As a 56-year-old woman with MS who is on the dating scene, I am now starting my second year as a single woman. I have been making the acquaintance of able-bodied men, and the challenges I’ve faced are pretty much the same as those I experienced as a single able-bodied woman prior to developing MS at age 41.
It’s hard enough trying to find the right chemistry, someone who possesses the qualities I need and desire and whose life path runs parallel to my own. It’s hard for everyone. Add a set of disabilities to that challenge and the equation seems to balloon to a level of complexity that would leave Einstein scratching his head in utter confusion.
But a new set of thoughts has sent me in another direction. After describing my dating escapades to a friend one day, she asked me: Have you ever considered dating a man with MS?
I had not. And I felt a bit irritated by the question because she seemed to offer it up as some kind of solution to my man problem, which it is definitely not. To my mind, meeting a man with MS seemed similar to meeting someone who shares the same interests one might have such as golf or wine-tasting. But just because you share something in common doesn’t mean you have the chemistry necessary to become a couple.
That said, the notion of sharing a common disease seemed very freeing in a way, too. I was getting tired of making the MS speech to every man that thought he was interested in me, having to explain the disease and how it affects me, then waiting to be judged worthy dating material. I wouldn’t have to make that speech to a man with MS. Nice, but I would still face the same chemistry challenges that exist with any prospective boyfriend. No, I thought, seeking out a man with MS in particular for romance might be an option, but it isn’t a solution.
My friend’s question also got me thinking about my own preferences, my own prejudices. I cannot, in all fairness, begrudge any able-bodied man his preferences, including not wanting to get involved with a chronically ill woman. If I did, I’d be a hypocrite. We all have preferences, it’s only natural.
For example, I’m a diminutive 5’2” and I’ve always avoided dating very tall men. I feel intimidated and awkward around them. I went out with a man several months ago who is 6’4” partly to test my prejudice and see if I was being ridiculous about it. I quickly discovered that I wasn’t; every time he bent down to embrace me he had to fold himself over like a French pastry. He was so big and powerful that his hugs squeezed the breath out of me and knocked me off balance. And I had to crane my neck to look up at him, which aggravated my herniated cervical disc. It just wasn’t comfortable for me. So I will not abandon my preference for shorter men. I might be passing up a really nice fella that way, but at least it’ll keep me out of traction.
My friend’s suggestion also got me thinking about dating men with disabilities in general. Recently I challenged myself even further. I joined a disabled dating site in addition to my memberships on the regular sites Match, POF, and SeniorPeopleMeet. After a protracted and difficult online communication with an able-bodied man on Match came to an end, I met a guy on the disabled site who has Cerebral Palsy. I’ll call him Jake, though that is not his real name. Jake’s emails to me were pitch perfect. He was genuine, appreciative, discreet, upbeat, smart and funny. And he was fearless, unlike the fit, able gents I’d been wrangling with on other sites that were uncomfortable with the notion of even talking to me on the phone. He wrote that he wanted to meet me soon.
We met for lunch at my favorite Lebanese restaurant. Jake was just as genuine, smart, pleasant, and charming as he was in writing. We talked for a long time and found so much common ground, sharing similar online dating experiences with the able-bodied, sharing a developed sense of humor and upbeat attitude about being in the world. We agreed that we have got our shit together better than the able-bodied people we’ve dated. We’ve learned what the important things in life really are and we don’t sweat the small stuff. Our able-bodied counterparts simply haven’t been challenged like we’ve been; we disabled have been forced to strip away much of the baggage and attend to the basics of living, keeping close to us the people who nourish us and letting go of those who drain our energy and spirit.
At one point, Jake told me he had dated a woman with MS for two years. He expressed one gripe about the experience: It bothered him that she grieved over what she had lost, always talked about being free of disability one day, yearning for it, rather than accepting her limitations and doing her best with what she had. Why couldn’t she just accept it?
I told him that we all pretty much feel that way. Privately I thought more about why she couldn’t take a Zen approach and why he might favor acceptance over hope and longing. It might have to do with the difference between CP and MS. Cerebral Palsy is diagnosed in infancy and is not progressive. Multiple Sclerosis is acquired in adulthood, so the patient has memories of being able-bodied and recalls those traumatic events of disease onset, testing and diagnosis. We harbor anxiety about our future and what kind of decline we might be facing. What’s more, fundraising and research for MS have to do with finding a cure and developing therapies that restore function and halt disease progression. These things do not encourage us to accept our lot. They give us hope that some day we will be free of it.
Jake’s anthem of acceptance meant something more to me, too. It was the biggest challenge of all and the thing that did me in that day.
His physical affectations made it very difficult for me to understand his speech. And though I understood most of what he said, I had to ask him to repeat himself a few times, which he did with great patience and clarity. His disabilities affected him in various other ways as well; several times I caught myself thinking if only. If only his disabilities were milder. If only I weren’t so exhausted from straining to understand his speech. If only. I heard myself loud and clear. I couldn’t accept him as he was.
I had turned the tables on myself with a vengeance. I had become a person who rejected a potential romantic partner because of his disabilities. It was the first time I’d ever done it. And I felt kind of shitty about it.
The irony of this situation is not lost on me. He and I connected in ways I’ve longed for; the strong, sensitive, perceptive, lovely person he is was partly shaped by living with his disabilities and fearlessly putting himself out in the world, getting knocked down and pulling himself up to once again push himself out there. He wants to be known, not hide himself away. If he had gone through life as an able man he would not be the person he is. And yet I found myself wishing he were just that—an able-bodied man, but with the character that was shaped by the trials and tribulations of living with a disability.
Our dating experiences–frustrating, disappointing and painful as they might be–do, I think, serve a positive purpose. If we are introspective and brutally honest with ourselves then we use each encounter to clarify our own preferences for a partner. In my case, I’ve become all too aware that I’ve limited myself enormously. Much of it is necessary. For example, I won’t engage in long-distance relationships and I’ve limited myself to meeting men who live within 30 miles of my home. This alone makes it very difficult to meet people.
And so my loneliness is largely self-inflicted. I can live with that. And though I’ve come to realize that the odds of meeting the right person at the right time are quite slim, it won’t prevent me from having hope and keeping my heart open. Staying in the game is the most important thing.
Staying in the game is what life is all about for those of us with medical conditions. If we hide ourselves away then we miss out on giving the best of ourselves to others in any situation. Experience has taught me that giving to others the things that I most want and need will often bring me satisfaction and fill the empty spaces in my heart.
And one day, if I am very lucky, I’ll get back what I give in spades.