Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I’ve followed your column for a while now and noticed how much of what you say of being in a good place for a relationship matches with what I was always told growing up. Basically, have interests and a life of your own, be emotionally and mentally stable(ish) so that you don’t put the responsibility for your well-being on another person, be capable of being happy on your own. In other words, I was raised with a mindset of “have your life in good working order, before you can even consider sharing it with another person”.
I agree with all of this, and I was doing fairly well in this regard up until three years ago. Had (and have) my own interests, put a lot of time and effort into getting an academic degree in a field I really love, and while my social circle always was small my friendships tend to be stable and very close (emotionally, not locally – a lot of friends have recently moved or are currently in the process of moving away).
Then, shortly after turning 30, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that makes working in general pretty much impossible and I basically had to bury all my long-term plans for my life, including wanting children since I found out that I’m likely infertile due to endometriosis just a few months after the original disability diagnosis. Even smaller scale stuff like “traveling” further than half an hour or so from the house is pretty much impossible now and I need occasional help with simple household tasks, too. Needless to say, this didn’t have a great effect on my mental health either.
So I’m now in a position where I’m definitely not stable enough to date and likely never will be. I manage day to day but I’m far from even regular working order and there has been little to no improvement in the last three years despite repeated attempts at treatment and therapy.
The problem is just that I can’t seem to flip the happy-on-my-own-switch and it really makes me feel even more awful about this entire situation. Part of it is that this has been a very isolating experience and I’m at a point where I would sell my soul for more than the occasional hug, and part of it is that I feel guilty about wanting more company than I’m currently getting, because that seems to mean that I’m making every mistake I was ever warned about and therefore are not fit to deal with other people.
And yes, I am aware that increasing my circle of friends is also an option and that a romantic relationship is not the only solution to loneliness, but a) same problem as above and b) the thought that I will never get to make that experience, because I missed my window at university and now I’m not capable enough anymore, frankly hurts like hell. I’m also aware that plenty of people in my position manage to have relationships – successfully, even – but given everything outlined in the first paragraph I have no idea how I would justify even wanting that to myself. I just can’t. So how do I learn to be happy by myself instead?
Thanks for reading,
Where Is The Switch?
Right off the bat, I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this, WITS. Having a chronic condition, especially one that’s so limiting and debilitating can be incredibly frustrating, maddening, even leaves you feeling like you’re at stuck at the bottom of the Pit of Despair.
I realize I say this fairly often, WITS, but I feel like you may be asking the wrong question here. It sounds to me like you’re going about things in a counterproductive way.
Let’s roll this one from the top and talk about “being in good general working order“, because I think this is the first key in helping you find and flip some necessary switches.
When we talk about being in good working order, it doesn’t mean that you don’t “need” people or that you don’t have needs that aren’t being met. It’s more that you know how to meet those needs and are willing and capable of doing so. But that doesn’t mean that if you find yourself in a position where you do need help from others – such as, say, if you suddenly have a debilitating disease or disability – then you’re no longer “qualified” to date or have relationships. Everyone needs help sometimes and some folks do need more assistance than others. That’s part of the human condition, and part of why we have survived as a species for as long as we have is because we’re collectivists. We believe in taking care of each other, not leaving the weak to die behind us.
In fact, there’s evidence of Neanderthals and early Homo Sapiens who had various deformities, handicaps and disabilities who lived well into adulthood precisely because they got by with a little help from their friends.
Now put a pin in that, I’m gonna come back to it. Let’s talk, instead, about the least three years and where you are now. Three years ago, you had your life derailed in an unpredictable and unavoidable way. Your life was blown apart like a dog plowing through a Jenga tower and everything you had been working towards or had planned on was suddenly tossed out the window. One day, one diagnosis and suddenly you’re having to accept a new status quo that bears no resemblance to the life you lived before, or the one you expected to lead.
I have to wonder if there isn’t some part of you that’s still holding onto that old life in a less-than-productive way. That is, you’re judging yourself and holding yourself to standards that don’t apply any longer. I mean, I can understand the idea of treating holding these standards for yourself as iron-clad and inviolate, that you hold to them no matter what as a matter of honor. But that sort of thinking – of not adjusting your standards and beliefs as facts change on the ground – is how you end up with Ned “Honor Beyond Reason” Stark.
I wonder – and you’ll have to tell me if I’m wrong about this – if part of the problem is that you’re still in the adjustment period. I mean, come on, you just had your life blown apart in a way that’s changed everything for you. Yeah, it’s been three years, but that’s less than a tenth of your life; you had thirty years of living life one way, then suddenly having to change almost everything. That’s not a lot of time to come to terms, to mourn or to build the new systems that work for you. And while I have no doubt that you’re a magnificent badass with the heart of a volcano and the passion of a thousand burning suns in your soul, even Lucifer needed time to say “well…. fuck” after hitting the ground.
So it may be worth looking inward and seeing if you’re still holding yourself to standards – the “good working order” – that are literally impossible any more. Acknowledging your disability doesn’t mean you’re “not in good working order”, it means recognizing that you have a new reality and you need to adapt to it. Being upset at how your life changed and what you’ve had to give up – at least for now – doesn’t mean you’re not fit to share your life with anyone. Acknowledging that you’re lonely and feeling isolated and wanting more doesn’t mean that you’re not fit to date, it means you’re dealing with some shit.
So maybe… be a little easier on yourself for the moment and deal with that shit. Recognize that life is different, your operating rules are different and maybe your definition of “in good working order” needs to adjust as well.
“But it’s been three years!” I hear you cry. “Treatment and therapy hasn’t helped.”
OK… but are you sure that the therapy you’ve been getting is what you need? Is it possible that maybe you don’t have the right therapist? Or, hear me out: is it possible that you’re trying to fit into an able-bodied framework when you simply aren’t abled anymore?
I don’t know, because I’m not there, and I’m not you. You’ll have to tell me.
In those three years, have you put new systems in place to help you live your new life as best you can? Are you still in the process of figuring out how to make things work the way they are now? Or are you still feeling that sense of resentment or shame that you can’t do things the way you used to, the way you’re “supposed” to? And if that’s the case… is it possible you’re punishing yourself for a supposed failure? Are you beating yourself up because you aren’t physically capable of living your life as you did before you were disabled?
I ask because I’ve seen people do this. I’ve seen folks who were frustrated, who wanted to yell “don’t tell me what I can’t do”, but who were still trying to operate in the same framework that they did when they were able-bodied. I see it in people who developed mental conditions, in folks who were in accidents and in people who developed complications from Long COVID. And all too often, I saw them fight tooth and nail to live up to standards that they lived by before the big change event.
This is why I wonder if maybe you don’t feel settled in your life, like you’re still in that period of feeling like not being able to do the things the way you did when you were able bodied means you’re a failure. But that’s the other thing about being human; we survive because we’re adaptable. We change to meet our circumstances. And your life has changed. There’s no questioning that. You have limitations that you didn’t have before. That’s a truth. Your life, as you knew it, is over. That is also a truth. But here is another truth: the fact that life as you knew it is over doesn’t mean your life is over. It just means that you now need to apply your volcano heart and bad-ass, welcome-to-the-Green-Lantern-Corps willpower to overcoming these difficulties by building and implementing new systems that let you live your life in line with these new circumstances.
And yeah, that can be hard. We live in a world that is actively hostile to the disabled, to people with handicaps and chronic conditions. We live in a world that treats deviation from the supposed norm as a sin or a sign of weakness. But sometimes the only thing to be done is to spit in your hands and get ready to prove the fuckers wrong. And if you can’t do that alone? Well… then don’t do it alone.
Humanity didn’t get to where it is because we’re rugged individualists. We got to where we are because we have support networks. And the fact that yours is scattered to the winds, I think, is part of the problem.
Remember what I said about how as a species, we get by with a little help from our friends? Well maybe that’s the line you need to accept. You’re going to need some help. It may be short term help, it may be a new part of your status quo for the rest of your life… but that’s ok. That’s not being in poor working order, that’s learning how to deal with the twists and turns the universe threw your way, without trying to force yourself into an able-bodied frame of reference.
Overcoming these challenges doesn’t mean that you need to be able to perform like you did before your diagnosis, it means finding the ways that let you achieve your goals and desires and live and love your life the way you are now.
And that includes recognizing that you have limitations you didn’t before. Maybe they’re temporary. Some of it may change over time with physical therapy and exercise or rehabilitation. Some of it may change as you find new ways of accomplishing those same tasks, either on your own or with help. And hey, if you need help, that’s fine. There’s no shame in that.
Nor is there shame for acknowledging that shit fucking sucks right now. I mean, feeling guilty because you’re feeling isolated and lonely and wanting more than you currently have? That’s not “making mistakes”, that’s not disqualifying, that’s a very human reaction to an incredibly shitty situation.
Ask yourself, WITS, would you be giving your best friends a hard time if they admitted to you that they were lonely and isolated and needing a little human touch (beyond just some hugs)? Would you say that those feelings meant that they didn’t deserve love or weren’t “fit to deal with other people”? If the answer is “no” (and good fucking God I hope it’s not), then why in pluperfect hell would you say that about yourself? That’s not trying to make sure you’re in good working order, that’s just pointless masochism, punishing yourself for something that is ultimately out of your control.
You need a support network. You don’t have one, and it seems like you won’t let yourself build a new one. That’s the thing that you should be trying to change, not trying to turn off your need for other people… a need that’s so very basic, so very primal that it’s literally part of what it means to be human. We’re pack animals; we don’t do well without a pack. And you’re trying to force yourself to be something that doesn’t need other people. Small wonder shit’s hard for you right now.
I’m fond of the saying “When God closes a door, blow open a hole in the wall”. OK, I came up with that saying but it’s true: just because things are different doesn’t mean that you need to give up. Sometimes you just need to stop beating on the closed door and get yourself some high-explosive and make your own door.
So, where do you find that switch? Well… I think you shouldn’t be looking for it. Not, at least, if it’s the “my life is over and I can never have friends or relationships any more” switch. Fuck that noise. Find the switch that says “I’m going to take some time, feel my shit for a bit, then take every bit of frustration, anger, resentment and bitterness and channel it into making life work for me anyway. ” Let go of the old standards; they go with your old life. It’s time to develop some new standards, ones that allow for self-forgiveness for having gotten this illness, ones that recognize that you’re doing things differently now and ones that don’t mean you have to live an entirely self-sufficient, self-contained life in order to have the “right” to have friends and lovers.
I would recommend finding a support group for people with disabilities. You know how you said that you knew other people in your circumstances have successful relationships? Well, maybe you need to meet those people, hang out with them and see just how they do it. Because I promise you: it doesn’t come from declaring that you’re no longer “allowed” to have folks in your life. It comes from acknowledging your limits, yes… but finding ways to work with them and around them.
Here’s another truth: things have changed. But change just means things are different, not that things are over. The fact that the life you knew ended doesn’t meant that your life is over or that your dreams have to be abandoned. You may well be able to still achieve your goals and dreams; you may just need to change how you get there and adjust your expectations about when. Your path has changed, that’s all. Where there is life, there is hope. Where there’s will, there is possibility.
Some of this change is going to be strictly practical – figuring out what adaptations you’ll need to live your life without being isolated. Some of it is going to be emotional and internal. All of it is going to be rough. But “difficult” isn’t the same as “impossible”.
What you experienced was an ending, WITS, not the end. It wasn’t even the beginning of the end. It’s simply an end… and now you’re facing a new beginning. Your old life ended. You have a new life now. It’s up to you how to live it and what you let it bring you. You can allow it to bring love and friendship, satisfaction and companionship… or you can allow it to keep those things out. Your disease wasn’t your choice. What you do with you life from here on out, is.
You’re stronger than you realize. You’re braver than you know and you’re more resilient than you give yourself credit for. Blow open a few walls.
All will be well.
This post was previously published on Doctornerdlove.com and is republished on Medium.
You Might Also Like These From The Good Men Project
|Compliments Men Want to Hear More Often||Relationships Aren’t Easy, But They’re Worth It||The One Thing Men Want More Than Sex||..A Man’s Kiss Tells You Everything|
Join The Good Men Project as a Premium Member today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
A $50 annual membership gives you an all access pass. You can be a part of every call, group, class and community.
A $25 annual membership gives you access to one class, one Social Interest group and our online communities.
A $12 annual membership gives you access to our Friday calls with the publisher, our online community.
Register New Account
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: iStock