Musings of a High-Risk Wanderluster
My very first piece— so hello! I’m Nísa, a twenty-two year old artist and stage 4 cancer survivor from Northern Ireland. I used to run a blog called Occhiolistic which detailed my journey with stage 4 cancer, but after my treatment finished, I stopped blogging and focused solely on my art business. With some encouragement from my best friend, I’m hoping to pick writing back up again.
My journey with cancer taught me a lot of things, but one of the big things is that life is too short — and unpredictable — to not do what makes you happy. There are a million amazing travel blogs out there, and perhaps mine will never gain any traction. But if I enjoy it… Then that’s reason enough!
So, on that topic: This past year has been mental for us all. I think very few of us ever anticipated we’d be living through something like this; I certainly didn’t. Unfortunately, we’re here now, and we just have to learn to adapt.
Having had cancer, specifically blood cancer, I am considered clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV). High risk. I’m fully vaccinated now, of course, but from February 2020 until I was vaccinated, I had to stay in shielding. No trips to the post office, no seeing anyone outside the people I lived with. My family and I had to get groceries delivered to our doorstep. It was tough, and for a lot of other disabled and CEV folk, it was a very scary time (I say was, but the truth is I think we’ll always have this anxiety, to some degree.)
I’m vaccinated now, and doors are opening again. This isn’t the case for all vulnerable people, though, and I know I’m fortunate. But with doors reopening, I’m now finding myself faced with a lot of new uncertainty and anxieties and I have to learn to navigate them. Balancing having a life again with my high-risk status, deciding what I feel comfortable doing and what I’m not ready for yet, and so on. We’re all in the same boat with this, I imagine, but it can feel very alone in the moment.
Here are a few thoughts from someone currently grappling with this conflict.
MY WANDERLUST GOT STRONGER IN LOCKDOWN
I suppose it’s always when we can’t do something, we want to most. And that’s certainly true with me; Being in lockdown, my wanderlust has become excruciating. I find myself sitting in front of travel-related websites more often than is probably healthy, nowadays, and I think about it almost as soon as I start my day. I don’t see it as a bad thing, since it’s something to look forward to, but I can definitely say my wanderlust has gotten a lot stronger during it!
But with my wanderlust getting stronger, I need some way to channel it. Sitting around wishing I could be somewhere else only leaves me feeling hollow and disconnected — so I plan, I make notes and I research.
It only goes so far; I know I would jump at the chance to travel, but it helps at least get my mind off it all a little in the times where I can’t.
So start your bucket list, or a list of places you want to see. Start filling journals with print-outs of cities you want to visit or sights you want to see. Start researching and keeping notes — it’s not travel, but it at least helps keep you busy in the meantime!
Personally, I’ve been signing up to flight-deal sites, looking at ways to get cheap accommodation, and journaling. I’ve designed a phone case for myself using all my old travel photos and wanderlust-centric quotes. I’ve printed out old travel photos to stick on my fridge door. The little travel-related things help satiate my bigger desire to travel, until I can actually do it.
ADVENTURE IS EVERYWHERE
On that note: Adventure doesn’t have to be limited to somewhere abroad. My first big step out into the real world again was seeing my friend Ben, socially distanced and outdoors. We went for a walk and came across a stream, and ended up kicking our shoes and socks off, shoving them in my rucksack, and wading up-river. As a whole, our day consisted of paddling in the river, running around the forest barefoot, climbing trees, accidentally winding up in someone’s back garden (oops) and picking grass out of hair. It was completely unplanned, and it was amazing.
I feel like a lot of the time, it’s easy to neglect what’s on our doorstep. I, for one, am terrible for this. When I think of adventure, I think of airports, new cities, places I’ve never been before. I don’t think about the 12th century castle that stands in my town, or what I could possibly find if I crossed the field near my house, or spontaneous adventures like I had on this day out.
They say “a good beginning makes a good ending”. There is good in everything, even if you have to look for it. Maybe on your drive to work, there will be a song on the radio that you really like. Maybe in the supermarket, you’ll find a good date on something. These things may be small enough to be insignificant, but they’re there — and if you get into the way of looking for the small victories and the small things to smile about, it will change your perspective as a whole.
Although it might sound silly, I do believe that adventure is everywhere — it just depends on your perspective. One of my favourite memories is getting groceries with my best friend in a Norwegian supermarket, where we laughed in the aisles and I got extremely excited over the fact that they had raw shrimp in a freezer with a scoop and a bag like those pick-n-mix sweet dispensers. With the right perspective, the mundane can be amazing.
This leads me to my next big point:
SOMETIMES THINGS JUST SUCK, AND THAT’S OKAY
Now, let’s be realistic — Sometimes positivity is exhausting. Sometimes looking for ‘the right perspective’ becomes tiring. Some days just won’t go according to plan, and as much as I believe that there’s good to be found in everything — it’s okay if you can’t find it. It’s okay if you don’t want to find it. Sometimes things just suck. Looking for a positive approach is always good, but not always sustainable, so make sure not to place unrealistic expectations on yourself and don’t be hard on yourself if you just can’t put a positive spin on things. That’s okay.
Keep in mind that there is such a thing as toxic positivity. It’s defined as:
Toxic positivity is an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic.
Toxic positivity can silence negative emotions, demean grief, and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling.
We all have different coping mechanisms and methods of handling stress, and toxic positivity — self-imposed, or imposed on another person — helps nobody.
Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay if things just suck right now, and it’s okay if you can’t find the good in everything. It’s okay if you can’t find the good in anything, at the moment. Sometimes we’re just tired. Compassion burnout is another real thing, and in the time of COVID it’s incredibly easy to give so much of ourselves to others that we neglect our own needs and wants.
We are all experience a collective trauma right now. So be kind to everyone, because on top of COVID, everyone is fighting their own battles — but be kind to yourself, too. You’re doing the best you can.
IT’S NORMAL TO FEEL ANXIOUS AS THINGS REOPEN
I don’t know about anyone else, but I have extremely mixed feelings about things reopening again. On the one hand, I miss airports and travelling. I can’t wait to sit in a boarding lounge again with a cup of coffee and my kindle, waiting for the loudspeakers to announce my flight is now boarding.
On the other hand, I’m nervous. Will people adhere to social distancing measures? Will things be sanitised well? What about being in an airplane, how will that work? How safe is it?
I have a lot of questions, and unfortunately not many answers. I am desperate to resume my travels now things are being made available, with all precautions taken that I can take. But will it be enough? One of the things I keep finding myself asking is, “Is this a bad idea? Am I being irresponsible?”
I think it’s normal to be anxious, especially as a high-risk individual. I can weigh up all the facts — I’m fully vaccinated, I’m taking every possible precaution I can take, I’m going to a low-risk area, seeing people who are vaccinated, and the professionals have told me it should be okay. I have several lists with the pros and cons of different decisions: seeing friends, booking flights, etc. But at the end of the day, anxiety is not rational; No matter how I rationalise my decisions to myself, anxiety will linger.
And it’s not unfounded. Some people will say I’m ‘letting it control me’ or it’s ‘taking over my life’ — but that’s a very privileged position to be in. I have to be overly cautious, because I am high risk.
At the end of the day, I have no solutions for this — we all have to make our own decisions, as high risk people, on what we feel comfortable doing. We all know our conditions and our bodies best. We all assign different value to different factors. Now I’m vaccinated, I tentatively feel ready to get back to travelling, provided I take all possible precautions — some people aren’t ready for that, though, and that’s fine.
SO WHAT ARE MY PLANS?
First and foremost: I am going to visit my best friends. They live in Norway, and I haven’t seen them since January 2020. I was due to leave on the 18th, actually, but due to some issues with the passport office things have been delayed a bit. Probably for the best, though, since I’ve managed to give myself tendonitis in my foot from walking too much!
My most imminent travel plan is to get back over to Norway to see them, but while I’m there I also want to do a bit more exploring and meet some new people. Last time I was in Oslo, it was winter, and I’m excited to see it all again in warmer weather!
I have a friend coming to visit me in September, too. I’m excited to finally reconnect with people I haven’t seen in a while — it was 2019 when we last met up for coffee, and it’ll be really nice to see them again. And it’s their first time in Belfast, so I hope it’ll be nice for them, too!
A less imminent plan — but one I am so excited for, it’s really a long-time dream of mine come true— is next August, I am hopefully heading off to Ísafjörður to study there for a month! I’ll have to write something more complete about this at a later stage, because my excitement is off the charts. I will also no doubt have a lot of content around that trip when the time comes.
But before then…
WE NEED EVERYONE TO DO THEIR PART
As I said — I’m a vulnerable person. My disability may not be outwardly visible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. I am recovering from advanced cancer, and COVID could be devastating for me. I’ve done everything I can to minimise the risk, both to myself and to others, but there will always be risk to some degree.
People say ‘if you’re so worried, then you should stay inside and keep shielding indefinitely’ — but that’s not a realistic, or fair, expectation to put on vulnerable people. We have lives, too. We have dreams and aspirations, too.
The task of keeping vulnerable people safe does not end with us.
If you’re not vulnerable, this is me asking you to do your part, too.
It’s better to work under the assumption that everyone is vulnerable — so wash your hands, keep your distance, wear your mask. Don’t assume that someone is healthy based on their outward appearance. Don’t assume that people “aren’t sick” because they’re young. I’m 22, I have strong hair, I look healthy.
I am still recovering from cancer.
We all know someone who is vulnerable in some way. We’re all working hard to protect ourselves and our loved ones, so even if you are not vulnerable yourself, please be mindful of those that are. Please do your part, too.