by Kelley O’Brien
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
It was St. Patrick’s Day of 2011 and my girlfriend just dumped me. We hadn’t been dating that long, but she was my first girlfriend, the first person I dated after a long battle with internalized homophobia.
My head was throbbing from crying earlier in the day because it was the anniversary of my friend’s death and I was missing my grandparents’ 61st anniversary dinner back home. She looked uncomfortable when I started to cry. It was an expression she’d worn for most of our relationship.
I was in my sophomore year at a mid-sized liberal arts school in Ohio when my unexplained symptoms became daily rather than just infrequent annoyances. Hospitalized twice for fainting before getting sent to a cardiologist, I was diagnosed with Dysautonomia. Dysautonomia is the name for a group of disorders involving the autonomic nervous system, the system in the body that controls involuntary activity like blood pressure, heart rate, and in my case, staying conscious.
Later, I was specifically diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and autonomic neuropathy, along with a few other common comorbid disorders. Loss of consciousness, dizziness, pain, weakness, numbness, brain fog, and headaches are just some of my symptoms.
I told my girlfriend about my condition not long after were started dating and could tell that, even though she liked me, she didn’t like the idea of dating a sick person. Her reaction kept me from disclosing that I had depression.
While mental and chronic illnesses are very different things, it is possible to have both and have them impact each other. When my mental illness has gotten bad, I’ve had chronic illness symptoms increase in frequency and vice versa. They both can have a huge impact on a person’s life and both deserve consideration.
A few weeks into our relationship, we went to a Zumba class at the rec. I was too shy to tell her about the way exercise exacerbated my POTS and simply hoped that I’d be okay until the end of class. I ended up getting so dizzy I momentarily blacked out and woke up on the floor with people rushing to me. Not my girlfriend. She hung back, shifting her feet.
Every instinct told me to confront her about it. Maybe she just needed some instruction on what to do when it happened again. Maybe she’d frozen and I read the situation incorrectly. I never did find out why she just stood there. I was too ashamed of being sick and liked finally having a girlfriend too much to ask her.
That was just the first of our problems. Anytime I mentioned not feeling well, she’d change the subject. When we were supposed to hang out and I didn’t feel up to it and suggested we watch a movie in my dorm instead, she’d insist we reschedule. She said it hurt too much to see me that way. It upset me that she didn’t consider how much being sick hurt me.
I didn’t have much dating experience before I became sick at 19 and she was the first person I dated after, so I thought the shame she felt was normal. I thought it was normal that she was waiting for the right time to introduce me to her friends or that she didn’t seem particularly interested in meeting mine.
If I’d been honest with myself, it wouldn’t have been a surprise when she broke up with me. It was. I felt dejected and frustrated she wouldn’t come right out and say why she was ending the relationship. Moving on would been much easier with the closure.
During the rest of college and after, I tried out a few different dating sites and apps, hoping to find someone that would understand. I was lonely and desperately wanted someone able to look beyond the dozen or so pill bottles I carried with me, the frequent naps and weekly doctor’s appointments.
A few flirtations began promisingly, leading me to confess my illnesses to them. They were receptive and sympathetic to my confessions of mental illness. I figured they’d react the same way to chronic illness.
Many weren’t. Getting ghosted became common and sometimes I’d even get blocked. Others would tell me they looked up POTS and it was just too much for them to deal with. Their honesty was appreciated, but their bluntness was a pill more bitter than any of the ones I took several times a day.
I found understanding in chronic illness communities online, commiserating with people that had similar dating struggles. I finally had a place to vent about the frustration I felt with employers and other people that didn’t, or wouldn’t, understand. My depression would have been different, worse, if I hadn’t found understanding people to talk to.
Some point after another failed relationship, an online friend said they told every new person they met about their depression. I liked the idea so much I began doing it with my own illness. I still got ghosted, more frequently in fact, but met a few genuinely great new friends in the process.
Then I met my current girlfriend, Kaylyn, on a dating app, Her. We immediately bonded over our mutual struggles with mental illness, and she was extremely compassionate about my chronic illnesses. On our first date, Kaylyn asked me questions about my illnesses. They weren’t the typical, invasive ones I was used to, but questions about how she could care for me if I got dizzy or felt tired. She assured me that my well-being was the most important thing, something I struggled with myself. I felt connected to her on our very first date, comfortable and have ever since.
I feel incredibly lucky to have met her. She takes care of me when I’m feeling horrible and does when I’m feeling okay too. The way Kaylyn sees the world—the way she sees good in people yet stands up to injustice—inspires and challenges me be the best person I can be. She was my strength when my mom died. She’s my friend as much as she is my lover.
I can’t say I’m grateful for the way rejection and ableism shaped me and made me grow, but I am grateful that I’ve learned to be patient and persevere. My perseverance paid off. I hope it continues to.
Kelley O’Brien is a lesbian chronically ill freelance writer and poet living in Ohio. When she’s not trying to take down the patriarchy, she enjoys making jewelry, playing with her cats and watching Bob’s Burgers with her girlfriend. You can find her on Twitter as @killjoy_kelley and Instagram as @kelley_ob.