So You’re Healthy, and You Want to Date a Sick Person?
Like, Really Date? Here’s what you need to know:
Millions of Americans suffer from chronic illnesses. Millions of young (<35) Americans suffer from chronic illnesses. And, millions of young Americans suffer from chronic, invisibleillnesses. I’m one of the third kind, and if you’re healthy, and want to be in a partnership with someone like me, this containssome of what you need to know.
1. Think about it. Are you sure?
If you said “yes” before beginning this sentence, the answer is actually “no”. For the good of all of us: if you enter into a relationship with us, you have to: 1) be sure you want it, and 2) ensure you’ve spent at least ten hours finding out about disability, and the illness(es) in question. You have to think about it. Are you going to be okay leaving something you really wanted to go to because they’re not feeling well? Are you going to be okay with many late night ER visits? Do you understand that they may never be able to, or want to have, kids? And, it’s on us (hear that, sick people?) to try to explain what it’s like to be the partner of a sick person. Hopefully I can do some of that work here.
*That said, take forums made for disabled people with a grain of salt, because they’re generally not representative of what daily life would actually feel like
2. Try to understand, and to really understand. But most importantly, internalize that you probably never will be able to.
We have to deal with a lot of well-meaning but misdirected “advice” every day. Some of us hate it less than others, and some days no matter how little it bugs us it will probably send us into a tailspin. Understanding that we are having an experience entirely foreign from the one you live is the best way to minimize advice coming from you.
Some things we do don’t make sense, and we can’t communicate it to you. Why is it that I can lift a box, but not wash off a fork? I don’t know how to explain it, but that doesn’t make it any less true! Also remember: “Third party perspective” is an invaluable resource, for any relationship. If you’re going to be in the relationship, it may be good to find a few other people who are also SOs of people with invisible disabilities.
3. We will always be highly variable, and occasionally inexplicably variable.
Some days, we feel good enough to make plans. Occasionally, they are ambitious plans. However, that does not mean that that should form an expectation. If I say that tomorrow I want to do research on how to start that company I had been thinking about for ages, and tomorrow comes, and I’m not doing it immediately, it’s not because I don’t want to start that company. It’s because Ican’t. And yes, believe me, I know I said tomorrow I would do that.
But here’s the thing: we don’t have any idea what tomorrow will look like. Sometimes tomorrow looks like a warm breezy September day. Other days, tomorrow we wake up and the first thought we have is “Wow, I actually feel like I’m going to die.”
4. Understand that one of the biggest hurdles is that we do not look like we are sick.
Even to ourselves! If I look healthy, society expects me to act healthy, you expect me to act somewhat healthy, and worst of all, I expect me to act healthy. I feel like I should be able to do all the things that normal 20-somethings do, except that doesn’t happen, because impossible things generally don’t happen. Cue me feeling guilty, and blaming myself. And no one else understands, because I don’t look sick, and because, why would anyone ever complain about not being able togain weight?
5. Don’t judge us for how we medicate.
Do you have any idea how long it takes to get into some of the specialists we need to see? Months and months. If my body is breaking, and it’s going to takemonths for me to see someone who may even have a possibility of starting to fix it, you bet your ass I am going to be forced to self-medicate. Yes, even the “scary” medications. Let’s take opiates. Sick people are not addicted to opiates. Sick people take opiates to be able to function. Every sick person I know has been able to stop opiates cold turkey no problem after they’ve finished a round of needing them. But guess what? When you need them, you fucking need them.
Accept that you don’t know what it’s like. And, accept that the stereotypes don’t apply in this instance. We’re not doing it to be “doped up” or forget our problems. We’re doing it because although we acutely know what our problems are and would take a good doctor’s appointment over vicodin in a HEARTBEAT, we also know that that appointment is a long way off, and we need to not be incapacitated. I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s kind of like a competition within ourselves to see how long we can go without taking something that will make us feel better. Today I cried because I felt like a failure for needing pain medication.
Also realize that things do not work the same way in our bodies or our brains. Normally, I am extraordinarily uncoordinated, and fall often (without reflexes). When I’ve had sedatives, I become not just graceful, but exceptionally clear-headed compared to before. Brain fog: it’s a thing, it comes from pain.
6. Don’t have your primary desire be as a caretaker.
Some of us want partners. Of those that want partners, sometimes we will want to be taken care of. But, regardless of if we want you to be our caretaker, it is not a good idea to start a relationship with one person’s primary role acting as caretaker. The difference between taking care of and being a caretaker is enormous. Self-sufficiency is important, and it’s a skill we all have to learn. Sometimes, we will need help, and we will call you. But dependency is easy to fall into and hard to get out of, and it will destroy your relationship.
7. Sometimes us being sick will suck, a lot, for you too.
Sometimes we will be on medications that change our personality. If we’re on steroids, we’re probably going to be cranky. Some of us have Raynaud’s, partial seizures, vagus nerve dysfunction, adrenal dysfunction, and other conditions which can make us temporarily moody. Most of us don’t sleep well. Most of us have a hard time with food.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be dating one of the kind that is pharmacologically self-aware, and they will be able to tell that something is making them some way other than normal, and try to fix it. Unfortunately, some of us don’t know when we are acting differently, which is compounded by the fact that most of us have so many possible explanations for everything that it would be very difficult to find the culprit. And sometimes, we can’t change it at that moment. You don’t take steroids unless you need them. It’s also pretty hard to balance your hormones.
8. No sympathy. Empathy, but never sympathy.
Do not ever fall into the trap of what I like to call the “adversity inferiority complex”. This is when you compare my problems with yours, decide that yours are less worthy, and hold them in. This is a recipe for disaster. Partly because it breeds resentment, and partly because it’s actually a lot easier for us to help others with their problems than to always focus on our own. So a lot of the time, we will be happy to help you, even (and maybe especially) if we are feeling shitty, because then we have something else to focus on. Also because if you truly want a relationship, the only way you’re going to be able to have one is to go through things together. And trust me: we want to hear about your struggles.
It should be established that if we’ve hit a major threshold and just can’t, then maybe there can be a safe word that means “I really can’t right now, but I want to very much, can we schedule a time to talk later?”
9. Talk with us.
Talk with us about it a lot, and take time making this decision. Because if you do, it requires a lot of trust from us. And as a sick person, Trust is both the scariest thing to give out, and is a finite resource.
10. Most of the time, when you think we’re mad at you
We’re worried you’re going to leave, because we’re sick.
Despite all of this
Most of the time it will be like being in a normal relationship with any two people who like each other. Every relationship has hurdles. These will be some of them. That doesn’t mean that most of the time, you will even be aware we are sick. But, these are things you need to know for those times.
My Response to YesIReallyAmSick on Tumblr:
The author totally hits the nail on the head, especially the last part about when we seem angry. I was with my boyfriend for years, actually planning a future as his caretaker (he had been told he needed major hip surgeries spanning a few years of total recovery time), before my car was hit by a semi truck on my way to work. After my initial 50% recovery in the first six months or so, slowly I went downhill again, until I finally became too sick to work or ignore what was going on any longer. Our story is a little different in that we were both healthy when we started dating and living together, and in the same year, we both had life-changing medical happenings, and not in the good way. Suddenly, my boyfriend and I found ourselves unable to work normal jobs or participate in life as much as we would like. Young, sick, and in love. How hollywood. Except it is nothing like a movie.
The relaionship started out so classic; chubby goth nerd girl dates tall former football player. I fell in love right away, and told him so, but it took him another year to decide he wanted me too. We never dated like regular people, even then. We hung out in our apartments with friends and at friends’ apartments, we cooked eachother food and drove around the city aimlessly, because we were too broke to go to bars, and we didn’t ever do the dinner and a movie thing. We have spent every single night together since the first night, except for one this last year in which I slept at home while my boyfriend was in the hospital overnight after a surgery. Our first date was five months into our relationship, just before we moved in together. It was a camping trip, our first together but one of many to come. I think I surprised him by actually knowing how to throw a baseball. And by how much I wanted to hike, explore, and never go home. Things are so different now, and it almost hurts to recall the person I once was.
I worry about the toll it takes on him to be picking up my prescriptions now, taking me to appointments because I have lost the ability to do so myself, remembering what I cannot remember while I am talking to my doctors, and most of all seeing me in pain and miserable and not being able to fix it like he fixes everything broken. For his sake, I wish I did not have this long list of medical problems, but for my sake I am somewhat grateful that I do, something I cannot explain fully in this post, but which I try to convey through most of my other writings.
The major downside to falling for someone while living with a chronic illness is that it is heartbreaking to know I place limitations and higher-than-reasonable expectations on the love of my life. He is going back to school since he cannot work his old labor intensive jobs anymore, and we live off of his financial aid, which will have to be paid back eventually. It’s not a glamorous life, we are broke, broke, broke, and what money we come by goes towards medical supplies and prescriptions, for both of us, but mainly me. Money is a thing that unfortunately will limit our plans as well, because I am truly sick and I cannot just skip picking up my medicines, even though they sometimes come out to $800+ out of pocket in a month. This is not what I imagined. This is not what I planned for. This is not what I worked so hard for. But it is reality. And feeling sorry for myself is not my style.
Therefore, in our relationship I do not regret all that we have been through together. I know without a doubt that he loves me, that he will stick by me in sickness and health, and that I will do the same for him. Many couples do not have that bond, and again, I defer some level of gratitude to my illness.
The divorce rate for those with chronic illness is very, very depressing. It hangs around 75% of marriages. So many relationships destroyed by the difficulty of fulfilling the vows they exchanged: “In sickness and in health.” I hate those statistics. I hate that I am fighting those odds now too. But I love the man I am with, and I have seen him do whatever it takes to be with me, and he has seen me do the same for him. I have slept for a month on the couch while he healed from his surgery in a hospital bed in the living room, during a massive flare up. I did not struggle to make the decision to do so, because if he needed me I could not hear him if I slept in the bedroom, and at that point he needed me often. He has driven me an hour each way to appointments even while his hips are killing him. I have cheered him along while he chose a new career path and went back to school, and I have supported unquestioningly his need to take a few semesters off for grief and for surgeries. He has supported my difficult journey and allowed me to find my voice and my way again post-diagnoses, even when it meant getting fired from my job and beginning the terrifying process of applying for disability as a 20-something recovering workaholic.
To say that we are dating is a white lie. We are nesting, we are living together, we are committed, but we do not get to “date” each other like other couples do. We have not been out to eat in over a year, easily. Our frequent camping trips, which I always considered the most romantic dates of all, have become one night mini-adventures, which we both suffer from disproportionately and can only manage once or twice a year. Our long drives to nowhere to look at houses and gaze at scenic areas of Oregon have stopped. Our couples-daydreaming of a future on a farm have ceased. When we talk about having children of our own or adopting, our eyes hold bittersweet, cautious hope that we can still make real the dream of little ones, no matter what happens.
Our future is murkier now. Will I be able to carry a child to term? Will I be a good mother? If he needs more and more surgeries will I be able to care for him, and children, when I often can’t even care for myself? Will my condition ever allow me to bring in money again? Can I homeschool and make everything from scratch or is that ridiculous? Is there a way to minimize the impact my illnesses have on my lover and my theoretical future children, without compromising my treatment? Will I deteriorate further the older I get? Am I sure I can’t just snap my fingers and get rid of all these issues, go back to the way we were and the innocent daydreaming of a happy, hard-working, fulfilling life?
Yes. I am sure. But only because I have tried it a few thousand times to make certain.
I am just like you. I want to go hiking this summer, want to drive to the desert, or the coast, or the mountains spontaneously. I want to work hard and play harder. I long to have ordinary twenty-something nights; to once in a while get drunk with my old friends and run around downtown in the rain in heels, with no coat, until 4am. When the radio plays a song that stirs my soul, I get excited and daydream of concerts and dancing with abandon while all the hipsters stand there, swaying to the band with their hands in their pockets. If friends and family tell me about their relationship issues or financial struggles, even their aches and pains, I have a deep well of empathy and understanding no matter how bad I am feeling. When people tell me to buck up, pray harder, or stop trying to attract so much attention with my illnesses and injuries, I am furious. Wouldn’t you be angry if you had channeled your over-zealous work-ethic into trying literally everything to cure yourself, from conventional to the very odd? I have a right to be furious if people insinuate that I am lazy or not trying hard enough, or that I want attention, nevermind that I worked a year and a half past the point of spending most of my days sobbing or trying not to sob while working because I just hurt so much. I did not choose my broken body. Every small task feels like a marathon to me, but on the surface it’s not possible for most people to see how much I struggle with small daily activities that others take for granted.
I still have ups and downs in my moods that have nothing to do with being ill, but I also have moodswings that are out of my control, either from imbalances in chemicals in my body, or from medications I take. Talking to me with an open mind is the only way to find out which it is. Sometimes I don’t even know I am acting strangely.
Every day I have to ask myself if I can really allow the person I love so much to suffer along with me. I have to ask myself if he wouldn’t be better off finding a healthy girl who can bear him the children he so badly wants and take care of him like he deserves when he is hurting. Someone not so damaged would be great for him, right? But that is the voice of insecurity and it takes up real, vital energy to worry, and we are in love. That is all I need, I hope it all he needs too, I trust him to choose what is best for himself. The fact that he loves me and I love him holds the answers to my painful questions. I would so much rather focus on the love between us than the uncertainty the future holds. Unfortunately these thoughts and fears do resurface often or I would not be writing about them at all.
To be honest, I am often scared of losing the love of my life to sicknesses that I never wanted. I am scared because the man I love can get up and walk away. I cannot. I am stuck with it, with the late night ER visits and furtive internet research on my conditions. with medications that I hate taking, with horrible insomnia and a libido that disappeared completely, with support groups and symptom logging, with severe, non-stop pain that changes my personality and rewires my brain. I am bound by a very finite amount of energy each day and there are dire consequences for overstepping my energy envelope. I cannot opt out of this delicate balancing act (or disastrous mess, depending on the day), but my partner can. Yet, he chooses to be by my side.
The trust has to be immense between us to make it work in a long term sense. The communication has to be from a place of equality and respect, and it can never stop happening, or the relationship essentially shuts down too. We have very ordinary couple problems, as well as very specific troubles relating to illness, grief, disability, and pain. Our relationship has been through more than most sustain in a lifetime of marriage.
Talking about chronic illness and its effect on our relationships is hard, because love is vulnerable. There is so much at stake. There is a person we cannot bear to lose, or a potential to meet and fall in love with someone we cannot bear to lose, and our illness absolutely will impact that person negatively at times. That is not the stuff of the average happily-ever-after, but it is mine.
I do not regret the powerful sway that love has had over my life in the last six years of coupledom. His heart is something I would not trade for wealth, for wisdom, or even for wellness.
Still, I worry, because even the strongest relationship is not perfect, and I have added so much stress to our lives by becoming ill. Stress that just isn’t healthy for anyone. I care about and love my boyfriend deeply and do not want to be the one part of his life that holds him back from finding his own happiness. It is a delicate and complex balance to communicate with my partner enough, about the right things, while somehow not over-sharing all the time. I’m terrible at the balancing act between too much and not enough information right now, and that absolutely causes problems. That is just one tiny example of the difficulties of putting love into action while dealing with the cards dealt by chronic pain and illness.
This week I stumbled onto a secret I used to know, but which I thought maybe didn’t apply to me anymore since I am less able to do the things I used to do. I am less able to go out of my way for others, was my reasoning. I don’t have the energy, I can’t even shower but once every four days, I’m constantly hovering between a 6 and an 8 on the pain scale, so what do I have left to give to anyone else? What could I possibly have to give to others that was of any value, with brain fog, fatigue, and such tremendous pain and emotional distress.
I stumbled on the secret by accident. I’m have had a particularly bad week on every level, so I wasn’t planning on trying to be the saver of the day for anyone but myself, and even then…
Yesterday everything kind of crystallized into that perfect storm of craziness and incompetence of doctors/insurance and difficulties communicating my needs to others and feeling like maybe I haven’t really learned anything at all from all this searching for myself that I’ve been doing. I was wondering what the point of it all was. How am I going to get through living with an illness, having my medications held up every single month for the most stupid, but constant, oversights on my doctor’s part and absolute asshole-ishness from my insurance company? How am I supposed to live with myself when I have no job, I do not seem to be getting better no matter how hard I work at it, and except for my day to day mindset, nothing symptom-wise has improved this whole stressful, grief-filled year. The day before yesterday, having the ability to control my reaction to the situation just did not seem like enough. I flipped out on Marc, the manager of the pharmacy, a guy I admire and love talking to and a guy I have cried at and yelled at many, many times. He’s a saint. It was nowhere near a mistake he made or had any control over.
I was being unreasonable, childish, horrible. Not the person I want to be. I kept repeating the things other people had told me, that I could pick the prescription up on the 4th or any time after since I was having to take more of them once or twice a week due to extreme stress, flashbacks, and anxiety that feels like I’m dying, that I had been taking only half strength dosage for almost a week because it was a full seven days since it was supposed to be filled according to my prescription. I whined pathetically that I had come in on Saturday and asked them to call the doctor on Monday and make sure that she changed the instructions on the prescription, and no one had done it yet, but he wasn’t even working on Saturday so it wasn’t his fault at all. I yelled a little that the insurance company couldn’t deny my ability to pay out of pocket to pick up a drug I had been legitimately prescribed extra of so that the extra I had already taken (with psychiatrist approval) would not put me short this month. I pleaded that I needed them, instead of asking him if there was anything he could think of that I should do to fix the problem. So instead of being an adult and taking care of the mess with my insurance and psychiatrist by myself, I let the compassionate and extremely helpful pharmacist do all the work. Somehow, magically, in just an hour and a half, Marc fixed everything. When he called me, I had composed myself and was polite and apologetic, but I still felt terrible.
As I thanked him over the phone, I was staring at some red and white stylized snowflake christmas cards that I wasn’t even planning on using this year, and my hand was reaching out to snatch them off the table the second the call ended. I knew I had to thank him in real, concrete words for saving the day by getting me a medicine I depend on to keep my anxiety from spiking through the roof twenty or thirty times a day. Usually I struggle greatly with cards, thank you cards especially, but this time I could barely fit my gratitude on the inside of the card. And when I brought it in, I did not even get to give it to him directly. The reason being that of course he made about ten more phone calls to speak to doctors and insurance companies so other people could get their medicines in the span of time I was in line. People like Marc make dealing with a chronic illness much less terrifying. I just hope my puny little card was some kind of reassurance for him that his compassion and work ethic do not go wasted or unappreciated.
Then the power went out last night, right after the sun went fully down, and the dark is very very dark when you have absolutely no moonlight, no streetlights, howling wind and hurtling tree branches. The young teenage girls across the street came running and screaming up to our door, barefoot in the storm, eyes all huge. They talked over each other that their mom and her boyfriend were at the store about ten minutes away, and that they didn’t have any light, that they were terrified, that their rottweiler was terrified and they had to carry her inside somehow, they they hadn’t ever dealt with anything like this before. We were in the process of trying to find our own lights, so I invited them inside with me and the one light we did have that was easy to find. Eventually my boyfriend dug out the rest of the lights from the camping gear, and we handed out lights and went with them back to their house to find a battery operated lantern and candles in their garage. I have never heard two people so pissed off that the internet was down. Wow. Haha. All that attitude about the online games they couldn’t play and they were afraid to go around any corner in that dark house without one of us right next to them, even with the lantern! We stayed for a half hour or so until mom and boyfriend got through the checkout line, then went to go find our own candle stash and get fast food because cooking wasn’t an option. I’m not proud of the fast food ending, but I am happy that we were there to help out while mom wasn’t home.
Today we woke up and another neighbor had lost huge chunks of roofing and soaked plywood was exposed all along the top of his roof, which surprised me, the roof was newer than all the rest of the houses and no one else lost a single shingle. Anyway, they didn’t notice, and we realized they hadn’t noticed when the forecast started to predict more rain and there was no sign of a tarp or any indication of trying to keep the house from leaking all over the place. We did the neighborly thing and broke the bad news to them with plenty of hours of light and time before the rain hit.
Three random acts of kindness I wasn’t expecting to happen, but I am not prone to just letting people suffer for no reason. When it comes down to it, those situations will always bring out the best in me, and they will always sustain me for longer than the spoons I expend on the random acts of kindness.
So the secret, which isn’t really a secret at all, is that the more of myself I give to others, in return the energy of being helpful will sustain me far longer than my spoons would normally last.
My passion is being needed by others, and I thought that was dead when I got sick. Logic dictated that I give up that part of my life as well. I stopped being that ever-present friend, I stopped returning every bid for attention and drama that was directed at me. I learned to distance myself from all of the things that seemed to drain my energy and in my brain, that would of course include doing things for others when I can’t do things for myself. Not true! I had completely misjudged myself on this area of chronic illness. I can still reach out, I can still be involved, and most of all I can be loving and kind and responsive when for some the world is none of those things.
Chronic pain is almost inevitably isolating in the beginning. Yet, if you come to a place where you can navigate through illness with extra kindness and respect for others, it may also provide a gateway to other possibilities, other avenues in life that were only a vague, wispy haze. My car accident changed my life, certainly, but despite severe and disabling fatigue, pain, cognitive dysfunction, anxiety, plus a long list of other issues, I still care deeply about my friends. I still care about their relationship woes and work stories and successes in school. I will always care. I know that often people think I don’t have energy or time to comfort them in their dark hours or that I will be unable to muster up joy for them in their success. That is simply not true. I can find the greatest joy now in sharing in the happiness of others, and I often feel the greatest depth of sadness for the losses my friends experience.
While I was writing this a friend came over to talk and we found out that he had just been through a deeply saddening breakup. He is someone I admire, and to hear that his partner of several years had “fallen out of love” made me question love itself for a minute. If someone can fall out of love with this awesome guy who was the first person to introduce me to reframing my thoughts in a more constructive way, then what was love all about anyways. This friend is a wonderful, caring person who I met while I was in a dark place.
When we first talked, I was initially so confused by his relentless need to spin my angry thoughts into positives. I even thought he was just minimizing my pain and anger so he didn’t have to deal with it, but over time I realized how valuable it is to hear in action what a positive thought sounds like, especially when my self-talk had been unshakably negative for such a long time. Now of course I can see that he was doing the opposite of ignoring my pain, he was teaching me coping tools, every time I saw him for a year straight I learned something. It takes a special kind of person to care that much that you are willing to say the unpopular thing because it is the right thing to do. His ex will realize what a fool he is for not including our friend in his life path.
I can’t usually make my friends’ pain, emotional or otherwise, disappear, but I remember how much it sometimes helps to be held, and fibro flare up or no, I’m all about powerful hugs and can put up with the pain of a real hug for a friend in need, any time. It’s so worth it to be there for someone and to reflect maybe a little of that positivity they have been shining on my life back at them for a minute. I will not ever give up on expending that energy, no matter how severe the fatigue or the pain get. Not a one of the unexpected acts of kindness that I was allowed to perform this week made my body rebel any worse in the long run, and my heart feels fuller that it has in a long time.
I hope every time that I am presented with the option to be caring and loving, I am able to take that opportunity and be a shoulder for someone to cry on, a hand to rub their back, and a voice to tell them how important they are to others. Or the lantern-finder in a power outage, the overflowing gratitude scrawled across the inside of a thank you card, and the knock on the door that alerts our neighbors to a problem before it becomes a disaster.
There is so much to be gained spiritually from not taking the easy way out, that it often cancels out the amount of energy the more difficult path requires from you, and can even renew you. That is math that I can understand, for once! So even if you think you’re way too tired to go out of your way for someone else, I encourage you to look for every opportunity, small and large, to prove that theory wrong. When you brighten the lives of those around you, some of that light is always reflected back at your own beautiful soul. Nurturing someone else also means nurturing a part of yourself that believes in love, joy, and passion. It’s never a bad decision to be there emotionally for a friend, and remember, even a stranger’s day could be changed completely by a random act of kindness!
<3, good vibes and low pain days to everyone
That feeling when you pour your heart out and the other person says not one single word the entire time, during or after. Yes. That.
Exhausted from wanting to hear something, anything when I am done talking, or while I am talking, or even two hours or two days later, but I have to accept that it’s not coming. There is no apology. There is no reassurance. There is no “I’m proud of how far you’ve come” or anything else that would let me know that “I’m ready to wash my hands of you” is not still the underlying truth here.