There is one kind of relationship talk that I desperately dread — the kind about health.
“You know, my mum can get abs just by thinking about it,” a boyfriend once said.
I took a few seconds to process the image before asking him to explain what he meant.
“She’s into manifestation. She just spends a few minutes at night envisioning her tummy with abs and then wakes up in the morning with a flatter stomach,” the young man who we’ll call Boyfriend One enthused.
“Oh for god sake,” I said, half amused and half fed up, knowing where this was going.
“The human mind really is that powerful,” he responded.
And off we went.
Right on cue, the anticipated lecture about how I should go off medication and start treating my chronic conditions with the power of my mind began. I clenched my jaw. It didn’t matter how many times I had asked him to drop the subject; he just couldn’t help himself.
It wasn’t his interest in alternative wellness theories that irked me – in fact, I’ve for many years gone down the holistic medicine route. What annoyed me was that despite having no scientific or medical education, nor any experience with significant health concerns of his own, there was not a doubt in Boyfriend One’s mind that he, and he alone, knew what was best for my health.
What annoyed me was that despite having no scientific or medical education, nor any experience with significant health concerns of his own, there was not a doubt in Boyfriend One’s mind that he, and he alone, knew what was best for my health.
Since being diagnosed with the thyroid disease Hashimotos and depression at age 15, life had become significantly more complicated. As I pushed on through high school, Hashimotos turned into another thyroid disease called Graves, and returning from my gap year, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, leaky gut, and later, endometriosis.
A few years into uni by this point, I was going on and off thyroid medication as needed, my mental health was fairly stable so long as I was on my antidepressant, and I took a bunch of supplements that my boyfriend would eye suspiciously. Juggling study and casual jobs were important in making me feel ‘normal’, though my energy reserves felt constantly depleted and every day felt like an uphill battle.
“Get out and live in the real world, experience what it’s like living paycheck to paycheck!” Boyfriend One would proselytise, frustrated by my reliance on my parents. Certainly, I wasn’t having the kind of fun that a young woman of 21 in my privileged Western context was expected to be having. It would take my body a week to recover from a single night of partying. I couldn’t spontaneously decide to stay over at my boyfriend’s place if I didn’t have my medication on me. I couldn’t just eat out wherever, because my diet was very restricted. What I needed most of all was a good sleep.
I couldn’t spontaneously decide to stay over at my boyfriend’s place if I didn’t have my medication on me.
The conflict came to a head one Mardi Gras. What began as a fun night of revelry turned sour as Boyfriend One got drunk and started mansplaining to me about how to fix my ailments, yet again. For the umpteenth time, I asked him to just leave it alone, please? And when he didn’t, I ran off to cry on a (bespangled but nonetheless grimy) street corner.
It was another whole year before we broke up. The truth was, despite the state of constant tension in our relationship, I was just grateful to be loved at all. “I’m so difficult,” I thought. “He’s so good for putting up with my needs at all.” And the classic, “Will I ever find someone who loves me despite my health issues again?” Of course, now I realise that it was just an idea of me – an unrealistic, glowed-up version – that he actually loved.
A year or so later, I’m 23. “Go back to sleep!” the young man I’ll refer to as Boyfriend Two said when I peeked at him coming in to get dressed. It was after 10am and I was still in bed.
“Aren’t you getting bored?” I asked.
“I’m listening to my Simpsons podcast, stay in bed as long as you want,” he said, backing out the door with a smile and closing it gently.
It was a more than welcome change from the way I used to be woken up by Boyfriend One’s impatient rolling around in bed in the morning, fiddling loudly on his phone.
Over the course of our two-year relationship, Boyfriend Two not once made me feel bad about my needs and limitations. He was happy to leave parties early because he preferred the time just the two of us spent together anyway.
“Poor legs,” he would sympathise, frowning as I raked my nails along my furiously itchy legs – an annoying symptom of food intolerances. He taught himself how to make ‘me-friendly’ food. The best part? He didn’t just tolerate, but actively encouraged me to sleep as long as I needed.
Now that I wasn’t being constantly made to feel guilty and like I had to justify my needs at every turn, getting my health better felt possible. Self-love had hitherto been a foreign concept, but now, for the first time, I felt like I might be able to forgive my body its vulnerabilities. When we parted ways this year, Boyfriend Two left me with the most beautiful of gifts – knowledge that it was totally possible for someone to love me unconditionally, and that I was worthy of it.
When we parted ways this year, Boyfriend Two left me with the most beautiful of gifts – knowledge that it was totally possible for someone to love me unconditionally.
These days, at the ripe old age of 25, my health waxes and wanes but I’m enjoying being single while I embark on my most dedicated healing regime to date (lockdown had to be good for something). If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about chronic illness, it’s that the only way to heal is in your own time, on your own terms.
In future, I won’t downplay the considerations that make life a bit more complicated for me, and I will not allow anyone to love me conditionally, in the belief that I will at some point ‘get better’. I will expect, seek, and demand unconditional love. And until it comes along again, I will remain my own strongest advocate.
*Real name has not been used.