home in Baton Rouge to D.C., from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles, and from Baton Rouge to Idaho. And now, I’m an exhausted, puffy, prednisone-filled mess. There’s a price for what brings me joy.
Less space in economy, where you’re most likely to find my cheap ass, means that my knees are locked in a 90-degree angle for hours on end. I can feel my pants expanding at the same rate as the circumference of the bursas around my joints.
Connections are hell. The next gate is always elusive, like the lamppost marking the way home from Narnia. Have you noticed that connections are now shorter? My version of a travel nightmare: 45 minutes to get from one plane to another, with an in-airport train transfer. One of the escalators that connects the terminal to the in-airport train is invariably broken, which adds a flight of huffing and puffing up interminable stairs.
I like to think this is not an aerobic problem (TBD). The real issue is that I need to have the option of not carrying my bag. I need to roll it and then I need to rest it on an escalator step. If I reach a broken escalator, I feel like Jack at the foot of the beanstalk. I can’t see the top. And I have to instantaneously decide which elbow on which arm is less swollen and should be chosen to heave my bag. I am now sweating from the stress of the decision. I don’t know what effect 25 pounds of weight will have on an inflamed elbow. And I don’t have enough time to do a test run. I have to haul ass and get moving.
The elevator, you say? Too crowded. Or not enough time to wait for it. Also, risky—full of antsy passengers who think that I should be picking up the pace to board said elevator and are not above shoving me to make this happen.
I hit one or more of these setbacks during each one of my last three trips. Predictable, I suppose. I always know something will go wrong, and I know that I’ll be in bad shape once the traveling is over. It will take a few weeks to recover. I plan for that too.
But now, three weeks after my string of journeys has ended, my knees are still swollen. Even after I increased my prednisone dosage from 4 to 10 milligrams, even after I caught up on my sleep and got back to a normal routine, the swelling didn’t go away. Instead, it got worse with each passing day. This pain is sharp and new.
Something else is happening. Something I’ve never dealt with before. Something I hope to never deal with again.
What’s happening to me? Stay tuned to find out.