Searching for love when you have a chronic illness is a challenge — an often lonely challenge. Telling someone you are chronically ill is not sexy. Telling them you have an “old lady” disease is even more unattractive.
My diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis at 29 isn’t uncommon. I’m not alone in my search for love while living with chronic illness. I’m not even alone in my search for love while living with chronic illness as a single mother. Almost half the population of North America lives with a chronic illness, which doesn’t stop at the 120+ forms of arthritis. There’s diabetes, epilepsy, heart disease, lung disease, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease — the list goes on.
Many of these are diagnosed during our peak dating and childbearing years, which means we have to talk about our diseases with those we date.
Rheumatoid arthritis has made me take a long hard look at my life, my behaviors, my attitude, my lifestyle, my wants and needs, and what is truly important to me and my son. My diagnosis created a transformation in me, it made me blossom into a stronger and better version of myself. Yet, I have a chronic and progressive form of arthritis — and I am disabled.
This can be hard for a potential partner to look past.
How RA Changed What I Want in a Partner
When I think of my ultimate love, it’s not the Instagram version of a “perfect” partner. It’s not a hiking or adventure buddy. It’s not a travel companion, foodie, or beer/wine connoisseur. I’m not drinking much if any craft beer these days. I view food as medicine now. My rheumatoid arthritis makes me eat a healthy diet that most people wouldn’t consider yummy because I also have food sensitivities. Food and alcohol play a massive role in my inflammation.
When I think of my ultimate love, I think of the relationship my aunt and uncle had. They were married longer than I’ve been alive, and she struggled with the same disease I have. Their marriage ended when she passed away, which coincidentally — and terrifyingly — was the same week that I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
My uncle was always there for her, through her sickness and until her death. He never complained about her health struggles. He looked past that she needed a wheelchair. You could hear the compassion, understanding, support, and love in the way he spoke to her and of her. Her saw her for her, not her disease.
I am searching for someone who will be there through my sickness, not shy away from it.
Let me give you an example of who I’m not looking for: the rockstar heavy metal boyfriend I had at the time of my diagnosis, who said to me on our first date that if he were with a woman who became disabled, he would run.
I sometimes wonder who’s the bigger idiot: him, or me for dating him in the first place.
They say you’re supposed to date people you share common interests with. I used to look for people I could attend heavy metal concerts or sample craft beers with; now I need to find people who can help me maintain my healthy lifestyle — who I can go to the gym or sauna with.
I need someone I can fight this disease with. I look for people who are compassionate, understanding, empathetic, and interested in helping others.
Dating and a Self-Confidence Struggle
I sometimes lack confidence in why a partner should choose me. I struggle to do housework, run errands, and prepare meals. I used to be skilled professionally at massage as an esthetician; now my hands can barely handle kneading dough. Oh, and there’s this: I am no longer physically able to have another child because of RA. I’m 33.
I find myself conflicted by insecurities that have stemmed from chronic illness. From what I gather is that men like a strong and confident woman, but it’s damn hard to be confident about your body when it is disabled, always in pain, weighed down with fatigue, or frazzled by brain fog.
I need to ask for dates to be during the day time because my symptoms tend to heighten at night. I’ve become the arthritic Cinderella who needs to leave the ball before fatigue and pain set in.
Rheumatoid arthritis has made me struggle with feeling like less of a woman. I am holding onto hope that someone can see me as whole and help my heart become whole again.
Here we are in a time when you can keep swiping to find something better. You can unmatch or ghost those with flaws and red flags. I can’t count how many times a cute guy seems very interested in me until he finds out that what’s hidden behind the fit tattooed redhead is a chronic illness he can’t possibly understand.
“So, what do you do for work? What did you do today?” are difficult questions to answer to a stranger who cannot see my invisible illness. You never really know how they are going to respond.
I want them to see how I handle my illness. I want them to see how strong RA has made me, the lessons it’s taught me, and how it’s shaped me into who I am today. I want them to see my 60-plus pound weight loss and how seriously I take care of myself now. They should see the fighter in me. The fighter that RA has made of me.
Sharing My Truth While Dating
Arthritis has become my life’s work. I’m a patient advocate and blogger. I live and breathe arthritis all day, every day. I don’t know how to answer the question “How are you?” without honestly saying things that some people consider being negative or complaining — but they’re my reality.
I believe having a positive outlook is key, and I try to. But always being positive through chronic illness is a challenge.
Do I lie and say what I think they want to hear, or do I tell them the truth and risk being perceived as a Debbie Downer? I can’t fake pretending to be well when I’m not. And I don’t want to approach a potential relationship without honesty. I inform dates of my arthritis at the soonest possible moment; I don’t want to waste any time weeding out the ones who have problems with it — or my son, for that matter.
Fatigue from my chronic illness has taught me just how valuable my time and energy is.
Embracing the Unexpected
Rejection hurts. It stings every time; it makes me lose hope; it makes me bitter, closed off, shy, and awkward. I never know who will be accepting or not, which is a lesson I’ve learned in the hardest ways. Loneliness and lack of support is one of the hardest parts of living with chronic illness on a daily basis.
Sometimes when I am down and out because it seems difficult to find love during my time as a single parent with rheumatoid arthritis, I remind myself that life is often unexpected. I’ve learned that lesson over and over in the hardest of ways. However, “unexpected” doesn’t always need to mean “bad.” I could meet someone, or I could focus on other ways to feel fulfilled in my life.
Being chronically ill does not make me unworthy of love. It just makes it that much more special when and if I do find it.