That time I conquered the Baltics with undiagnosed POTS
Exactly 10 years ago, my mom took me along with her, her siblings, their spouses, and my younger cousin Zach on a 10 day cruise to the Baltics. (My dad was slated to go but had to work so I scored his ticket instead. Thanks, Dad!)
It was the vacation of a lifetime: we spent days walking through gorgeous, timeless cities, I got to try my hand at photographing old buildings, we stuffed our faces at the 24/7 all you can eat buffet in a very American fashion, I spent hours in the cruise’s pools, and it was something I will never forget or stop cherishing.
It’s also something that I’m so glad happened exactly when it did; because while my POTS was undiagnosed, I was in a good place. I was physically fit, I could manage long walks and I could survive on less than 10 hours of sleep a night.
Right now, my health is a little rocky, and sometimes I get a little down about if and when things will get better–so I hold on to the fact that, “hey, something amazing happened at exactly the right time.” I remind myself that as a teenager, even without the power of diagnosis and treatment, I was strong, had a perfect experience, and it brings me comfort when it’s hard to stay optimistic about when I’ll feel better.
Because as a teenager, I had so much strength. I’d even go so far as to say I had energy, in a POTS-y sense. The energy that lets you wake up without hitting the snooze button, that is.
Our 10 day cruise was more about exploring than relaxing. Each day was long and grueling on my body. We walked for miles and I kept going and going (not without complaining–I was 14, mind you, it was my right) but my body held up for the most part.
The interesting thing now is that I can look back and pin point all of the different signs of POTS. Even though I slept plenty every night, the fatigue was extreme and draining–I couldn’t understand it. I tried to fight it in the car as we drove through cities like Gdansk and St. Petersburg but I *had* to nap to keep my sanity.
I remember trying to walk down steps of a museum and feeling a complete disconnect from my body–I felt like I was back on the cruise ship while it swayed with the waves but I was on solid land. I was familiar with this vertigo, it happened all the time when I was exhausted. I had my arms out on either side of me like a toddler learning to walk while I made my way down a large, red carpeted staircase. I wonder what the museum guards thought of me.
I remember the intense dehydration I’d experience–and how I was never satiated. I would fumble with foreign money, apologizing over and over as I haphazardly flung coins at cashiers in gift shops while grabbing whatever water bottles I could find (which all turned out to be seltzer.) (My apologies, all of Scandinavia!)
I also remember the crazed feelings of panic I’d get from standing around for too long. A few years ago, I noticed that I get mild to severe panic attacks in museum settings due to tachycardia from standing, the sensory overload, and overcrowding. I can’t imagine or remember what my tiny, 14-year-old brain who had NONE of this information back then felt.
There were SO many signs back then about POTS–but even through those signs, those symptoms–I was kicking POTS’ butt.
One day coming back from the boat from our excursion, my cousin and I were craving cheeseburgers and knew we had to get to the restaurant on the top deck before they closed at 6 to order them. Knowing it’d take too long to wait for the elevator, we ran up 10+ flights of stairs in 15 minutes before close to get them. No cheeseburger has ever tasted so good.
My designated walking shoes for the trip gave me blisters the first day I wore them so I threw them out and tackled miles of Europe in flip flops. If that’s not a feat (puns!) of the body, tell me what is.
When we returned to the cruise ship every day, I went swimming and perused what the boat had to offer me. I hardly took any extra naps… aside from the ones in the car rides.
When we got home from Europe, I crashed for days and when I was awake, talked about nothing else except for My Big Trip for months. (It’s 10 years later and I’m still talking about it.) (I also eagerly watched High School Musical 2 which had come out while I was overseas. Hey. Just putting the era into context for you–2007 was a magical year.)
But it was more than a really good trip–it was a huge physical accomplishment–especially now that I have the context of what my body was going through.
In a very Disney Feel Good way, I’m proud of myself for getting out there every day and walking, discovering parts of these beautiful cities–even if I did do embarrassing things like break down and cry in a train station on the last day because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat. (The stereotypes about girls are true–we don’t know what we want to eat. Especially when we’re 14.)
I was so lucky to get to visit seven different countries in just ten days–several of which I have ancestry from. I’m so lucky that my health, while not perfect (it never has been), was as good as it was for those seven days.
And yes, I highly recommend all of Scandinavia + its environs to visit. Even with POTS.
Because you can have symptoms and still have the trip of a lifetime, one that you’re nostalgic for every day, even 10 years later.