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What It's Like Dating When You've Been Chronically Ill Since You Were Young

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Many people with chronic illness are ambushed by confusing and painful symptoms in the middle of a relationship or in the middle of raising children. Expectations and dreams are shattered. The path they thought they were going to take was stolen from them, and now they have to carve out a new one uniquely their own.

I’m in a different position. I’ve been sick since I was young. I’m now in my early 20. I’m not married yet, and I have no kids. My dreams were also shattered, but I have the benefit of knowing ahead of time that parenting, for example, won’t be as easy for me as other moms. The added difficulty won’t be a surprise.

And while I grieve that my pre-teen and high school years were tainted by illness, I was also able to integrate the pain into my life much easier. I didn’t have a husband or child to worry about. I just needed to finish school (and that was a whole battle on its own).

The first time I met a man I had a crush on a little over a year ago, I told him about my health problems. Maybe I should have waited; maybe not. But I did. And it cleared away some of the anxiety in me that I’d be rejected if he found out. Now he knew. Maybe he would never want to see me again, and that would be on him, not me. He could date me for a few months and find this was too much for him to handle, and I wouldn’t hold it against him. At the same time, he wouldn’t be able to say I hid anything from him.

My date — we’ll call him Sam — listened and asked questions. Another date turned into another. Pretty soon we considered ourselves officially boyfriend and girlfriend. Over the months, I tensed up anytime he asked a question about my health. There was a lot he didn’t understand, especially when it came to mistreatment from doctors. It wasn’t because he wasn’t caring. Sam loves me deeply which is why he kept pressing me about what could be done to see improvement in my symptoms. He just wanted to see me well. He couldn’t understand my hesitancy to seek more medical care.

I’ve been accused of “faking” and “attention-seeking” before. Doctors have never really listened to me. On the other hand, Sam is used to going into the office, being taken seriously, believed, finding out what was wrong, and being told if and when it can be fixed. That’s how it’s supposedly supposed to work. But not for me. Not for you probably if you’re reading this. And, besides, I was pretty certain there was no treatment in existence that could reduce my symptoms that I wasn’t already doing. So this caused some tension between us early on. It was bound to. Sam and I were coming from two completely different experiences with illness and doctors — from two different worlds, practically.

As we got closer and much more serious, we discussed the future. We both want children sometime after we’re married and I finish college first. (I recognize that’s not on the table for everyone. Infertility affects many. And some conditions can make pregnancy unsafe.)

When we talked about goals after I get out of college, I told Sam I want to work part-time. I will use the teaching degree I’m in the process of earning not only to homeschool my own future kids, but to tutor students one on one or in groups. It would be perfect for me. I could choose my own hours and accept as many or little clients as I want. Here’s the catch: I have no idea if I’ll have the energy to do that. Taking care of my own kids and meeting their needs will have to come first. However, if Sam is the only one with income and I can’t supplement it, money could be very tight. I’ve talked about this with him before, and I’m sure we’ll have more talks about this as the time gets closer.

The important thing is those talks are happening.

Sometimes it’s wise to cross that bridge when you get to it, but other times some planning — no matter if it’s loose or vague at first — can really go a long way. In a strange upside-down sort of way, people like myself who got sick young have been given a gift. Let me explain. Do I wish my preteen and teen years were different? That I’d come of age pain-free as most of my peers did? Hell yeah. Who in our position wouldn’t wish that? But one piece of advice that has always stuck with me is, “You can’t change the cards you’ve been dealt, but you can choose how you play them. Do the best with what you got.”

I say getting young sick is almost a gift, because we knew our cards weren’t so great from the get-go. We had some idea of what lies ahead. We can go into new life experiences expecting obstacles. That may sound bleak. In some ways it is. But I promise you that if you navigated these waters as a child, you’re a lot stronger than you might feel. You survived so much pain that most people can’t imagine and maybe even weren’t believed or diagnosed for years.

You can have these talks.

And if your crush decides you’re not for them, it’s their loss.

Getty image by Westend61.

Originally published: February 3, 2022
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