Former KGGS student Phoebe Howlett, 24, is about to embark on an incredible journey - to visit every country in the world. The aim is to highlight the ‘invisible’ illness which she suffered and gender equality.
Can you describe the illness and events which led to you deciding to take on the challenge of visiting every country?
It was a slow realisation process for me over the course of two years pretending I was still healthy, looking back now it was so obvious I wasn’t well. I wasn’t ill enough to stop me from doing most things, but I wasn’t well enough to really go for everything like I wanted to. I go into more detail of the individual instances that made me realise how ill I truly was on my website (thechanceofchoice.com) but it took six months for doctors to diagnose me with PoTS and M.E., in June 2015. PoTS, or Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, is an abnormality of the functioning of the nervous system. To be diagnosed with PoTS, an individual must experience a heart rate increase of 30bpm while standing – my resting heart rate was 67, while my standing heart rate was 111. M.E., or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis is a chronic fluctuating nervous system condition that causes symptoms affecting almost all body systems, but namely the nervous and immune systems.
My decision to want to travel as much possible however occurred in February 2016. It was the hardest month of my life to date. Along with my M.E. & PoTs, I also had infections in my chest, both eyes, sinus and bladder. I was completely bed bound, my PoTs went through the roof and I woke up one morning with no feeling past my lower thighs. I was paralysed. Laying in the dark to stop my migraine, my insides feeling like they were being crushed and my body feeling like it was spinning thanks to my M.E., I realised I was completely delirious. Days turned into nights, nights turned into days, I didn’t have a clue what was happening while being in constant, numbing pain. But just under a week into it, every ounce of my body and mind halted, I reached the lowest point and vividly remember thinking if there is chance in my life to feel this ill again, I’m done with it all. But on from this awful thought, I then thought of all the things I hadn’t done, all the places I haven’t been.
Reaching that kind of low, the space where you now understand why people commit suicide, also gave me absolute clarity with what I wanted from life. All I wanted was to be able to travel. Once you’ve had an experience like that you just start caring less about how thin you are, or how much money you are set to earn or if people respect you at work. A cliched realisation while I was in agonising pain, but I’m happy I had it.
Why did you want to do this particular challenge?
The reason I took the challenge to do every country was based again on a few factors. Initially I said I was going to go off and do a year or so travelling and live in Australia. From a lot of people I got ‘oh wow and you’re going by yourself?’ and it shocked me. I have just got over two life damaging illnesses by myself, I have travelled before and frankly it is a walk in the park compared to fighting illnesses like I had. More shockingly I also got, mainly from women: ‘But are you not worried about going as a woman alone?’. I do appreciate that in an emergency that requires physical strength the majority of men will probably be more suitable, but I’ve had illnesses that felt like they were killing me. I’d far rather take that risk of something bad happening to me while I’m doing exactly what I want in my life than not doing it at all because its slightly more dangerous for a woman than a man. Come on girls, it’s the 21stcentury I understand the question but that kind of thinking, when being asked this question is the kind of thinking to stop things changing with gender equality for the better. After having these discussions with these questions included I did some research, if I went to every country in the world it would make me the second woman to do so. I just thought I’ve got nothing to lose setting this challenge, all I wanted to do at the lowest point of my life was travel, so why not?
What do you hope to achieve by completing the challenge?
I remember while I was weighing up whether to create a website for this challenge, I told myself that if I told my story and even one person had a positive reaction, it would already be worth doing. That happened, an old KG student who also suffers with chronic illness messaged me saying how good reading my story was and it felt so great to know it helped, even one person. I just want to do that as much as possible, make people feel happy and better about themselves. I want to inspire as many people as possible who are lucky enough to have the choice to act, people should do what they want as soon as it is feasible, because the opportunity of that choice could be taken away from them in a second. I’ve been to dark places but I am now at the light at the end of the tunnel; others, from the women wanting their own businesses in Nigeria, to the bed bound ME patients, all deserve to feel good about themselves and if my challenge can help that, it’s done what its meant to do.
How long will it take you and what do you see as the most difficult part of the challenge?
I haven’t worked out every individual detail to the journey yet, there are still so many moving parts to it all with charities, sponsorship, ambassadors and endorsors. However depending on how I structure the journey with all these partners it will be between 3 to 5 years. If I get it completed in three years it will also make me the youngest female to complete the challenge.
Is there still a lot of ignorance about ME and ‘invisible illness’ and what needs to be done to correct this?
I think particularly for M.E the stigma is not helped by the fact M.E is still described as chronic fatigue syndrome. In the latest report on Healthcare Investment, Professor Stephen Holgate stated M.E is at least as disabling as multiple sclerosis and congestive heart failure. Yet when you say chronic fatigue you think being tired, and when 250,000 people in the UK alone are effected by something that insinuates a few bad night’s sleep, you have got to ask why it’s not being taken more seriously. It changes peoples entire lives, people are house bound, giving up jobs, losing relationships and in some cases people are dying.
Do you have any long-term plans once you have completed the challenge?
At the moment I’m focusing on getting as many followers and subscribers to my website and social media streams that will contain all my pictures, videos and articles of what I get up to visiting every country. I need all the support I can get! I also have lined up visiting schools, colleges and universities giving presentations on what I’m doing to hopefully inspire the younger generation. After this challenge what I would love more than anything to be able to generate enough revenue from my website to spend my time helping charities fight for thelr cause, particularly around female economic empowerment in developing countries. But for now that is just a pipe dream I’ve got 175 countries still to visit!
To find out more and keep up to date with Phoebe’s travels go to www.thechanceofchoice.com