Dating and Chronic Illness: A Match Made In Hell?

Posted on 9 min read
dating and disability
When I think of my love life, I think of a tumbleweed rolling down a parched country road excreting depleting levels of energy at its slowest rate. Tortoise-like. With a hollow shell. Dried of concrete connection. Also known as, me. Just like my career prospects, my nightmare of a neurological disorder has relentlessly affected that part of life that falls into place naturally for most people. Dating. Relationships. Getting down and dirty. Finding the one. You know, the works.

I don’t talk much about my lack of romance. Mainly because it’s purely that – lacked and illusive – but also because I prefer to conceal the semblance. I like to think people see me and surmise my life is rich with opportunities to meet handsome men and allow them to whisk me off my feet. An average modern blonde with a dictatorial voice and a passable pair of boobs. It’s just better that way. More comfortable, convenient, and congenial. But it’s far from the truth and it’s about time I opened up about a factor that does run cynically through my mind at a much faster pace than the tumbleweed.

I’m forever in a perpetual cycle when it comes to dating. Contemplating whether to just rip the plaster off and take the plunge. Download Tinder and embrace the cringe. Approach someone with some dutch courage companionship on the sporadic occasion I’m out in a bar slyly giving the eye. Place the deceptive mask on that covers the face of someone who’s actually pretty damn petrified.

The torrent of excuses take centre stage to quash the deep-rooted factors that prevent that sense of freedom and stature when working towards putting myself on the market. I blame it on my awkwardness, my social anxiety, and being an undivided commitment-phobe. The accurate but hyperbolic fact that I’ve had to primarily look after myself and my deteriorating health since I was 17 years old and I haven’t had the time or the stamina to search for love. Realistically it’s the fears and the inhibitions of pouring my life into an overfilled rickety bucket and emptying it out to someone, the dread of rejection, the perturbing thoughts that emotional attachment and exposed vulnerability will only lead to further isolation and dejection.

Dating is difficult at the best of times. It’s not an easy ride. Not that I have much experience but I know what it’s like to live in a spiralling world of orthodoxy. To follow the journey of determining that special someone is overwhelming for the healthiest of people but finding that eligible individual who both vibes with your interests and your personality, and understands that some days they’ll have to refrain from touching you because you’re curled up in a ball paralysed with a pain flare, is balancing on the edge of implausibly impossible.

Dating with a disability? Yeah, it’s a whole other ball game.

dating with chronic pain
Having a chronic illness that impacts the conventional functions of everyday has to become a significant part of you and often that plays a part on what you choose to divulge and who you choose to divulge to. My nemesis is I prefer to keep that version of myself secret when that version isn’t even a periphery, it’s who I am. Avoiding the situation is much more uncomplicated than finding common ground with my regular psyche and the Antichrist infarction on my brain that’s doing 90mph in a 30mph zone.

The apprehensions of dating with chronic illness is well rounded. Not just with scientific knowledge but from general prevalence and of course direct word of mouth. There are so many conflicting elements that contribute towards that shakiness surrounding dating when you’re physically unable to do what all your healthier peers are doing.

When is the right time to reveal your condition?  I don’t even think there is an ideal opportunity to bring it up in casual conversation. How the bloody hell do you introduce yourself at a first meeting? Hi, I’m Bridie, I’m already extremely doubtful you’ll fall in love with me but just to deter you further – I had a rare form of stroke as a teen, was robbed of my youth, and am still struggling through each day with erratic, incurable, debilitating pain and a severe serotonin shortage. Oh, and I can’t feel the left hand side of my body either. Also if this somehow miraculously manages to progress into a real relationship there will be a good proportion of guaranteed days I’m cooped up indoors ugly crying with a dishevelled appearance and an unresponsive manner. I’ll probably even spitefully push you away because there’s nothing to thwart my substitute emotion of sheer anger.  So sexy. Very alluring. Not off putting at all.

It’s that unabating dilemma of what you should give away with those first time questions. Especially the big statutory one. The instant ice breaker of “so what do you do?” – a piece of cake for your average Joe to answer but a gulp inducing freeze frame for me. Where do you start in telling someone you don’t have degree level qualifications or a stable job or a wealthy sum of earned income and have spent most of your development to adulthood sat in hospital waiting rooms or on your single bed contemplating whether you can go on living in this state? How do you broadcast your desperate nonstandard freelance schedule of grabbing any modicum of work – even lowly commissioned tosh – because you can’t afford to turn it down nor stand the sight of another declined email and ignored pitch? How do you even begin to explain about those pencilled plans crushed by the weight of your monstrous malady? And more importantly, how do you inform the person facing your camouflaged crestfallen reflection with hope and intrigue that you rely on the government and your mum to get by as you doubt you’d be able to cope single-handedly. Ambition and success and stability and independence is attractive. Not being stuck on a demoted loop with no certain direction for the future, figuratively glued to your home turf making it even harder to meet new people and socialise in the ordinary.

Pain is problematic because it’s invisible and explosive and you can’t detect when it’s going to strike. My outer image to a blind eye is a picture of promise and prosperity enlarged into an exhibit; a deceptive canvas for passers by to criticise. Being disabled means you really have to be cautious of the ignorance and judgement that can shed from an obliviously unacquainted person. Pain could hit me unexpectedly halfway through a date and suddenly the concept of smiles and fun completely vanishes. Or I could organise a date when I’m feeling up to it, have to cancel two hours before, and abort mission completely; and I can only imagine what that would do to some fragile masculinity with a pinch of utterly wrong impression sprinkled on top. It’s not just the pain that’s unpredictable, it’s not knowing when someone is desperate to run for the hills despite what their mannerism may exude. I already feel like damaged goods, that devalue tripling in dominance isn’t something I’m particularly keen on reaping.

It’s not just the pain presented on a platter, it’s the ensuing pattern of things that coincide unavoidably. The moods. The depression. The seclusion. The self-esteem. The negative body image. The broken sleep. The constant exhaustion. The limitations and boundaries. The extra challenges. The doubts that creep in; as soon as you gather up the courage it’s an automatic ‘am I really cut out for this?’. The scepticism and internal debates without an audience. What if they think I’m a boring PG freak? What if they get fed up of me complaining too much? What if one day they just decide my unhappiness and inability is unbearable and up and walk? What if they’re just feigning interest because they feel sorry for me? How do I embody this new fraction of my life without scaring people away?

I know full well I’d receive the stereotypical response, all the stuff you’re supposed to say, the “none of that matters” and “it makes no difference” but I know otherwise. I’ve carried this burden for 8 years and I wouldn’t want to introduce this unpleasant reality to anyone ill-suited or immature. In fact, nobody would want that.

dating with chronic pain
All of those afflictions and trust issues contribute to the embedded precept that finding love just really isn’t worth the physical and emotional energy. Kissing the frogs to find my prince isn’t even a durable enterprise when I can’t bring myself to conquer those qualms on the first batch of tested tadpoles. It’s better to be alone and continue disappointingly letting myself down than it is welcoming unfamiliar and incalculable ingredients into the mix.

I’m well aware this screams repressed ableism, self-stigmatisation, and an immeasurable dash of internalised self hatred but it’s a manifestation for me. I’d forcibly chastise anyone else being this harsh on themselves but it’s how I feel and I can’t dispose of the gnawing torment – because the reality of your body failing you is that it rips you of worth, beats you down, and piles on a myriad of emotional issues. I find it so unsparingly hard to see, designate, and unveil the ‘me’ within the haze of searing pain and surrendering fatigue. I’ve become a solitary detractor bordering on executioner and that irreversibility has proved to be just as inconceivably destructive as the pain itself. I know there’ll be plenty of chronically ill people dating or in committed and wholesome partnerships and I both envy and salute those who have defeated that stage of fundamental frailty. I only have myself to blame because I purposely don’t put the effort in – but with those weighted barriers on my shoulder as I stumble along the path of alienation, it’s just another obstructive side effect to my illness.

I’m 26 next. The societal scale tells me I should hurry up the dating game – offer myself out with a confident and unfaltering aura – but how do you do that when you’re still figuring yourself out? Still deeming what permanent puzzle piece can slot into your jigsaw wreckage? Unveiling my body is unimaginable. Not that you can physically see my problems but to me you can. It does seem palpable because I’m conscious of what’s happening thunderously inside. Picturing myself settling down, finding the perfect match, someone who is willingly volunteering to sign up to every facet is unthinkably bizarre. Not just because I feel undeserving and not good enough but because it’s been me, myself, and I for almost a decade now; I can’t imagine anyone entering the main plot of my story, taking over care and control of my territorial nature. The ‘there’s someone out there for everyone’ notion just doesn’t decipher in my detached world.

The one thing I have learned in being a sad and lonely singleton (now I do joke, it’s not that miserable) is that saint valentine forgot cupid’s arrow and struck me with an introversion instead. In a way, it’s helped. It’s helped me take time for myself selfishly, be content with my own company, and not force dependency on anyone else. It’s allowed me to know my worth. To not settle for less than I deserve. That being someone who will understand how much I’ve been through, go above and beyond in proving me wrong, and accept me and all the baggage that lugs along.

I have no idea whether that person will be introduced into my sphere anytime soon. I don’t know what the future holds and I definitely can’t foretell whether I’ll beat these battles and let my guard down but it’s okay because we’re all the same in that department; with health problems or without. Everyone has those insecurities and struggles and jitters about what will happen next whether single or taken or just simply dating.

Yeah I may end up a spinster. Or I may become a reputable inventor when I devise a dating website exclusively for spoonies (this is a serious suggestion, imagine how easier it’d be to meet those likewise who *get it*?? Dragon’s Den I’m coming for you)  but all I can really is do is keep moving forward when the sun rises and push through misadventure to create a rapturous pursuit or two when that big ball of light turns dark.