Today, I will get on an airplane and head to Orlando, Florida, and the “happiest place on Earth,” Disney World. My family of five will be going along with my wife’s family, making a grand total of 18 of us. This fact should make anyone who has gone to Disney tremble a bit, as getting 18 people in for dining reservations and on rides and working together is very, very difficult. But, to exacerbate this situation, I’m going to Disney World with my bipolar disorder and anxiety issues. So, this should be fun.
A quick caveat. I both loathe and love Disney World. I have been to “the world” a large number of times, both as a kid and now as an adult. It is often not my decision to go, but I go and put on my best face. It can be difficult. And the crowds and the fantasy and all the stuff that goes into Disney make it very difficult for me personally. But I love the way my wife and kids love this place. And so, I go. And I try to love it for them, and I put my loathing aside for them. Maybe then I don’t love Disney as much as I love my family?
Anyway, as someone with bipolar and anxiety, traveling in general and being at Disney in particular can cause me some serious problems. Disney is a large trigger for me. So, let me detail some of that and then how I deal with the triggers.
1. The first trigger I have is the airport. Trying to get through an airport sucks because there’s a large crowd, usually pushing in and around me, and, when I travel with my family, I have three boys (ages 10, 6, and 4) to navigate through security and a busy airport. It is stressful and can really start my vacation out on a very, very bad note.
2. Another trigger I have is the creation of the false reality that Disney tries to get you to play by while you are there. This is the “magic” of Disney World. They’ve actually created an alternative reality of fantasy and whimsy. However, this alternative reality is just one big reminder that I am mentally ill and that I have pain and live in pain. It actually reminds me of the fact that my life is not a fantasy and that I have to work hard to live a lot of the time.
3. The crowds are another trigger. I have a problem when I get pushed into a large crowd and can’t get out. Honestly, I feel trapped, and feeling trapped is a huge trigger for me and my anxiety. I can feel my heart start beating faster, my chest tighten, my breathing get shallower, etc. I don’t usually go into a full blown panic attack, but I start, and everything becomes magnified. And, due to the nature of Disney World, even when it is “not crowded” you still find yourself in the midst of large crowds. It creates chaos in me.
4. One thing I have a really hard time with, and that sends me over the edge, are people who are what I consider rude. My counselor and I have talked at length at my need to get over people I consider to fall into this category. And I’ve gotten better. However, Disney World can bring out the rude in people. I’ve had people push my stroller carrying my kids, knock me over trying to get into a line, cut in front of me for food, stand in front of my kids at a parade, etc. For all its emphasis on being a sort of “Prince Charming,” Disney brings out the “Wicked Witch” in a lot of people. And this just makes me irritable and angry and is a strong trigger.
5. The fifth trigger I have is the fact that you spend all of this money and time to get there, and so there is a real felt need to have a good time. The problem is, I don’t always have a good time. But I feel like I have to have a good time and that I have to show my family a good time and that I have to show my in-laws and everyone else a good time. And to do that I have to have a good time, even though I’m usually stressed out and on the verge of breaking down. This need to have a good time, thus, brings to the fore more and more of the cognitive dissonance that is a trip to Disney for me.
6. Last, or at least the last I’ll talk about, is that my suicidal ideation runs wild. All of the above create a lot of tension in me while I am on a Disney “vacation.” This stress leads me to “natural” thoughts, which are suicidal thoughts. And, so, everything becomes a way to die by suicide. I won’t go into the details, but I think of jumping off rides, of diving into a bus, of swimming in a lake, and other means. Suicidal thoughts become prominent, and it’s hard to deal with them.
So, now the question becomes how do I combat these triggers? Well, I have learned to do the following things.
1. I have a ritual for the airport. My wife and I talk about it beforehand, and we have a plan. This reduces the stress of having to get through the airport and through security with our three boys.
2. I rent a car. Having a car gives me an escape. I can go to the grocery store or get out of a park or just go take a drive. The car gives me an out, if I need it. And, with the car, if I had to go to the hospital or emergency room, we have the ability to do that quickly.
3. I take advantage of a great Disney program: Disability Services. It’s not really advertised and I’m not sure of the name, but every time I walk into a park, I go to “Guest Services.” There, I tell the people that I have a disability, and they don’t question me (which would be illegal) and they give me a little card. This card allows me and my immediate family to go up to any ride and hand it to the workers there (Disney calls them “Cast Members”), and they give me a time to come back to get on the ride. No standing in line and feeling stuck. It’s a real win for me, as I am not standing in lines and feeling that anxiety and pressure that comes from feeling trapped. And, because I am not “skipping” the line, I’m not really making anyone upset.
4. I go back to the hotel every afternoon and either watch TV or, usually, take a nap. Disney exhausts me, and I need all the energy I can muster. Going back in the afternoon allows me to recharge my batteries while also avoiding the busiest times of day in the parks. And, sometimes in the afternoon, my oldest son and I will go explore something outside the parks, like the ESPN Zone or Downtown Disney or something else. It allows us to get out of the “bubble” for a bit. In all, though, getting out of the parks for a few hours every afternoon and resting up allows me to keep my sanity.
5. I avoid certain places. Due to my suicidal ideation, I try to avoid the places I know could bring that out even more or that could offer real temptation. So, I don’t do high balconies, for example. It is just too much for me.
6. Last, I really try and talk to my kids and wife. If they are having a good time, then it is easier on me. Their joy brings me joy. While I might be struggling, knowing they are having fun and enjoying themselves and that we get to spend time together can make the struggle worth it, at least in my eyes. And that is only if I do the other things necessary, like what I listed above.
In all, traveling to Disney World with my bipolar and anxiety is not easy and, really, it’s not fun. But, if I keep up with my recovery and do the things listed above, as well as take my meds and meditate and keep with my day-to-day, then it is a good trip where I am able to build memories with my family. It’s not easy, but we make it work.