The New Normal – My Deadline For This Column Was Valentine’s Day: Dating With A Chronic Illness

The other day my boyfriend and I realised that he had only met me once pain free. This got me reflecting on how different my life is now and how my priorities have changed in the past couple of years. We went on our first date in May of 2018, a month before my chronic headaches started, and fell out of contact for six weeks after (Reader, I ghosted him). I became very ill in those six weeks and couldn’t stop wondering what would happen if I unpatched him. I was lonely and I missed being the person I had been on our first date: pain-free, happy and not looking for a relationship. I don’t know what I was expecting when I messaged him again but I had had a lot of fun on our date and I desperately wanted someone to talk to. When you have a chronic illness, the people closest to you can often be the hardest to confide in. It’s difficult to tell the people who love you that you’re suffering, and I was forever worried of boring people or being labelled as moany by my fledgling uni friend group.

So, we began talking again, online. Him in his flat in Glasgow and me in my parents’ house – from my bedroom with the blinds closed. The tone of our conversation changed
dramatically depending on the level of light outside. During the day our messages would be very carefully crafted; we both cringe reading them back now and remembering how much we were trying to impress each other. The messages we sent at night were different; I was barely sleeping and finding the endless hours in bed alone hard to deal with. These texts are difficult to read. Around 2AM I would tire of pretending to be funny and start to share how I was actually feeling: how worried I was about the future and how isolated the pain made me feel. This was a period of limbo. It was the summer after my first year of uni, I was slowly coming to terms with this new illness and then, accidentally, was on the verge of my first romantic relationship.

We continued to talk almost constantly for a month and developed a strange kind of
intimacy I hadn’t felt before. I started to understand how people fell in love online and
moved across the country to be with people they had never met. And then, I started getting a little better. I moved back to Glasgow and we got together and it was great. It would be nice if that was the end of it but, sadly, dating somebody with a chronic illness is consistently complicated. I was better than I had been, but still unwell nearly all the time. I struggled to make it to uni that whole semester and I felt like my identity was being redefined by my illness; I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t work, I could barely do my own washing. The first four or five months of our relationship I was living a kind of half-life and it was horrible, but when I look back on that time I still feel happy. I have a lot to thank him for. The messy beginning of our relationship meant that we built the strongest foundations. I know that he has seen all of the worst bits of me, and he saw them from the very beginning of our relationship – some pain-related, some not.

Thank you for coming to the doctors with me even though I’m always gloomy beforehand. Thank you for listening to me slag everybody off all the time when I’m grumpy and I have a headache. Thank you for not minding when me and Ellen stay up all night in the living room singing Joni Mitchell and crying when you have work the next day. Thank you for never ever minding when I cancel plans and for always being happy to stay in and watch The Chase. Thank you for leaving early with me. There were some times when I was ill that summer when I would worry that I’d never move back to Glasgow; that I was so difficult to be around that I should just stay with my family forever, that they were the only ones who would love me unconditionally and be able to deal with my illness. It’s nice to know that I have added to my family now, and that unconditional love can be found on Tinder. I have a family that love me, friends that love me, a boyfriend that loves me, AND a cat called Pickle. Crazy.

[Madeline Docherty – she/her – @Maddydocluvs1D]

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