Monday, November 27, 2017

The Blessing of Chronic Illness In A Relationship

Anaphylactic reactions, screaming fits of pain, feeding tube placements, and emergency flights via airplane. Septic delirium, dates gone horribly wrong, unsightly fainting spells, an ambulance singing a song... Partners of the chronically ill see it all.

Five years ago, my boyfriend asked for my parents' permission to begin our relationship. I am sure they knew it was coming, as I had recently turned 16 and was not allowed to go out on a date before then. They were just surprised by the face-to-face inquiry atypical of teenage boys in current society. I was much healthier at that time, but before agreeing, he needed to understand my illness. They suggested he pray about his decision.

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend, now fiancĂ©, asked my mother and father for my hand in marriage. And last Saturday he popped the big question. Of course, I said, "YES!" We are elated! The proposal was a very special moment we will forever treasure.

It will likely be a lengthier engagement, long enough for him to finish nursing school and land a job with decent insurance. Similar to how my chronic illness quickly interfered with teenage invincibility, it isolates us from the life of the average soon-to-be newly weds, living off of ramen noodles and love. Extra planning is necessary.

With an impending marriage, it is a "YES!" to love, but also to medications, feeding tube and central line supplies, and formulas and infusions. My illness and I are a package deal. Although no warning at the beginning of the relationship could have prepared him for my health declining to its present state, it takes a special person to willingly surmount the obstacle that is chronic illness.


While chronic illness undoubtedly causes its fair share of complications, it lends its strengths too. Each trial is an opportunity for growth as an individual and as a couple. 

Acceptance of Change

Three months into the relationship, I got my first NJ feeding tube. Being 16, I was absolutely mortified to have a tube taped to my face. My boyfriend was not there for that particular tube placement, but I had a complete meltdown when I saw him afterwards. I refused to go on a date out in public. He lovingly convinced me otherwise and dealt with the rare occurrences of confrontation on my behalf until I became comfortable enough to do on my own. My stubbornness was obviously showing.

Later, I finally had the surgery for a permanent GJ feeding tube. Nurses wheeled the stretcher to the room where I greeted him and my parents with wrenching dry heaves and a post op abscess near the new contraption taking over my abdomen. Isn't that attractive? Adjusting to the tube was an ever changing process, but he learned alongside of me and I never felt unaccepted.

WATCH Spooky Feeding Tube Experiences (NG/NJ/GJ).

I have been ill to varying degrees the entire relationship. Despite durations of mild to extreme flaring, I have had remission spells. I was able to ditch the tubes and lines, eat and survive on oral medications, and stick to a consistent workout regimen for almost a year.

Ironically, the brief stints of health were not without challenges. Chronic illness incites change in a person that is especially significant at the initial onset of symptoms.

In a relationship, it is important to change at equal rates to mature and advance together. When yo-yo-ing between healthy and sick, changes are only emphasized and increased. With effort, it can better the relationship.

Through chronic illness, you learn to accept your partner through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Sacrifice

The sci-fi adventure or the whirlwind romance chick flick? Healthy couples compromise on what movie to catch in theaters Friday evening. Contrarily, the couple with one partner who is chronically ill must concede to choosing the emergency room over the planned movie date.

If you're new here, you will know Mast Cell Activation Syndrome is the diagnosis that impacts me the most, but its symptoms were not always so prominent. Early on in the relationship, I did not used to react to the slightest chemical or food exposure. In fact, reacting to fragrances was inconceivable to us both. Unfortunately, a medication triggered my first severe reaction at the age of 17. What started as brief discomfort metamorphisized into rapid response calls in the hospital.

Next, it started a cascade of crazy sensitivities—food ingestion, airborne food proteins, perfume, cologne, laundry detergent, shampoo, diesel fuel, cleaning chemicals, toothpaste...you name it. I even became allergic to him!

To simply be around me, he had to alter his lifestyle to my meager list of "safes." At the very beginning of my allergies, sometimes that consisted of my mom washing his hair in our kitchen sink 5x to get the residual hair product out. Eventually, he switched to scent free shampoo, conditioner, soaps, and laundry detergents, and stopped eating in my vicinity and resorted to cooking in the garage instead.

My extreme allergy situation is the epitome of sacrifice. Still, the other aspects of life with chronic illness highlight it too. It is easy to dismiss its positive purpose in a relationship where its rarely warranted.

Enhances Communication

There are not many who handle the "my girlfriend is [or can be] allergic to me" concept with the same grace as my future husband. Sacrificing his old lifestyle to keep me safe is an act of selflessness that does not go unappreciated. However, there are still certain precautions to be communicated.

For example, if he arrives home with scent contamination from public, I ask him if he could please shower. If there is a safe food that is suddenly unsafe and no longer be eaten in close proximity, I ought to voice that. If I cannot follow through with the plans for the day, I should suggest an alternative and explain.

The sick and healthy alike rely on effective communication for successful relationships. I realize that the majority do not suffer from allergy cells gone rogue. Regardless, chronic illness diagnoses influences specific needs.

A downfall of mine is expecting him to automatically know. Granted, some things are a given, but my triggers are inconsistent. It is wrong to expect that when he cannot experience what my body is feeling.

Thanking him for what he does and clarifying consistently refines communication skills—making it less complicated to confront all of life together. There is seldom a lack of unexpected events with chronic illness, which ensures there is never a lack of gratitude for the partner undertaking them either.

Balancing Independence 

Couples often joke about who will be pushing who in a wheelchair when independence is replaced with senility. The idea is no big deal because the number of healthy days will surely exceed the sick.

Similarly, I joke that I was more independent when I was twelve than I am at twenty. There are periods when I cannot manage daily tasks, like administering medications with shaking hands or requiring help to the bathroom because I am barely able to lift my head off of the pillow.

The reality is that partners of the chronically ill do step in as a caregiver in such instances. Pushing towards independence unless in dire distress is a balancing act that separates the two roles.

Chronic illness gives a true depiction of "in sickness and in health" and compatibility that most don't encounter until well after vows are said. It teaches how valuable mutual support is in serious and unserious circumstances.

To reiterate, partners of the chronically ill really do see it all. They are able to divert attention from the chaos to the hidden blessings. With love, and maybe a little Benadryl, anything is possible.






"Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." - 1 Corinthians 13:7, ESV