I have been away from this blog for a couple of weeks due to illness. For two and a half years I have been trying to get some chronic condition diagnosed. That is a seemingly impossible task. I don’t have an obvious “Top 10” condition, so Western medicine can’t really help since diagnosis is not a skill any practitioners seem to have these days.
Rather than rant about the utter horror show that is American medicine, I want to talk about being sick in a relationship. This issue actually comes up a lot in discussions I have with people. Many, many people have partners with chronic conditions – both physical and mental, that impact a relationship. Illness is an incredible stressor on a relationship and can change not only physical interactions with partners, but emotional ones as well.
As with all my entries, this is from a personal perspective and should not be seen as “expert” advice. Each condition is different. Each couple is different. Each circumstance is different. What I offer here is my experience.
I have two illnesses. I was diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder in 1995. I have been attempting to manage that – somewhat successfully – since then. Then, about two and a half years ago I got sick, really sick. It started with what I thought was a severe case of strep throat. Things got worse and kept getting worse. After over 100 tests and ten “specialists” nothing could be diagnosed. Finally, my practitioner got fed up with me coming into the office and saying, “Well, that treatment didn’t work. I still can’t function. What’s next?” and sent me home with, “You have no new symptoms. Go home. If you are here in three months and have new symptoms, come back and we can see if we can figure out anything.” Nice, right?
The condition, whatever it is, will remit then resurface. This last bout was bad enough I couldn’t feed myself, couldn’t hold a pen, and could barely walk. I have a “pain specialist” who determined that I was not worth treating after two visits and told me I should just learn to live in debilitating pain as he wasn’t going to pursue any line of inquiry. (In case you are wondering, those were his words. Doctors are assholes.)
Established vs. New Relationships
There is a big difference if you get sick after you have established a relationship versus being sick when you get into a relationship.
Both my grandmothers nursed their husbands through protracted illnesses. My paternal grandfather died of pancreatic cancer and my maternal grandfather passed after a long battle with post-polio syndrome, heart issues, and kidney cancer. Both couples faced these horrible illnesses after decades of marriage.
When my grandfathers became ill, it was after their relationships had been established for decades. My grandmothers willingly and lovingly accepted the role of care giver. Watching them and talking to them, I know this was not easy. They cared for someone they loved deeply as he faced a painful death. My grandmothers were exhausted both physically and emotionally during the care taking portion of their relationship. They did it because they loved their husbands and they had taken them for better or worse, in sickness and in health. It is not something they wanted to do, they would have rather had happy, healthy partners to the end. But they did it because they loved the person and that is what you do.
My situation has been a bit different. I have been single for the past five years. I disclose to any potential long term partner that I am Bipolar. I have to manage it and how I manage it can’t be hidden. I do yoga, meditate, watch what I eat, exercise, write, and take supplements (I gave up on pharmacologicals after 20 years of only moderate help with the mood disorder and a total betrayal by Western health care). My mood swings are infrequent and very mild compared to what I was like at 20. However, I believe it is something any potential partner should know about.
So far, that hasn’t been an issue. It has been in the past. The first woman I loved deeply knew I was Bipolar. After a long period of dating, I asked about the possibility of marriage. She told me I was not worth the risk. She feared that, since I was Bipolar, she would come home one day and find me dead. She said she loved me but I would never be worth it to marry.
Honestly, that has stuck with me. To this day I don’t really see myself as worthy of being loved long-term. And yes, honestly, I know the stats for Bipolar women. There is a significant risk of suicide. I don’t blame her for not wanting a partner who has an acknowledged risk. I still disclose my illness because I believe anyone entering into a relationship with me needs to make the decision of being with someone with a mental illness. But, after that experience with her, I don’t really believe I am worth the risk.
The physical condition is more of an issue for me. When it flares, I experience an incredible amount of pain. Additionally I can develop wheezing and coughing, chronic itching, and when it is really bad, it affects my cognition and speech. I sleep 16 or more hours a day and the only remedy seems to be a high CBD cannibinoid. Thank god for medical marijuana in California!
I can’t hide this condition from someone who sees me on a regular basis. If I can’t walk or shower, its hard to disguise that. And it scares people who see it.
Any partner I have had in the last five years I have connected with during a period of wellness. They see me when I am super active, engaged and happy. That is my normal self. I have only had a couple of partners see me when I get sick. I know from talking to them it is kind of terrifying. I am pale, my eyes are dark and sunken, I move like an ancient woman in some anime film, I hack and cough and I can’t bend over.
It has prevented me from entering long-term relationships. No rational person in their 40s wants a partner who may be permanently disabled or dead in a year. It goes into their calculation about pursuing a relationship. I don’t blame people. I get it. Why would you want to take on a partner and invest the emotional energy if they are not going to be there in a year or two?
The conditions don’t stop me from loving people and trying to be there to support and care for them. I look at any relationship as something I have today, I need to nurture, and will do until I can’t anymore.
Play and sex partners are different than long-term relationships. When it comes to kink play, both conditions greatly impact my ability to play. My play partners have always been made aware of my conditions. Here is why…
When I experience mood swings it changes both my perceptions of pain and my emotional triggers change. During a depressive swing, pain is much more acute and intense. I simply cannot play as hard as I normally do. A play partner needs to be aware of such things to adjust the play. Further, I am super sensitive about failing a partner. When I am depressed, commenting on my inability to take more pain or punishing me for non-standard reactions and breaking training can send me into a very dark space. Humiliation play is not possible for me on a depressive swing.
Alternatively, when I am hypomanic or manic, I barely feel pain. I will push deeper and deeper in play to a point of physical danger. I will egg on my partner trying to get a more extreme reaction. In this state I can also become combative. A partner has to be aware of this to moderate play when I can’t.
With the physical condition, I need a partner to be aware of any flare. It affects my joints, so things like kneeling and crawling are out. If the wheezing and coughing are present, I can’t do breathe play. I let me partners know before I get to the location for a scene so they can adjust their plans.
Illness, both mental and physical, necessitate a change in play. They make me a risky candidate for a long-term relationship. It is hard to watch someone you care about struggle to breathe, to walk, and to talk. I disclose my conditions early to partners because I want them to be able to make a decision to go forward with some form of relationship to to bail. I keep play partners and romantic partners in the loop on my health because it is necessary for them to make adjustments in our sex lives and our relationships.
Honestly, I get sick of talking about my health with partners. Because the physical condition is so extreme, I have to talk to partners about it. I wish I didn’t. However, I believe that the only fully consensual decision is one based on having all pertinent information. My health is pertinent, so I talk about it with people I care about.
My illness is one reason I am a big proponent of open relationships. I don’t ever want a partner to have to make a choice between being in a relationship without the possibility of sex for long periods because I am not physically capable of it and a relationship with good sex. Ideally, I would love to have a long-term primary partner. I would love to be healthy. In light of my reality, I want my partner to have options of other intimate relationships for support when I am ill and for someone who can meet their physical needs when I can’t.