Bipolar and Holiday Air Travel: Ten Tips to Avoid Tumult and Get Where You’re Going
by Allison Strong, bpHope
November 29 2017

Air travel can be difficult enough for anyone. For people with bipolar disorder, there can be extra challenges. Here is your guide to approaching them.

Tensions are high these days at airports, according to what I hear on the radio, and see on TV—and I’ve experienced in person. Passengers suddenly having to pay for checked bags, and the reduction of leg room could add to the pressures. Lest you forget, those aisles are narrower, too.

In September, I got to join the “Mile Low Club.”

It was late afternoon and I was traveling from a patient advisory meeting in Philadelphia back to my home in Hollywood, Florida.

Not only was I exhausted from a really quick turnaround (back and forth in less than two days), I was 3 hours early to the gate. I won’t make that mistake again. I was alone for hours, easily the most scrutinized passenger in that area pre-flight.

Rushed out of my hotel and driven directly to the airport, I was unable to bring along balanced and healthy food (next time, I’ll insist on getting something ‘to-go’ beforehand). I took three laps around the food court, stopping to evaluate the fast-food options. This may have seemed odd to them.

Few people seem to appreciate the high/lows of people with metabolic syndrome and accompanying hyperglycemia.

If I eat poorly (simple carbs or sugar) or drink alcoholic beverages, I’m ravenous every hour on the hour. When I’m hungry, I get weak and irritable.

As I wandered around with my heavy bags, I’m sure I attracted unwanted attention.

After my third go-round, I decided NOT to go to the sports bar, where beer and Philly Cheese Steaks were on offer. I was already exhausted.

I selected the fried chicken over the other options, pizza, candy or ice cream, but sat in the extended, well-lit bar area because it offered a couch and privacy. This may have led to the gate agent’s apprehension of me.

She was scary-looking, and staring right at me. I gotta tell you, her appearance was beyond severe. Her bleached blonde hair was pulled up in an overhead topknot. It was tied up so tightly it gave her the effect of an overhead facelift. I kept looking; wondering if her hairstyle would do the same thing for me.

Eventually, it was time to board. I stood with everyone else; waiting for my zone to be called.

When I walked down the aisle, I noticed I was bumping into the shoulders of seated passengers. I drew a few heated glares and issued at least five ‘excuse me’s’.

By the time I sat down and buckled in, that gate agent walked right up to me.

She announced, “You need to come with me.”

When we got to out the jetway, she seized my bag and rifled through it.

“Have you been drinking?” she asked.

“No. Not at all,” I answered.

“What about prescriptions?” she asked.

“I take medicine every day for bipolar disorder.”

She narrowed her eyes. Apparently ‘Bipolar’ wasn’t enough for her. I launched into ‘educator mode.’ This disinterests even the most academic of people.

“I also take medicines for this other condition that’s related to my meds. It’s Tardive Dyskinesia…(TD)… You should probably know…since you’re in the ‘people’ business bla bla.”

“Ok, I believe you,” she said, and turned her back; walking back to her gate.

“Hey…why did you do this?” I called after her.

Her back to me, she shouted, “Because your balance was off when you walked down the aisle.”

When I got home I called a couple of airlines to see what else they consider red flags indicating a traveler who might jeopardize the safety of others on board a flight.

From my experience and my airline sources, I’ve assembled a top ten holiday travel list for people with bipolar disorder. Feel free to add to it.

Top Ten Travel Tips for People with Bipolar Disorder

  1. Don’t drink before the flight. It increases the chances of being flagged and dragged off the plane. If you must, wait until you’ve boarded and the plane has taken off. (It’s harder for them to toss you out the window).
  2. If you carry your medications, make sure your bottles are clearly marked, instead of fingerprint greasy-grubby-illegible.
  3. If you’re asked if you’re carrying medications, there’s no need for shame. Be straightforward and honest with whoever’s asking.
  4. When you’re waiting for your flight, be mindful of your surroundings and keep to yourself. Remember, these are strangers, no matter how much fun it is to meet new people.
  5. Get a good night’s sleep the night before traveling.
  6. If you’re listening to music or an audio book, keep the volume low enough so you can make out the scrambly-sounding, often muffled announcements from the intercom.
  7. When you book your flight, declare yourself as disabled. If you haven’t done this through your reservation, you can approach the gate before the flight and declare your disability. You’ll board first, reducing the chances of nudging people’s shoulders as you navigate your way down that narrow aisle with your carryon.
  8. Get a doctor’s note regarding your condition(s) and medications, and have it with you. Also, keep your doctor’s business card on hand. Business cards are official-looking, don’t require reading and quickly reassure jittery airline employees you’re not dangerous or disruptive.
  9. Make smart food choices for yourself. You can bring non-liquid items through security and onboard, like a banana, carrots or a piece of protein. You’ll save money and feel better than if you only eat standard airline fare.
  10. Have an extra serving of empathy for the gate agents, pilots and flight crew. They work long hours, see tons of people and are trying to keep us safe. Their jobs are stressful. Sometimes, they’re nearly impossible.