When I was a teenager, I asked my mother if I’d ever find love. My friends were dating, but I’d never met a boy who could see me instead of the packaging I came in - my rheumatoid arthritis and my wheelchair blocked the way. It took some time, but as I, and the men I dated, grew older, it became easier to find someone who wasn’t afraid of my RA or the wheelchair. But then, in 2004, my disease flared again, flared so intensely that I felt razed to the ground. That flare taught me just how hard RA can be on relationships, breaking bonds as it wrecks your body and a relationship of four years was destroyed in the wreckage.
After several years of slowly getting stronger, yet never getting back to where I was before the flare, I decided to try to accept that I wouldn’t find love again. I thought myself to be damaged goods, too wrecked by disease, too marked by the destructive forces of RA to be desirable to anyone. Turns out I was wrong. Because in the early months of 2009, I met someone - or rather, Met Someone - and we fell in love, unexpectedly, surprisingly, delightfully. I have never been so happy to be wrong.
We live in a world that emphasizes physical beauty and perfection, where illness and disability are things to be pitied, thought to put an end to other parts of your life, especially love, sex, marriage, children. There are people who know this is not the case, people to whom a chronic illness like RA is just something that needs to be worked into how you live, certainly not a barrier to falling in love. But how do you find them?
The first question you have to ask yourself is whether you’re ready for a relationship. RA can take up most of your energy - at the end of the day, do you have anything left over? Dating takes effort and if you’re so drained at the end of the day you’re only capable of sitting on the couch watching reality television, you may want to consider waiting until you’re a bit stronger. Also think about why you’re putting yourself out there - are you trying to run away from your disease or hoping a relationship will solve all your problems? In the words of Shakespeare, to thine own self be true. Know who you are and why you make the choices that you do.
Be at Peace with Yourself
It isn’t just society’s messages that mess with your head, it’s also the RA. Because if you don’t like your body anymore - might even wish you could get a new one - it’s hard to believe that there’s someone out there who’ll find you attractive and desirable. But here’s the thing: your disease does not define you. Your body may bear the marks of RA, but this is also the body that keeps going, getting you through each day no matter how hard it is. Your body is your partner in fighting RA, not your enemy and because of what your body does, you live your life and laugh anyway. Finding a way to shift your thinking and focus on the positive helps you accept who you are, even to like yourself and this will make it much more likely that someone else will, as well.
If you’re reading this, you have access to one of the best tools to dating with a chronic illness: a computer. Using an online dating site - OKCupid and Plenty of Fish are free - takes much less energy than going to a museum, taking a class or going out dancing (my feet ache just thinking about it). It’s also much less of a crapshoot - after all, the people who sign up are there to find a relationship. Reading profiles allows you to weed out the incompatible, the weird and the ones obsessed with perfection - if the person’s profile lists going to the gym as a hobby or they’re looking for someone who has “a great body,” don’t bother writing them. They are unlikely to cope well with reality, especially when it involves RA.
The Inevitable Rejection
You will get rejected. Some people can’t handle the idea of being with someone who has a chronic illness and the sooner you find out, the better. Giving someone the opportunity to run screaming for the hills while you’re still in e-mail is going to hurt much less than if you wait until you really like them. Mention your RA briefly early in the process, be open to questions and let the person know that if a chronic illness is a deal breaker for them, it’s OK to bail. This is one of the gifts of RA - it’s your canary in the mine, weeding out the people who aren’t worth your while
Even if you do meet, like each other, go out for a while but ultimately, things don’t work out, remember that RA is not the only reason relationships end. If you need an ego booster get together with your single friends who don’t have RA to talk (and laugh) about the perils of dating. It’ll help.
And Then, the Click
The magazines all say it. Your mother says it. Don’t look and you will find. It’s a perfect Zen riddle, this strange phenomenon that just when you give up looking for a relationship, there it is.
A little over a year ago, I was looking for new friends, found someone who clicked in all the important ways and we began a great friendship, one that turned to love. Be open to meeting new people, but don’t put boundaries around it - have an open mind and be receptive to opportunities and new experiences.
Life is an adventure, so go out there and live it, RA and all. Somewhere along the road, you may find someone who’ll be your partner for the trip.
You can read more of Lene’s writing on The Seated View.
Lene Andersen is the Community Leader for HealthCentral’s RA Community. Lene (pronounced Lena) is an award-winning writer, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. She’s written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Follow Lene on Twitter @TheSeatedView and on Facebook. Watch her story on HealthCentral.