“This place is known to reveal the heart of the person,” I hear a kind, older voice say. I look up to find the owner of the dive bar I’m sitting in pointing at me and my date, a handsome guy I recently met on a dating app. “By the end of the night, you’ll know if you’re meant to be,” the bartender continues.
My date and I laugh politely before returning to our seamless back-and-forth. After an hour spent cracking jokes, my date suggests we relocate—maybe to a nearby restaurant? I open my mouth to say yes, but the throbbing pain in my back interrupts me.
Do I go anyway? Do I suggest Ubering, even though the restaurant is just few blocks away? Or do I tell him about my fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a chronic health condition impacting 4 million Americans—that’s roughly 2 percent of the population. It involves things like widespread pain, fatigue, and muscle stiffness, and I’ve been dealing with it for nine years. Every day, I wake up in pain. On bad days, the pain is so intense I can barely get from my room to the bathroom. And even on good days, I sometimes feel like going straight to bed after work and staying there. With my current treatment cocktail, I have more good days than bad and count myself fortunate.
In general, I worry that people will think I’m lazy, that it’s all in my head, or that I want attention. But with guys, I worry that they will think that and more. I work hard to try and live a normal life, but there is baggage when it comes to dating someone with fibro. Baggage like the simple fact that my pain level may affect plans or the fact that we probably won’t be able to share a hobby like hiking or rock climbing. Am I worth the extra effort?
But a year ago, I decided to try something I had not attempted since my diagnosis: dating with fibro.
First up: Don*, a guy I meet on a dating app.
Don asks me to pick the place for our meet-up—probably his way of making me feel comfortable. Little does he know I’ve spent the last several years at exactly zero hip bars or restaurants. I frantically ask my roommate for suggestions, which is how we end up at a bar known for the beer selection when neither of us drink it. We hug upon meeting (something I’d agonized over out of pure nervousness), and I work a casual (ahem, thoroughly rehearsed) fibro mention into our conversation. I play it cool, but when I go to the bathroom, I find myself hoping he won’t Google it. “Fibromyalgia” is a hard word to spell anyway, right?
We date for two months, and surprisingly, fibro rarely comes up—even when I have to cancel dates because of it. At first, I’m relieved. But I soon realize Don doesn’t ask me questions about it because he doesn’t ask me questions about anything. It’s not that he doesn’t mind my illness—he’s straight-up not that interested in me.
Eventually, I initiate a DTR (define-the-relationship) conversation, and Don admits he isn’t ready for a relationship. In turn, I learn I really am. Plus, I now realize I may be able to use my fibro as a kind of barometer—if someone isn’t interested in this part of my life, maybe that means they’re not that interested in me.
Then: Chad*, a sweet, but nervous 30-something—another dating app match.
Dating apps are becoming a huge part of my routine. I only have so much energy to put into this romance thing, so if I can find guys while sitting on the couch, I’m going to. eHarmony leads me to Chad, a guy who’s endearingly late to our first date because he was nervous and decided to iron his shirt at the last minute.
Chad wants to know everything about fibro—and about me, in general. Not only does he Google fibro, but he also peppers me with questions. What’s my favorite flower? What’s my love language? Can I send him a picture of me in my pajamas? (Um, no.) It’s too much, too fast, and I feel like he wants to crawl inside my skin. When I set boundaries and he pushes back, I realize it’s time to lose his number.
Chad might have passed my fibro-interest test, but I felt like he wasn’t respecting my boundaries or giving me the space to tell him my story in my own time. Fibro requires me to constantly set limits so I take care of myself and stay healthy, so this one’s a hard no.
Up next: Doug*, a 26-year-old long-distance match.
Doug and I live in different places, so we try for regular Skype dates—which end up requiring more effort than IRL dates. I have to manage the camera and lighting, talk for two uninterrupted hours, and stare at my own forced facial expressions I use to cover up the pain in my back since the seat with the best lighting doesn’t offer me the support I need.
Telling Doug about fibro is the hardest. He asks me thoughtful questions about how my illness affects my days and how I get through the constant pain. His questions take a lot out of me, but he’s so genuine I answer honestly. The hero worship I feel from him worries me, though. While sweet, it only makes me more aware of how difficult fibro can be. I don’t want to be on a pedestal for “how strong” I am.
Before long, Doug comes to visit. The weekend is amazing, but I quickly learn whirlwind get-togethers take a serious toll on my body.
In the end, I break things off—not because I feel like he’s putting me on a metaphorical pedestal, but because of the election. Our different political views make conversations more stressful. And you know what can exacerbate fibro? Stress.
Then: Damien*, yet another dating app match.
Damien and I are chatting about literature and travel when he tells me he has a speech impediment. He says it’s OK if I no longer want to meet up, but the truth is, I do. I don’t want to be judged for my fibro, so how could I judge him for this?
When we first meet for drinks, Damien talks quite a bit—though I can tell it’s hard for him. But when we move from the noisy bar to a quieter spot, he goes silent. He admits he’s embarrassed about his speech. So I reassure him. I tell him why I like him and let him know I’d like to see him again. This kind of vulnerability may come easy to some, but it was impossible for me until now. I quickly learn being the first one to say “I like you” isn’t all that bad. It’s actually pretty liberating.
Damien teaches me something else, too. Seeing how someone as sweet as Damien viewed his speech impediment and how it controlled his dating made me aware of the ways I did the same thing. It also made me resolute in desiring to change the control I gave fibro when it came to dating.
After that: Connor*, a guy from my church.
At this point, I’ve been actively dating for almost a year, and I feel more confident than I have in a while. Still, I’m in awe when Connor, an incredibly cute guy, lets me know he’d like to go out sometime.
So we grab drinks, and then more drinks, and then dinner. For the first time, I don’t mention fibro—and I don’t feel bad about it. I’m no longer worried about being “worth the effort.” I feel confident and free, and I’ll mention fibro when it comes up. Oh, and he asks me for a second date less than 24 hours after our first one ends. It turns out that as soon as I stop getting hung up on fibro or whether a guy will want to see me again, the guy is more interested than ever.
I’m beginning to understand that while fibro may change the way I date (like the fact that meeting people on an app instead of at a bar saves me much needed energy or the idea that the way a guy handles information about fibro isn’t a question of if I’m worth it but if they are), I’m no different or less worthy than anyone else. I’m just like any other girl trying to figure out dating out as I go.
Eventually, all of these relationships come to an end.
In fact, it’s not until I decide to take another sabbatical that I meet the guy. I tell myself I’ll go on one last date before the holidays, a bon voyage to this year of dating, before taking a break. His name is Billy*, and he asks me out the same day we match on the app Coffee Meets Bagel. Fibro usually keeps me from going anywhere without a plan, but I feel healthy enough to be spontaneous for a change. Besides, I know that after this one date, I’ll get a vacation.
We meet at a cozy pub and share an incredible meal. (Mussels—my favorite.) Everything feels natural, and I tell him about fibro without thinking about it. I discover what it’s like to feel good about dating. I don’t obsess over what he thinks about me or fibro. I just know this is good and solid and real—and it’s just our first date.
Every guy before Billy taught me important lessons about dating with fibro, but the biggest lesson of all is one every woman needs to learn, chronically ill or not, and that is to trust yourself. So I listen to my gut when I make the choice to tell him a bit about fibro on the first date. He handles the topic the way he does with most of the things we talk about that night: he listens and asks a few questions, all while following my lead and therefore, naturally respecting my boundaries and letting me distill as much or as a little information as I feel comfortable.
The conversation bounces between health, dating experiences, Chicago sports teams, our families, and more. I don’t feel defined by fibro because I can tell he is listening to everything I say. And when I leave, fibro and his reaction to it are the last things on my mind. I just like him.
There’s just one thing—now that I’ve learned to date with a chronic illness, I have to learn how to be in a relationship with one. At least this time, I’ll have a partner learning with me.