Living with a chronic illness is rarely easy. It can take over every part of our lives — from work to relationships and more. As a sex educator and a patient, the biggest issue I see is the negative effect illness can have on our intimate relationships and sex lives.
We often feel alone and helpless when we can’t accomplish the things we’d like to because of chronic illness. This is especially true when there is another person involved in the equation. Guilt, shame, and fear seep in, making it difficult to feel like ourselves. Even though I’ve been ill since childhood, I continue to get sicker and must deal with resulting effects in my personal life. I’m no longer able to do some things that I’ve enjoyed in the past.
To help myself and others, I’ve undergone an odd journey in the last few years — one that encompasses improving how I care for and feel about myself, getting treatment for sexual issues, and working on communication. I felt alone when I started, but as I share my experience, people send me messages to say that these things help them, too.
Without further ado, here are my favorite tips to improve your sex life despite chronic illness.
Start paying attention to your inner voice
You may be asking why your inner voice is a sex-related topic. I believe that the way we “talk” to ourselves has a lot to do with how we see ourselves. My experience is proof of that.
I grew up in an abusive household. It was very difficult to never be able to do things I wanted to do because of my illness, but it was even harder to deal with the negative self-talk brought on by my childhood. I used to hear my mother tell me things about my worth in my head. One day, I realized that this was a major issue, so I tried to think of ways I might be able to counter these thoughts. Because my best friend is my sister, I began to imagine how hurtful it would be if I made comments to her like “You can’t even walk to the bathroom and you’re trying to get a college degree? Really?”
In short, I started treating myself like I was my best friend. Developing self-love with an illness isn’t easy, but it worked. The only times I have those very negative self-talk moments now are when my anxiety and depression are running high.
Remember that you’re sexy
We are all incredibly sexy. It’s just easy to forget it sometimes. I know that when I can’t wear certain clothes or haven’t been able to shower in a week due to pain, I don’t feel anywhere close to attractive.
Figure out what things help you feel sexy, and do those things every so often. It’s part self-love, part self-care, but all fun.
I know it’s easy to want to hide your pain or struggles with chronic illness. Ableism in society often pressures us to do this so we can appear as normal as possible. And if you’re anything like me, you don’t want to be a burden.
If we’re not communicating our basic needs outside of the bedroom, how can we talk openly and honestly in the heat of the moment?
Communication can come in all forms. For me, writing is easier than speaking face to face when strong emotions are involved. Some people find emailing each other every day to be a great tool. Others enjoy using a shared document online, texting, or having a weekly date night.
Find what works for you and your partner(s), and stick to that.
Consider adding enhancements to your sex life
Like Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., I dislike using the word “toy” to talk about sexual helpers or enhancements. There are so many ways these tools can help us, and it’s important to not devalue that by always calling them toys.
Sexual aids can help spice things up in the bedroom. From improving foreplay to helping with pain, tools like theDoxy Massager can be key to getting your sex life back. Sex furniture, such as items fromLiberator, can also do double duty; I only ever use myLiberator Jaz Motion to prop up my swollen knees while I lounge on the couch.
Talk with your doctor
There are many conditions that can affect our sex lives. While it can be difficult to discuss sex with a doctor, it’s also important. A lack of arousal can be a sign of a health condition that needs treatment, such as heart disease for instance. Like me, you may also need to undergo pelvic floor therapy to improve your sexual muscles.
If something like fatigue is a major issue for you, you may be able to work with your doctor to find a solution. At the very least, discussing whether you may be experiencing side effects from medication is important.
Chronic illness can cause a lot of changes in our lives. It doesn’t mean you have to live without a fulfilling sex life.