Welcome to Sex and the Campus, a weekly column where I discuss all things love and relationships. It should be noted that I do not claim to be any kind of expert in either area. Dating is hard, but hopefully reading this column won’t be.
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This week, we’re talking about dating. Not just any kind of dating, though. I’m giving my personal thoughts on how to date with a chronic illness.
11 years ago, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. It’s an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the colon among other unpleasant symptoms. In other words, it’s a “bathroom disease.” I spent the majority of my tweens and teens moving in and out of hospitals, trying new treatments, and desperately waiting for my boobs to magically spring forth.
I was lonely, emaciated and severely insecure. “Love” was a four letter word — and something I truly didn’t know if I’d ever get to experience outside my family. I lived vicariously through the characters in books I read; they were brave, beautiful, and always ended up with their one true love, no matter the obstacles they had to overcome.
High school was a complete bust to say the least. As a skinny new kid who always got a free pass to the bathroom, I wasn’t exactly prom queen material. This was before “politically correct” culture, where people with disabilities were more respected and even revered in some cases. No, I was just weird.
Coming to college was a complete culture shock. I was able to completely reinvent myself, and my health was on the upswing as well — oh, and I finally got boobs. The attention from boys was intoxicating, but it wasn’t enough to fully extinguish my insecurities. I finally felt “normal,” but I was as empty as ever.
I still wasn’t being honest about who I was. My illness is not all that I am, but it is a huge part of my identity and my life. But when’s a good time to explain to someone what they’re getting into when they decide to date me? Between dances at a fraternity party? This sickness became my biggest secret, and it left me feeling really alone.
Then came a boy. A year ago, I agreed to go on a blind invite date — I had no idea what saying yes would mean. To say that we hit it off is a gross understatement; it was like we had known each other forever. He instantly became my best friend, the person I wanted to spend as much time with as possible, and with whom I could truly be vulnerable.
About a month into dating, I went into the worst flare-up since coming to college. This boy who I barely knew now had to see me at my worst. I was waiting for him to take off screaming. I wasn’t his problem and neither was my health. But something amazing happened instead: He stayed. Not only did he stay, but he also became my biggest support system. He made me feel normal even when my body was revolting against me.
It’s been a year now and my health has still had many ups and downs, but he’s been there riding every wave with me. Some days I’m the biggest bitch and others I’m a pile of mush.Somehow, he never takes it personally. I know it’s hard for him though.When he hears the words “chemo-drugs”and he doesn’t understand why I have to be on them. When I have a bad reaction to anesthesia during a colonoscopy and end up with a 103-degree fever. When date nights have to be cut short because my colon is completely unpredictable. And when feeling “sexy” is so not going to happen.
I see the fear in his eyes when he realizes that my future health is scarily uncertain. I think that the worst part is the questions we can’t answer: Will I have another flare? Will I graduate? Will I keep my colon? Can I have kids? Could they have the same illness? Yet through it all, he remains.
Dating with a chronic illness is not easy. There’s a lot of awkward moments, tears and uncertainty, but it’s so worth it in the end. Everyone deserves to find love or even just a fun night out with free food. Don’t limit yourself, don’t let society limit you, and don’t limit your partner. Let them be there for you and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable — do this and they’ll be there for every doctor’s appointment, hospital visit, and scary moment. All relationships have their obstacles and a chronic illness is just one of them.