When Your Illness Is the Third Wheel in Your Relationship

“Hey, babe! I’m performing this Saturday; want to come see my show?” Of course I do, of course I want to go see my boyfriend be hilarious as he improvises on stage, but instead of answering with an enthusiastic, “Hell yes!” I pause, I grimace, I ponder.

“I mean, it’s no big deal if you don’t, you can come next time,” he says. I can tell he’s disappointed, even though he tries to hide it. We eye each other, parsing every word for underlying meaning. Is he really OK? Is she just coming because I want her to?

“No. I want to come, I just don’t want to make a promise and disappoint you again.” Besides, I have to check in with the unwanted third in this relationship: chronic pain.

Chronic pain is elusive; I don’t know when she’ll show up and ruin our joy. She is envious; determined to undermine my intimacy with searing pain. She is abusive and intimidating and demeaning. And most infuriating of all, she is invisible.

“Babe seriously, don’t worry about it, let’s just have some dinner.” It’s so easy to want to ignore my pain because no one else can see her. Yes, I may be abusing myself, but I’m in my 20s, let me live! So I commit to my boyfriend. “I’ll be at your show!” I say as convincingly as I can.

“No, hon, if you aren’t feeling well, stay home.”

“And miss that new improv format you’ve been working on? No way!” He smiles and the conversation moves on.

Saturday rolls around and I am determined to make tonight work.

It’s 8 a.m., but I’m already planning for how I am going to be ready for the 8 p.m. show. I have work until noon, I’ll eat lunch, meditate, take an Epsom salt bath, nap, use a TENS unit, eat dinner, and I can do it.

It’s 1 p.m., I’m home from work, I’ve eaten and I can already tell I’m not going to be able to do it, but I will not admit defeat. I’m nothing if not stubborn.

3 p.m., I’m trying unsuccessfully to nap. I could text and cancel, he’s asked me to let him know as soon as I know I’m not coming because it softens the blow, but no, I’m not going to let this pain take me.

5 p.m., my phone rings, it’s my boyfriend.“Hello lovely! How are you? How was work?” he says brightly.

“I’m not doing well.” I’m fighting back tears, I’m defensive, I’m angry. “My back hurts.”

“Oh, I’m sorry hon. So, what are we doing tonight?”

I wanted him to exonerate me. I wanted him to somehow magically read my mind and say, “Don’t worry about tonight,” but more than anything, I wanted to be a good girlfriend. I could hear Chronic Illness whispering to me, “You should stay home. Honestly, you should break up. What are you doing in a relationship? You know you’ll never be able to show up for him. You are such a burden.”

I start to cry.

“Bae, what’s the matter? I love you.”

“I love you, too. I don’t think I can make it.”

“OK, no worries. It’s no big deal; I’ll come cuddle you after the show,” he says lightly. “You aren’t a burden,” he tacks on at the end.

God, does he know me. Over the last two years of our relationship, we’ve learned a lot about promises and commitments and disappointment. I’ve learned that disappointment is unavoidable, but that’s not unique to relationships with chronic illness. I’ve learned that open communication with my partner about my mental chatter is the fastest way to make it disappear. Finally, I’ve learned that acceptance with my current state of being is the only way to walk through it.

My chronic illness is not going anywhere and the more I fight it, the more I suffer. When I stubbornly try to ignore the warning signs that I am not doing well, I don’t treat my body kindly and in turn make promises I have no chance of keeping. However, when I recognize that I won’t be able to go out, I can tell my boyfriend and plan my life accordingly. Then on the off chance I feel better I can always change my mind. If I fight my reality I am stuck. If I can accept my reality for what it is, I can begin to look for courses of action to treat and transcend my current circumstance one day at a time.

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