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Lovesick: Hooking up over a shared disease

One online  entrepreneur  believes he has the answer to Valentine’s Day loneliness for people living with chronic diseases: match them up with someone with the same condition. But how much enduring love can a shared health condition  really provide?
/ Source: contributor

An Internet entrepreneur named Ricky Durham believes he has the answer to Valentine’s Day loneliness for people living with chronic diseases or health conditions: match them up with other people who either have the same conditions or are, for some reason, looking for a lover who has them.

Desire a bipolar date? An irritable bowel romance? A herpetic lover? A fling with a fellow Tourette Syndrome sufferer? Durham’s promises to match you up.

Other special interest dating sites have sprung up based on mutual health issues, especially STDs. Some sites offer a twist by also promising to match parties interested in, say, amputee devotion.

On the surface, seeking out a fellow sufferer makes sense. But a romance can be tough to keep going even for the fittest lovers. How much enduring love can a shared health condition provide?

“I’m starting to think that I am going to have to settle down with someone who has a chronic illness, too,” wrote one poster on a Crohn’s Disease message board. Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disorder often diagnosed in young people. It can lead to frequent abdominal pain and diarrhea and, in severe cases, necessitate removal of part of the colon or small intestine and the wearing of a colostomy or ileostomy bag. “I feel like a fraud presenting myself as someone who isn’t significantly affected by chronic illness, but who wants to date someone who is ill a large part of the time?”

“I’m in the same boat,” another board member replied. “I’m almost thinking of trolling the hospital wards for young, single men with a flare up!”

Dr. Suzanne Miller, a clinical psychologist and director of behavioral medicine at Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Cancer Center, understands the drive.

“Finding somebody similar to you in terms of having that personal disease history, understanding what it means to you psychologically and physically,” can have a very comforting effect, she said, just like any other shared experience can grease the wheels of bonding. A shared disease can bridge a very big gap most other people don’t face, she said, namely “what for you has become a new normal but for everybody else is very abnormal.”

For Thomas Grogan, a 44-year-old forensic document examiner in Charlotte, N.C., "cancer changed my outlook, and my priorities." As a seven-year survivor of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, "I view things differently now," said Grogan. Since his illness he joined, a site for cancer survivors.

The logistics of navigating a fledgling relationship is another motivation, Grogan said. "At what point do you tell somebody you are a cancer survivor? I have had the experience of going out on dates, it gets to the third or fourth date and looks like something might develop, and I tell this person and they disappear."

Talking to fellow cancer patients and comparing diagnoses, though, is easy. "The disease is just understood and accepted," said Grogan.

While some people may see a former cancer patient as "damaged goods," having something as painful, personal and potentially embarrassing as a bowel condition can present even more of a challenge in the romance department.

Kelly McGregor, a 31-year-old San Jose, California college student and colitis (another inflammatory bowel disease) sufferer nearly gave up on relationships altogether. How could she explain that she might have to go to the bathroom 20 times a day, or that she might be incontinent in bed or might have a skin rash? After a surgery that removed most of her colon, she wore a bag for a time before a series of reconstructive surgeries created what is known as a “J-pouch,” a kind of internal bag.

She had a boyfriend when she was diagnosed “and he was loving and supportive, but I was very embarrassed. It did not matter to him, but I did not want to look at the pouch. I wanted it covered up. We were intimate very infrequently, and after we split up, I wasn’t with anyone for the next two or three years. I could not accept it myself, how could anybody else? It was repulsive to me. I did not put myself out there.”

She finally did find a new love, and some comfort, with a man who had Crohn’s. They were happy for about a year, largely because they were comfortable with each other. Then it fell apart.

“I think the downfall for us, with us both being so ill, was the self-isolation,” she said. “That wasn’t good. I originally thought that nobody would truly understand what I am going through and this [new relationship] would be wonderful, and 80 percent of that was true. But then we started to kind of snap at each other and start fights. After awhile, you start to kind of feed off each other and use the illness as an excuse.”

Rose-colored glasses
Her experience did not surprise Miller, the psychologist at Fox Chase. Often people with long-term health conditions are so pleased to simply find somebody they like who understands the inconveniences and challenges, she said, that “there is a very strong risk of overlooking things you should not overlook.”

Cancer survivors, diabetics, people with psychological disorders — anybody dealing with a chronic condition — can come to see that condition as the main thing in their lives. “Your sense of self is so wrapped up in your physical condition that becomes the main barrier to connecting with others. It becomes your new identity," said Miller. "But it is just one piece of your overall personality and your needs.”

The other person may have the same issue you’re facing, but is he or she an extrovert while you are an introvert? Messy while you are neat? A planner while you are spontaneous? We are more than our diseases.

Imagine the possible financial consequences of, say, two bi-polar people with a penchant for big spending during manic phases falling in love. Genetics are also a consideration. Many long-term conditions like depression, some cancers, Crohn’s, some auto-immune diseases and others, can involve inherited genetic risk. The children of two parents who both have Crohn’s, for example, have a greatly elevated risk of having an inflammatory bowel disease themselves.

None of which is to say that people who happen to have the same chronic health concern shouldn’t fall in love, necessarily, just that matchmaking based on disease is no panacea.

So if this Valentine’s Day prompts you to sign up for a dating Web site, you might want to mention your work, family, your “I Love Lucy” addiction, your antipathy for Lady Gaga and your preference for the feel of petroleum-based fabrics during sex. Talking about your latest lab results can wait.

Brian Alexander is the author of the book now in paperback.