By Hannah Buck
Being in a committed, loving, long-term relationship is a distinctly intimate experience. It is the most intimate experience of humanhood many would argue. To see a person walking by and say to them, “Hey, you’re fairly OK-looking. Would you like to hold hands for forever and accrue debt until we die?” is to truly know companionship. That, and watching each other poop.
Chronic illness makes dating a thoroughly more vulnerable experience, and not just for the patient. You see, sickness affects everyone involved. It accelerates everything. Sickness makes daily life complicated (e.g. planning dates that aren’t physically taxing or one partner relying more on the other for help with everyday chores) and the future even less promising than it usually is. When you or your partner has a condition like cystic fibrosis, the bleak reality of your situation is sorely evident. It’s inescapable. One of you will die much sooner than the other. And with that intense reality flashing its lights 24/7, it can be tempting to hold things in.
I don’t speak for all people with CF in writing the following list — but by sharing what I’ve withheld in past romantic relationships, I hope to make you laugh, open your eyes, and help you become a better partner to the person whose hand you like to hold. Enjoy.
Things your partner with CF probably isn’t telling you
1. They’ve been wetting your bed for a while.
Have you ever rolled over in the middle of the night to feel a damp spot on the mattress? Has your girlfriend been known to spontaneously wash your sheets and comforter out of the goodness of her heart? Yeah, sorry to break it to you, it’s not because she’s an angel. It’s because she has coughing-induced, premature incontinence, and she doesn’t want you to know.
2. Their antibiotics give them diarrhea.
It just happens, OK! We don’t ask for this! Antibiotics have one mission: to kill. This includes good gut bacteria, which unfortunately messes up our tummies. Make your partner’s day by surprising them with a bottle of probiotic-rich kombucha to get things back on track.
3. They’d prefer if you looked away during their cough attacks.
Coughing ain’t cute. Yes, yes, I know you love them, but try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes. If you were red in the face, foaming at the mouth, hunched over like the Notre Dame character, and spewing phlegm like a swampy sprinkler, would you want the love of your life to gaze longingly upon you? Probably not. Give ’em space.
4. They wish you visited them in the hospital more.
They just feel too guilty to say it out loud. It is unspeakably lonely to sit in a small room and face the same wall every day. Please, even if they insist they’re fine, be there for them. Stop by. Make the time. If you can’t do that, text, call, or video chat. While 24 hours pass by in a snap in the outside world, in the hospital, the hours drag like you wouldn’t believe.
5. It makes them really happy when you randomly flex your CF knowledge.
Showing your partner that you care about them enough to not only learn about their disease but about how it’s treated is an instant way to grow closer. For many of us, the only people we have to confide in about this part of our lives is our medical team, our family, and occasionally other CFers (but only online). Take the time to learn what’s what — get the medication names right, make yourself an ally, and demonstrate that the two of you are teammates in this fight.
6. Explaining what’s “wrong” with them to other people makes their life so much easier.
With this one, I want to repeat my disclaimer: I am speaking for myself, and every person with CF is different. Please talk to your partner before taking this advice.
With that said, I have always found it to be an incredible relief when my partner discreetly says, “She has something called CF, so she coughs a lot. It’s normal. So anyway … ” and then changes the subject when I have a cough attack around people who don’t know me. Explaining myself is something I’ve had to do my entire life, so having someone else do it for me is a treat I savor every time.
7. They don’t feel worthy of your love, and they feel guilty about loving you.
I hope this one isn’t true for you guys. In my case, it is, and I suspect it’ll be a lifelong battle. Having an incurable illness is a heavy burden to bear, but when you’re born with it, there’s no other option. Putting it on another person, though, that’s different. That isoptional. And it can feel impossible to justify exposing the person whose hand you like holding to that level of lifelong pain.