Until very recently, I hadn't been on a date in a while. I'd been asked on them, I'd flirted, I'd kissed – but committing to anything else was too hard. I'm in recovery from anorexia, and it takes over my life – which includes dating.
To start, a lot of dating revolves around food or drink. I'm very specific about what I will eat, and have to check out restaurant menus in advance. I often ask for adaptations. It's hardly the laid back and liberal approach I like to present to the world.
Body image is something that many women struggle with, but is exacerbated by an eating disorder. I don't really have dysmorphia – I know I'm underweight – but I still struggle with what other people will think.
And then there's the fact that I have to constantly be planning for my next meal or snack while thinking about not doing too much activity, at the same time. It's exhausting.
For the moment, it is recovery, in all its facets, that is a big part of my life.
So, avowedly spinster, potentially more out of self-protection than anything, I was rather blindsided when I met a sweet, funny, and supportive guy who has signed up for the good stuff and the hard stuff. He reassures me, helps with meals, calms me down when I get anxious, keeps me warm and makes me feel safe. We also like to dance around the living room, are big fans of exploring old buildings, can nail a newspaper crossword, and spend a lot of time laughing.
But it's not easy - dating with a long-term illness is hard. And it's an issue that people with many different illnesses face.
Helen suffers with chronic pain all over her body, which affects all aspects of her life – mobility, cognitive function, and emotions. Whenever she is online speaking to someone new, she tells them that she has to walk with a stick. Quite often this is the end of the conversation, and people simply stop talking to her.
She recently went to a 'traffic light' party and was pointed at and called out by other people in the room. One man said to her, "You are limited, what are your solutions?" – as she couldn't travel far to see him due to exhaustion. "This made me feel inferior and an inconvenience," she says.
And with chronic pain, everything hurts – including sex. She explains that, "I've never met anyone who cared enough to be attentive and gentle enough to make it enjoyable."
This knowledge is exacerbated by her body dysmorphia and feeling that she isn't attractive enough for anyone to like her.
A girl I knew in recovery from anorexia once got all the way into bed before the man she was with stopped because she was too small, and he worried he would break her. At this point, she was what is deemed a "healthy" weight, showing how arbitrary and low these boundaries are set.
One thing that is really important is being honest.
I told my boyfriend about anorexia recovery almost immediately, as he had asked if I wanted to go out for lunch. The conversation then evolved into things he could do to help me – knowing my meal plan, nudging me to choose the best choices for recovery, planning in advance – rather than put us in an awkward situation.
But knowing when to have that conversation is hard. Karen has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She is very cautious about who she speaks to. "It feels like when you're sick, you spend a lot of time being cautious in who you show the real realities of the crap of the illness to, and so it's a massive vulnerability to have to bare your deepest insecurity of an illness, very quickly. To let down that mask even a little bit, is a real risk. There's no way around ripping that plaster off very soon, and so for me I'd probably rather steer clear of the situation where I have to do that, for fear of rejection because of it."
"It feels like when you're sick, you spend a lot of time being cautious in who you show the realities of the crap of the illness to."
She finds that it often comes up when she is asked that killer question, "What do you do?" and she has to explain that she is off work long-term due to illness. As well as closing that conversation down, it makes her struggle with feelings of self-worth "and not wanting to be a burden physically and financially, as well as not wanting to appear weak."
Most of the people that I've spoken to about this are in their thirties. There's an extra pressure with dating in this decade, because, for the most part, people are looking for something long-term.
As Karen says, "When I think about marriage and stuff even though it's the whole 'for better or for worse, in sickness and in health' thing, it's the struggle of feeling like, 'Well yes, that's true, so if I became chronically ill after we were married that's when that would kick in, but to invoke that before you even begin, is too much of a price to ask someone to pay.' And although dating is just dating and doesn't necessarily even get to a point of long term, let alone marriage, it's always that looming feeling in the background."
But it's a good sign if you find someone willing to take on the illness challenge. My boyfriend has said that he wouldn't be putting in all of this effort if we were just a short-term fling. Every time he makes me a dinner that stretches me just enough towards recovery tomorrow, whilst feeling safe enough to deal with today, I know that he is reaffirming that he cares. Because it's not just me who faces challenges – so does he. He has had to have a much more structured approach to eating, with regular meals and snacks, so that he's always there to support me. Language is a big thing, as even the slightest slip such as calling something "bad" or commenting on the size of a meal can send me into misery or trigger of eating disorder behaviors.
Dr. Michelle R. Hannah says that the best time to share is when you both think that you are on the same page in regards to where the relationship is heading. She has worked with lots of cancer survivors on rebuilding their lives, and has also suffered from cancer herself. She was lucky that when she met her husband, she had been through a process of self-healing by spending time working on her own physical and mental health. "We had the conversation early on because we truly knew where we were going early in our relationship. It was a tough conversation but his compassion and commitment made it easier. Knowing we could both be transparent with each other helped immensely on the days that I was at a pain level of nine on a scale from 1 to 10. After four major procedures before we were married, I knew that we were both committed to the traditional wedding vows before we took them. Chronic illness, or recovery from one, is one of the toughest challenges that one can go through but when you have someone who is dedicated to assisting you to achieve optimal health and love you through it, [it] makes the journey so much more meaningful."
"Chronic illness, or recovery from one, is one of the toughest challenges that one can go through but when you have someone who is dedicated to assisting you to achieve optimal health and love you through it, [it] makes the journey so much more meaningful."
Clare has also been diagnosed with Parkinson's for just over two years and has found that it has really knocked her confidence. First dates are stressful and full of anticipation anyway, but Clare struggles to even get dressed for them. "Things can be going well," she says, "but then I will start trembling and feel self-conscious and stupid. My left arm hangs in a way that I think makes me look very sick. I am consciously aware of it, and will spend all my time worrying about it. So then I can't focus on and enjoy the date."
That's one of the key things about dating when you have a long-term illness. That illness is always present, and it's very difficult to be 100% focused on the date or relationship in general.
Self-esteem is one of the biggest casualties. It's this that stops Karen. "I know that I struggle with internal dialogues of self-worth with having a chronic illness and the thought of dating - the battle of feeling like no one would want to buy into that from the beginning."
When your illness takes over you everyday life, it can feel like you've got nothing else to give. I've felt like that too. Why would anyone want to put up with the challenges that illness and recovery come with?
Because they care. And that's what all relationships are about: A mutual caring, respect, and delight in each other's company. As important as self-care and management strategies are, and as big an issue as illness is, it's not everything.
You're an individual with a lot more to give than just a diagnosis, and there are people out there excited about getting to know all of you, the good, difficult, and shades of light and grey.