For many people in their early twenties, dating can be awkward at best. The process of getting to know another person on an intimate level often comes with a series of unexpected twists and turns that will eventually make or break any potential for a long-term relationship. For those of us suffering from a chronic illness, however, the challenges of finding a compatible romantic partner can become magnified — especially for someone who's still coming into their own as an adult in this world.
After getting diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disease when I was 20, every aspect of my life took a crippling, devastating turn. My love life was no exception. It took me some time, but in the six years of having a debilitating illness, I now know what I absolutely need from a person in order to view them as a potential long-term (or lifelong) partner.
I have completely counted out using online dating sites and apps because I prefer my initial interaction with someone to happen organically and in person, and I would rather tell a person up front about my illness. The topic is not off the table; I pride myself on being an open book to the right person. Depending on my level of interest toward the person I'm dating, how many dates we've gone on, and other factors, they have free rein to ask me anything about my disease or lifestyle.
From that point on, it's important that they are truly interested in hearing about the intricate and complicated truth of my day-to-day life. In the past, I've made the mistake of oversharing too soon, and to the wrong person. I ended the situation realizing that they just weren't equipped with enough maturity to deal with dating someone with a chronic condition. Discovering incompatibility happens, and that's OK.
Hanging out with someone who is supportive on a verbal level is comforting, but being reliable during a traumatic situation matters as well.
As a chronic illness sufferer, my bad days are just as unpredictable as my good ones. Random crises are the nature of the beast, and a potential partner should be willing to ready and able to respond. There has been more than one occasion that called for a weeklong hospital stay following a date night. Whether it's retrieving a bottle of water from the bar for me or sitting beside me in the EMS truck and holding my hand, I want to make sure that I'm in the company of someone who will have my best interest at heart at all times. I don't need someone to baby me, although I like a little consolation when I feel like I might die at any given moment.
Sex and intimacy can be challenging with someone who has a chronic illness. There are times when my body is aching terribly. During these moments, count me out of any physically strenuous activity. Part of my disease includes a constant rapid heart rate and palpitations, so even those "butterflies" we all get when we're excited and nervous can be a physically uncomfortable feeling for me. When someone doesn't think selfishly and acknowledges the hidden characteristics of my disease, it's a sign of someone who might be in it for the long haul.
Unfortunately, my illness will not magically disappear overnight. Anyone truly interested in spending the rest of his or her life with me should refrain from saying things like, "We should do that one day when you aren't sick." Dates shouldn't be contingent upon me being in a fully healthy state.
Other insensitive remarks include ones about my diet and exercise regimen. I enjoy eating gluten, but I know it's bad for my body; getting diagnosed with a rare disease at age 20 came with having to break habits that were my norm for many years. If we're on a dinner date, some input on what to get from the menu can be appreciated, but there's a time and a place. Constantly acting as a personal trainer and nutritionist or sharing random articles about natural disease prevention can do more harm than good. I didn't ask for this life sentence, and a potential partner should be willing to give advice only when I ask for it.
As I'm getting to know someone on a deeper level, conversations about life and death shouldn't be shied away from on either party's behalf. I want to understand what my potential life partner deems as their ultimate life goals. They have to also be OK with accepting the reality of death as it pertains to me. I've found a comfort in accepting every possible outcome from a hospital stay, health crisis and a flare-up. Being able to openly discuss this is crucial for me to decide just how mentally prepared the person is with their pact to stick through "in sickness and in health."
Ultimately, my outlook on life in general has grown to be more positive and joyous. I realize just how precious each moment in each day can be. On the days I feel good, I look forward to sharing that joy with someone who can both appreciate and reciprocate it. There is no room for a Debbie Downer or Negative Nancy in my presence — looking on the bright side of every situation is a must. I also know what I want and need, as well as what I just cannot accept at this stage of my illness.