On Love

& the challenges of finding it while chronically ill


[Jenna Gribbon, -goodnight, -goodnight baby ]

At Friendsgiving, I happened to sit next to a woman who was a relationship coach, though I didn’t know that at first.  Maybe it was because I was one of the only single people at the table, but it was clear to her I was not doing well in this area. How did she know? She could just tell. She knew my type. She said I chased the wrong kids of people and that it was time for me to set out very clear intentions on who I wanted in my life and it would come. That easy? I asked. She didn’t know that very day I had run across an old Facebook post of mine from 2011, one in which I announced my engagement to a guy who would not last two more years—I somehow felt much younger than that thirtysomething version of me who was about to buy a wedding dress and book a location and send out invites just to bail on the whole thing a few months before it all. Love was on my mind, or perhaps love lost more accurately. In any case, the relationship coach questioned me over several courses of food about what I thought had gone wrong in all my too-many relationships. And every time I went through everything until I hit the same endpoint: maybe it was me being chronically ill?

After all, quite often I get this question about dating and chronic illness. As in, how can I find love if I am chronically ill? And the truth is I don’t know the answer because I don’t think I have. Not properly, that is.

In my 20s, I was not chronically ill or disabled—well, until the final year but I thought that was a “Saturn’s return” or a nervous breakdown or drug addiction. I had no idea why I was breaking down, which to me today seems clearly like Lyme. After nearly a year of falling apart, I met a boyfriend who became a real love of my life. He was the old Nashville skater/Hare Krishna monk who cooked for me and healed me somehow back to health. I was able to be present for my first novel book tour and then my first big teaching job. And he was in many ways my first very real adult relationship. In the end what broke us up was his inability to find work and me supporting the two of us and eventually his depression and then mine. He was a lovely caretaker and sometimes I still think we would be together if he hadn’t had a massive breakdown which resulted in me being covered in bruises and calling the cops. In spite of this, I still look on him well, to my own shame, because he knew how to care for me. After him came my ex-fiance who was fairly good at being there for me too but he was an alcoholic and he got pretty violent with me twice too. I got incredibly ill after we broke things off—the break up masked that I had a physical illness and it took me half a year to get properly diagnosed. These guys and all the many more that came after are detailed in my memoir Sick.

What isn’t there is what happened in 2017 and 2018, the illness that led me to lose everything and brought me here. In those years I had found a relationship that meant the world to me, with someone who was incredibly caring and loving. I trusted him with all my heart. And I was very fast to, as was he. He was a former addict and mental health was where all his attention went. But when I got physically ill, things shifted almost immediately. The first time he experienced me going to an ER, I found out from a friend that he had texted her and confessed he was very scared. He had started to grow distant from me around then which I could not believe because I had warned him of my illness the moment we dated. But a month into my illness he said he was growing suicidal over some other worries and that we could not be together. I don’t think I remember a time where I was more distraught. So many phone calls where I begged him not to do this, where so much of my emphasis was on, don’t be the guy who leaves a sick woman. It wasn’t even an issue of him leaving me, but leaving sick me. I found that narrative especially horrific and it was one that I did not want to put on him.  Meanwhile he wanted out and who was I to do anything but let him of course.

Months into our breakup we met at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, where I was getting medical help. Just minutes into the dinner, my heart started doing something wild, and I could feel one of my dysautonomic crashes coming. These are mostly like panic attacks but extremely physiological. He had been talking about his own problems and by the time my attack came and left he was back to his own. I realized he barely registered how much I was struggling he was still so self-absorbed. At that moment I knew as much as I loved him, he was not the right partner.

So where is that right one? Since that relationship I haven’t been in any new ones. I joke about how more men tend to approach me when I am ill than healthy which is true but they seldom turn into anything. One guy who was a distant friend, mainly online, tried to date me last summer but within a couple weeks of our affair he revealed he was married (they were separated he swore, but they still lived together). Another old college friend began hooking up with me, but then it became clear he was just dealing with his own divorce and I was just another hookup.  Here and there I’d have a stray date with some guy or another but all of them seemed to be dealing with demons much larger than mine, even though I was the person who had nearly died more than a few times these past years.

 On Twitter recently there was a moving thread on how people met their partners, and I was in awe of how much of it was from Tinder. I have been on a few apps, but I’ve been on maybe three online dates in my life. It takes so much out of me somehow to do it. I cringe when I hit a match on Bumble, I can’t stop laughing at half the profiles on Raya, I can’t even imagine setting up an OkCupid profile again. One time, a professional matchmaker hunted me down on LinkedIn of all things and I met her in a midtown highrise. She looked me up and down and asked if I wore that leather jacket a lot and if I thought about straightening my hair. She also asked me if I realized I was old. I left the appointment fairly amused—and grateful I was a writer so I could at least fool myself into imagining it was material. 

All in all, this is the area in my life I’ve been most lacking in. So many of my friends have been married—and I’ve seen the worst sides of that too, so much so that I am still amazed I would consider marriage.

I turn 42 in a month and a half.  And old astrologer of mine told me, years ago, that this would be the age in which I finally find a lasting love. I am not holding my breath but I am trying to be open to it too. What are the qualities I would manifest in a person, the relationship coach asked me at Friendsgiving, and I went through the usual smart and funny and kind but I lingered most on someone who can handle my ups and downs. She though I meant the emotional and I do in part but for me so much will always be on the physical. When I am physically well, I am mentally well too. It’s been this way my whole life. I just want someone who can see that and see the opposite too and be there. I used to joke that all I wanted was an emergency contact but now I just want the non-emergency kind, the one who isn’t just there to prove heroics for the drama of chronic illness but who can also ride out the banality—the missed events and celebrations, the aches and pains, the early bedtimes plus sleeping in, the careful diets and endless meds. 

I am curious to know if you are in a relationship and chronically ill, what does that look like for you? How does it work and what are the challenges? Where did you meet your partner and how did they prove to be the right one? Comment/message?