Five months ago, I realized my dream of a life of full-time travel, while navigating several chronic health conditions.Hannah Shewan Stevens
Travel has always been important to me, but for many years, I gave it up to due to chronic illness.
While I still live with pain, in 2021, a life-changing surgery helped me fulfill my travel dream.
I’ve spent the last few months in Asia and revolve travel around my health. I have no plans to stop.
I grew up with travel-hungry parents who made adventure an integral part of my childhood and travel has always been important to me. But for most of my life, I’ve never been able to travel freely due to several chronic illnesses.
Travel was always important to me, but felt impossible for many years due to illness.Hannah Shewan Stevens
Since I was 14 years old, I have lived with a complex combination of disabling chronic illnesses, including undiagnosed endometriosis, fibromyalgia, and an autoimmune disease that affects my skin and joints called localized scleroderma.
Between 18 and 26, I was also diagnosed with irritable bowel disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, complex-post traumatic stress disorder, joint hypermobility syndrome, and vaginismus.
I experience chronic fatigue and 24/7 pain, which sometimes make basic cognitive functions, such as concentration or speaking clearly, feel impossible.
As a result, I came to believe that travel was impossible because I did not know if my symptoms would worsen or if a new underlying condition would surface. I gave up traveling for years.
In my early twenties, I wanted to be a freelance journalist and digital nomad to travel and work full-time. Unfortunately, the life-limiting impact of my illnesses convinced me that I was incapable of navigating the lifestyle.
I gave up travel for years.Hannah Shewan Stevens
I was also discouraged from pursuing full-time travel by people who believed I would be incapable of managing illness on the road.
So I shelved the idea.
Instead, I worked until burnout fried me to a crisp. I logged seven-day weeks alone in my home office to make up for all the journalism and press officer work I lost as a result of the pandemic.
Then, in late 2021, my previously undiagnosed endometriosis was officially treated after living with the symptoms for 15 years. A successful surgery allowed me to see that full-time travel could finally be possible.
In late 2021, an endometriosis diagnosis changed everything.Hannah Shewan Stevens
While I’ve experienced pain from endometriosis since I was 14, it was not diagnosed until last year when a specialist recognized that I had it. Within a month, I was in an operating room.
Before surgery, my mobility suffered so much as a result of my endometriosis that walking up more than two flights of stairs felt excruciating. I also experienced widespread pain, which worsened during ovulation and menstruation, and a constant need to urinate, meaning social plans were always dictated by access to a toilet.
My surgeon excised endometrial tissue from my urethra, ovaries, cervix and womb and my relief was immediate. Daily pain levels reduced from an immobilizing 10 to a manageable five, my bladder began functioning normally, and my mobility vastly improved thanks to the absence of lesions.
After the surgery eased my symptoms, and influenced by a friend planning a round-the-world trip, I remembered the travel dream I put in storage.
Thanks to my surgery and the development of a strict set of pain management techniques, including regular physiotherapy and mindfulness practice, I felt empowered to finally become a digital nomad.
Five months ago, I put everything I owned into storage to travel. But taking the leap required a lot more planning for me than the average traveler.
Planning a life of full-time travel required more planning than most people.Hannah Shewan Stevens
As I decided to give up a comfortable life at home in Birmingham, England, I had to consider whether full-time travel would be safe for a person with a multitude of chronic physical and mental health conditions. My life is dictated by the severity of each day’s symptoms and a nomadic lifestyle could compromise my health.
Currently, the medication I take for localized scleroderma, an autoimmune disease, suppresses the immune system to put it into remission. As a result, because it’s no longer in an active phase, I’m not immunocompromised and may travel.
However, I still worried that I could possibly contract viruses that my immune system might not fight off, whether I would require emergency treatments in remote locations, suffer incapacitating pain levels, or that my mobility might decrease again.
Managing flare-ups — which occur when the symptoms of a chronic illness suddenly worsen — on the road would also be harder without access to my network of loved ones who are there for me on my bad days.
However, with the combined support of my family, friends, and doctors, I put together a plan to make digital nomad life possible and forged ahead. The risks to my physical health were significant but I decided that my mental health and desire to travel were just as important.
I also had to accept that I would be traveling without comprehensive medical insurance.
I made the decision to travel without health insurance.Hannah Shewan Stevens
In my experience, securing affordable travel insurance with pre-existing conditions is difficult and often significantly more expensive because the insurance company expects that people will have a higher chance of needing to file a claim.
And since I have such a complex combination of chronic illnesses that are all likely to need further treatment in the coming years, I am required to pay a much higher premium. This makes it challenging for me to find comprehensive coverage.
If I encounter an emergency related to one of my conditions while traveling, I will need to pay out of pocket. So before I hit the road, one of the first things I did was save money for an emergency fund for any extraneous medical expenses.
I saved for six months by sacrificing most of my social life and scrimping on food and travel expenses. I pocketed that money away instead, saving for the average cost of a three-month stay in a South East Asian hospital. Pocketing money away for potential medical emergencies has given me peace of mind and made it possible for me to travel without full comprehensive coverage.
With my then-partner, I boarded a one-way flight to Thailand in April 2022. It was the best decision I ever made.
I left on a one-way flight to Southeast Asia and haven’t looked back.Hannah Shewan Stevens
Picking Thailand to start was simple. It was the cheapest flight to Southeast Asia from England.
I spent two months in the country exploring the winding streets and expansive food markets of Bangkok before heading to Koh Phangnan in southern Thailand. I only planned to visit for a week but stayed for nearly six because I fell in love with island life and the local people who called this paradise home.
While I avoided any major flare-ups, I did encounter a series of accessibility issues as step-free access felt like a rarity in Thailand. I learned to navigate Bangkok by prioritizing the Sky train, which always had lift access, and introduced hip and knee strengthening exercises into my physiotherapy routine to improve my ability to walk up flights of stairs with less pain.
After Thailand, I flew to Vietnam for two months. I explored Da Nang, a city in the center of the country, and later, the caves of Phong Nha, remote landscapes in Ninh Binh, and the city bustle of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.
In Vietnam, catching COVID-19 temporarily set me back.Hannah Shewan Stevens
My health remained manageable until I caught COVID-19 in Hanoi and lost nearly two weeks of exploration time as the virus triggered a flare-up of epic proportions.
Although being unwell alone in a foreign country was scary, I am proud of myself for how I handled it by going to the local hospital for treatment and taking a full week of bed rest to recover.
I also spent time in Cambodia where I split the month between the capital of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to give my body a break. While there, I fell in love with the people I met who welcomed me with open arms as I explored their historical and cultural landmarks.
Now, I only pick my next destination when my visa for the country I’m in is close to expiring. This way, I stay more relaxed to take things one day at a time, and let my travel plans change whenever I meet new people, hear about an exciting new place, or spot a cheap flight.
While I avoid planning too far ahead, I hope to visit Laos, Indonesia, and India next.
I also prioritize slow travel, which is defined as exploring places at a slower pace and emphasizing the connection with the local people, culture, and food over hitting the top tourist attractions.
I practice slow travel to help manage my health.Hannah Shewan Stevens
In my experience, traveling too often risks burnout, flare-ups, and prevents me from developing a meaningful bond with the place I’m visiting.
By leaning into slow travel, I give my body the rest it needs and have space to develop a strong connection to a new place.
Slow travel also helps me stick to my management strategies for my illnesses on the road. While I do not require medication or regular hospital visits, my conditions are unpredictable. To anticipate this, I always book accommodation within easy reach of pharmacies and hospitals, and I never book them more than a few days in advance to keep my plans fluid based on how I’m feeling.
Other strategies I follow center around daily physical therapy and meditation, which I perform in my Airbnb or at the closest beach to strengthen my body and mind to manage pain levels. I carve out at least 30 minutes every day for each practice.
Three months into my travels, I broke up with my partner and faced digital nomad life solo. At first, the fear of not having someone close by in an emergency nearly overwhelmed me. But solo travel motivated me to adjust my priorities to take better care of myself.
I now travel solo.Hannah Shewan Stevens
For me, having a partner made it easier to manage chronic illness on the road. They provided emotional and physical support, offered reminders to rest, and gave assistance in the form of food and distraction on bad pain days.
When I found myself without them, I felt isolated and, frankly, terrified.
The break-up almost sent me home with my tail between my legs. But I resisted and refocused my attention on managing being a chronically-ill solo traveler with the strategies I learned work for me.
First, I put my health over everything and continued to slow down. I now set aside two days for rest every week, which allows my body to recharge. If I feel pain levels creeping up, I extend my stay until they ease. When friends want to take on physically challenging activities, I only go if my current fatigue and pain levels are low enough. If my body demands rest, I listen. I also dedicated more time in my daily routine to physiotherapy and meditation.
To combat loneliness when it’s just me in a sparse hotel room, and being alone makes my pain seem worse, I cope by prioritizing regular calls with loved ones. All of my illnesses impact my mental health, so managing the low points without loved ones nearby is difficult. I find that scheduled regular calls with family and friends back home fills in any gaps in emotional support.
I’ve also come to appreciate how solo traveling has given me complete control over my schedule. Without a travel partner who I must compromise with, I’m able to take everything at a gradual pace, which speeds up or slows down depending on the current state of my symptoms.
Despite the hardships, for me, the benefits of long-term travel vastly outweigh the difficulties of doing it alone, or not at all and I have no plans to give it up anytime soon.
The benefits of travel vastly outweigh the difficulties of doing it alone, or not at all.Hannah Shewan Stevens
Since I no longer need to cover the higher cost of bills and rent in England, I work fewer hours. My health has reaped the rewards.
Previously, working full-time triggered flare-ups and higher daily pain levels, meaning I often spent weeknights and weekends in bed to recover. Flare-ups still occur while I travel, but they are far less frequent and l feel healthier traveling full-time than I ever did living in England.
While there are days when my activities take a toll and rest days are required, to me, it’s always worth it. I now live a more active, healthier lifestyle, and I find my symptoms are generally easier to manage.
I adore the thrill of arriving in a new place, walking up to a table of strangers and leaving with a handful of lifelong friends, and the unbelievable joy in knowing that I have no restrictions over my life. There is no landlord demanding rent, I am my own boss, and I am in complete control of my social and work schedule.
I have zero interest in returning to live in the UK for the rest of my life and aim to be a lifelong nomad, traveling between my favorite spots on the planet and creating small communities.
Life offers no guarantee and I don’t know if this adventure will always be possible. But for now, I plan to invest everything into making it a permanent lifestyle. Illnesses or not, this road feels like home.
I hope to be a full-time digital nomad for my entire life.Hannah Shewan Stevens
My belief that being chronically ill would prevent any long-term travel suffocated my dreams for years. But here I am, living it.
Meeting a diverse group of people from all walks of life has also had a positive impact on me. I feel like their energy uplifts my health and alleviates symptoms. I do not know how to explain it or rationalize it but I don’t need to, I’m just enjoying the effects.
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