Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 29. A young mother to a toddler and dating a musician in a heavy metal band, I didn’t even know someone my age could get arthritis, let alone what the disease was like to live with. But I did know that our lives were no longer going to be on the same wavelength. Painfully, we called things off, and what I thought had been my undisrupted happy life came to an end.
Lost, confused, and alone, I was scared — and my fears only tormented me further when I was diagnosed with a second form of arthritis just over a year later.
Now approaching 32, as a single mother to a 5-year-old boy, I think back on the men I liked in my 20s — the men who are so not right for the woman I am today. I think about how fast I feel I’ve had to grow up over the last few years. Each relationship, fling, and break up has had some sort of an impact on my life, taught me about myself, love, and what I want. In truth, I was never ready to settle down even though that was my eventual goal. I’d even mistakenly tried to rush it a few times — what I thought I needed.
But what I needed was to accept myself first, and that was proving difficult.
Depression and my own insecurities kept getting in the way of me doing the one thing I needed to do before I could ever settle down: to love and accept myself. Once diagnosed with multiple chronic and incurable illnesses, those insecurities skyrocketed out of control.
I was angry, bitter, and jealous as I watched my peers’ lives move on in ways mine couldn’t. I spent most of the time confined to my apartment, hanging out with my son or meeting doctors and medical professionals, unable to escape the chaotic whirlwind of chronic illness. I wasn’t living the life I yearned for. I was isolating myself. I still struggle with this.
Finding someone to accept me — all of me
When I became ill, I was hit with the stone-cold truth that I might be unappealing to some individuals because I would be ill for the rest of my life. It hurt knowing someone wouldn’t accept me for something I really have no control over.
I had already felt the lash of men having a negative opinion of my being a single mother, the thing I am most proud of about myself.
I felt like a burden. Even today, I sometimes wonder if being alone would be simpler. But raising a child and living with this disease isn’t easy. I know having a partner — the right partner — would be wonderful for the both of us.
There have been points where I’ve wondered if anyone could love me. If I’m too messed up. If I come with too much baggage. If I have too many issues.
And I know what men say about single moms. In today’s world of dating, they could easily just keep swiping on to the next better match without illness or child. What do I really have to offer? True, there’s no reason I can’t do the same. I can always keep searching and I can always stay hopeful, positive, and most importantly, be me.
Focusing on the good, not the bad
It wasn’t always my child or my illness that would at times send men off in the other direction. It was my attitude about the situation. I was negative. So I worked on, and continue to work on, those issues. It still takes tremendous effort to keep up with the self-care that’s necessary when living with a chronic illness: medication, talk therapy, exercise, and a healthy diet.
But by making those priorities, as well as through my advocacy, I find myself better able to move forward and be proud of myself. To focus on something other than what’s wrong with me, but rather the good that’s within me and what I can do with it.
And I’ve found that it’s this positive attitude about my diagnosis and my life that men are most attracted to once they get to know me.
I refuse to hide who I am
One awkward part of having an invisible illness is that, looking at me, you cannot tell I have two forms of arthritis. I don’t look like what the average person thinks someone with arthritis looks like. And I definitely don’t look “sick” or “disabled.”
Online dating has been the easiest for meeting people. As a single mother to a toddler, I’m barely able to stay up past 9 p.m. (and the bar scene isn’t exactly where I want to find love — I gave up alcohol for my health). Getting myself dolled up for a date brings even more challenges. Even on a low-pain day, trying on outfits to find something that is both comfortable and looks good allows that pesky fatigue to creep its way in — meaning that I have to worry about having enough energy for the date itself!
Through trial and error, I’ve learned that simple daytime dates are best at first, both for my fatigue and the social anxiety that comes with first dates.
I know that the first thing my matches will do when they find out I have rheumatoid arthritis will be to Google it — and that the first thing they will see will be “deformed” hands and a list of symptoms involving chronic pain and fatigue. Often, the response is along the lines of “You poor thing,” followed by a few more messages to be polite and then: goodbye. Many times, I find myself ghosted immediately after they find out about my disability.
But I refuse to ever hide who I am. Arthritis is a huge part of my life now. If someone can’t accept me and the arthritis that comes with me or my child, that is their issue — not mine.
My illness may not be threatening my life any time soon, but it has most certainly given me a new perspective on life. And now it forces me to live life differently. I desire a partner to live that life with, through my adversities and theirs. My new strength, which I thank arthritis for helping me discover, doesn’t mean I am not still lonely and that I don’t desire a partner. I just have to accept that dating will more than likely be a little rocky for me.
But I don’t let it wear me down, nor do I let myself feel rushed into jumping into things that I’m not ready for or sure about. After all, I already have my knight in shining armor — my son.
Eileen Davidson is a Vancouver-based invisible illness advocate and an ambassador with the Arthritis Society. She’s also a mother and the author of . Follow her on or .