Digital Dating Tips for IBD’ers: How I Met My Husband and What I Learned

Before the dating world was about swiping right or left, I met my husband online. It’s something I was a little embarrassed about sharing for a long time, especially while being a morning news anchor. The year was 2013, while online dating was becoming more common, it was still a little taboo. At the time, my Crohn’s disease was a secret from the public. Much like the backstory of my health, I wanted to keep my love story under wraps much of the same way.

So, when I signed up for eHarmony on a whim after attending my co-anchor’s wedding, rather than putting my location as Springfield, IL (where I lived and did the news), I told a little white lie on my profile and said I lived in St. Louis. I know, I know…a little shady! But hear me out. I chose to do this to disguise my identity and vowed to myself that I’d be upfront and honest with whoever I spoke with about where I lived from the initial conversation. I also told myself I’d hold off on sharing that I had Crohn’s until I met someone worth my time and deserving of my energy. It wasn’t something I would share over email or on the phone prior to meeting.

Finding Love in Three Days

I was on eHarmony three days before I met Bobby. Yes, three days. I feel incredibly fortunate that after years of dating and not finding the right person that all it took was a couple emails and some phone calls. As soon as Bobby and I started talking I gave him an “out” and said I understood if he wasn’t interested in long distance (90 miles apart), but he said he didn’t care and wanted to meet me. He drove to Springfield on a Wednesday after his workday and took me to dinner. Little did we know that would be our last first date.

From there he visited me the following week and we went out for Mexican. Two dates in, I didn’t feel ready to disclose I had IBD. But as the days turned to weeks and I started feeling closer to him, I knew it was something I had to get off my chest.

Disclosing to My Boyfriend (now husband) That I Have Crohn’s

On our third date (almost a month of talking/hanging out) we went to a boathouse and had lunch outside on a gorgeous St. Louis August afternoon. I was nervous, but at this point in my patient journey (8 years in) I felt confident about my IBD elevator speech. After the appetizer arrived, I let him know I had Crohn’s disease. I explained what it was, how it had affected me, the medication I was on, but more so than what I was saying, I was paying more attention to his verbal and non-verbal cues. I had been with guys in the past who ghosted me in times of major health emergencies. I had been made to feel like my chronic illness was a joke or an excuse. And I wasn’t going to put up with any of that bs again or be made to feel like a burden.

Photo taken after I told Bobby I had Crohn’s.

In that moment, Bobby made me feel comfortable and he didn’t seem phased by what I had shared. Not in a dismissive way, but in a way that made me feel like just with the distance, my disease wasn’t reason enough in his eyes to explore other options.

Advice for Navigating Online Dating with IBD

  1. Don’t make your IBD the headline on your profile. While your IBD is a big part of who you are, it’s not your whole identity. It’s not necessary to include you have a chronic illness on your dating profile unless you feel so inclined. Personally, I wouldn’t give someone the privilege of knowing that side of you unless you feel they are worthy. At the same time, if you have an ostomy and you prefer to share photos of yourself like that on your profile—more power to you!
  2. The cliff notes version of your health story will do. When you decide to share that you have IBD with your partner, don’t be doomsday. Don’t go on…and on…and on…about how debilitating and horrible it’s been and how miserable you are. Give a high-level elevator speech that “dumbs it down” a bit. You don’t need to downplay how hard it is but allow your partner to take some initiative and educate themselves and ask questions when they have them. How you share and present your illness to someone who may have never heard of IBD will have a lasting impact.
  3. Don’t settle. Trust your gut. If a partner is making you feel uneasy or unhappy, don’t make excuses for them. Read between the lines on a person’s dating profile—see if you think their personality traits and interests will compliment you and your needs. Not everyone is nurturing and empathetic. If you see red flags that your partner lacks in those areas, think about whether it’s going to be a healthy relationship for you to be a part of.
  4. No need to be shy! When we’re battling our health, often the thought of being vulnerable and open with a stranger can seem overwhelming. IBD is complicated and the stress of a new love interest can make us feel a bit out of control. But it can also be an exciting, sweet distraction from health challenges. Love gives a sense of normalcy. Just because you have IBD doesn’t make you unworthy of deserving love. Think about the type of partner you want holding your hand as you battle a flare from a hospital bed.
  5. Love doesn’t need to stop because of the pandemic. I’m an old married woman now (ha), going on eight years since I was on eHarmony and matched with Bobby, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are so many sites and apps these days, I don’t even know all it entails. Gone are the days of only eHarmony, Match, and Plenty of Fish. 😊 If you’re feeling lonely and isolated like so many of us during this pandemic, and you’re single with IBD, don’t feel like you have to press pause on finding a connection or your person.

What IBD’ers Have to Say About Finding Their Match

Erica: “My husband and I met on Coffee Meets Bagel in 2017. We texted three weeks before meeting. I told him I had Crohn’s after texting a couple of weeks before we met. I had to reschedule our first date because of a health issue and didn’t want him to think it was because of him. I also felt like he should know what he was getting into.”

Michelle: “I met my husband in 2015 when Hinge came out! I was having a flare and threw up on our first date! I met him when I was going through getting diagnosed and he was so supportive through it all.”

Christine: “Disclose early on! I disclosed at about two months of dating with my fiancé and I felt like things could go further. I think it’s something the other person should be aware of. Not everyone is ready for that you need to know that you will be supported through that journey! We connected through Facebook! Sounds crazy, but here we are!”

Sarah: “Dating/meeting people is so hard nowadays and then throw in a chronic illness and it doesn’t make things easier! Personally, I prefer to be up front about my UC because if the person is going to like me or if this is going to work out, they are going to have to be on board with my UC, too! Whether I like it or not, it’s a part of who I am.”

Ryann: “I met my husband in 2017 and I told him on our second date. Our friend set us up and she had already shared that I had IBD with him. Previously, I had told other guys on our first or second date. One guy came back and apologized for being so weak and not contacting me again after that date. I didn’t reply, more because I didn’t blame him, but also because I found him to be incredibly dull! This was back in the beginning days of Tinder!”

Natasha: “I like to share early (in or around the first date) about my health so I don’t develop an attachment if they aren’t comfortable with chronic illness. Usually, it leads to a good conversation either way. Recently, I shared about my Crohn’s over text message and the guy was very inquisitive and only wanted to learn more, about me and about Crohn’s! I also have a pic of me with my ostomy in my dating app profile. It’s subtle, but if you know it’s there or know what an ostomy is, you’ll know immediately what I have.”

Payge: “My Tinder profile pictures had me with my bag and my current boyfriend googled what it was before he messaged me. He told me when he knew what it was, he instantly thought ‘I want to take care of this girl’…that’s how it went for me!”

Allison: “You don’t have to share any more than you’re comfortable with—if you want to disclose in your profile, great! If you wait until date number five, that’s okay, too! There are no hard fast rules for when or how you should share your story with someone. It’s YOUR story and every situation is different. Anyone who responds negatively or acts as if your illness will be a burden is NOT worth your time. The right person won’t care. Remember—nobody is perfect. Your vulnerability might allow the other person to share something they’re also trying to figure out the right time for. I’ve been online dating for five years now, met my current boyfriend on Hinge in September.”

Why Every Person with Chronic Illness Needs to Read “What Doesn’t Kill You”

Prior to receiving a chronic illness diagnosis, it’s incredibly challenging and nearly impossible to fathom ‘forever sickness’. In Tessa Miller’s book, “What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness–Lessons from a Body in Revolt”, she masterfully articulates the highs and lows of life with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). From navigating the diagnosis, flare ups, the healthcare system, relationships, and the mental health component, she’s created an invaluable resource that I wish every single person with chronic illness could be handed the moment they find out their life story has taken an unforeseen turn.

As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2005, two months after college graduation, I wish my former self had these powerful words at my fingertips. The overwhelming nature of IBD can be nearly suffocating at times. As I read this page-turner of a book, I felt seen and understood. I found myself nodding my head, because I could relate to so much of her story and so much of her sage advice. I felt like a college student highlighting what felt like the whole page, because it was ALL so important.

Tessa and I are both journalists. We both have Crohn’s. We both randomly grew up in Illinois. I connected with her over social media after reading her New York Times article, “Five Things I Wish I had Known Before My Chronic Illness.” The article had an impact on me, so when I heard she landed a deal with a publisher, I anxiously awaited for this book to drop.

In the beginning of “What Doesn’t Kill You,” Tessa writes, “I became a professional patient, and a good one. I learned that bodies can be inexplicably resilient and curiously fragile. I would never get better, and that would change everything: the way I think about my body, my health, my relationships, my work, and my life. When things get rough, people like to say, “this too shall pass.” But what happens when “this” never goes away?”

Finding the Right Care Team

When you live with a disease like Crohn’s, it’s imperative you trust your gastroenterologist and care team and are confident in how they help you manage your illness. I always tell fellow patients to take a moment and think about who they will feel comfortable with at their bedside in a hospital room when they’re flaring or facing surgery. If it’s not your current doctor, it’s time to look elsewhere. Tessa breaks down the “qualifications” for getting a care team in place. From finding a doctor who explains why they’re doing what they’re doing and why to a doctor who looks at you as a human, not an opportunity.

“Good doctors see their loved ones in their patients; they make choices for their patients that they would make for their own family. Asking a doctor, “Why did you choose this line of medicine?” will reveal a lot about what drives them and how they view their patients.”

The Grieving Process of Chronic Illness

Receiving a chronic illness diagnosis forces us each to go through the grieving process. For many of us, we were naïve and felt invincible before our health wasn’t a given. We’re so used to feeling as though we’re in control of our destiny, that when we lose that control, we spiral, understandably. Tessa interviewed Paul Chafetz, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Dallas. Dr. Chafetz is quoted in the book saying, “We go through life with an illusion of safety, guaranteed health, even immortality. Acquiring a chronic illness pierces that illusion, and this is a loss. Grieving this loss is an integral part of adjusting to the illness.”

Take a moment to stop and think how you coped those first few weeks and months after finding out you had a chronic illness. While acceptance takes time and comes in different stages, Tessa explains how flexibility and willingness to adapt to your new “normal” is even more important.

“Rather than searching for big, sweeping acceptance, then feeling like a failure when it doesn’t come, chronically ill folks can enact small, empowering steps, such as taking required medications, learning everything we can about how our diseases work, seeing doctors regularly and being prepared for appointments with a list of questions, advocating for our needs and wants, figuring out which foods makes us feel good, and going to therapy and/or connecting with a support group.”

In my own patient advocacy and experience living with Crohn’s I can attest to the fact that we all spend a lot of time wishing for our past and worry about what our futures will hold, rather than focusing on the right now. The majority of IBD patients are diagnosed prior to age 35. This leads most of us to experience the big milestones of adulthood (career, finding love, living on our own, family planning, etc.) with a disease in tow and wondering how that disease is going to complicate life or hold us back from accomplishing all we aspire to.

Bringing on the Biologics

Tessa calls herself an “infliximab veteran,” she spends a great deal of time talking with new patients and caretakers, mostly moms of young IBDers, about their fears. Most questions I receive through my blog and social media also revolve around biologics and the worries people have about side effects and whether the drug will fail them or be a success. I feel confident deeming myself an “adalimumab veteran”, as I’ve been giving myself Humira injections since 2008.

As patients we are faced with difficult decisions all the time and must look at the risk versus the benefit. Having health literacy and understanding your actual risk from a biologic is something that should be communicated with you from your physician. Tessa’s doctor explained to her that six in 10,000 people who take anti-TNF agents (Humira and Remicade) get lymphoma. But as patients, all we see on the internet and in the side effect notes are “lymphoma.” Force yourself to dig digger and remind yourself of your alternative—to not feel better.

The Truth Serum of Chronic Illness

One of the superpowers of chronic illness is that we get to see which family members and friends come to the forefront and which fade to the background. Not everyone is cut out to be a caregiver, but you’ll quickly see who has empathy and who genuinely cares. In my own personal experience, it’s helped me get out of relationships with guys who were no where to be seen while I lied in a hospital bed and allowed me to distance myself from friends who couldn’t find the time in their day to check in when they knew I was flaring.

Tessa says that chronic illness forced her to peel back the layers and the isolation wall she put up, too. Chronic illness has shown her that people do more than just hurt each other— “they nurture, they listen, they enrich one another’s lives.” Her IBD also empowered her to be brave enough to put an end to unhealthy relationships that weren’t benefiting her well-being, both with friends and love interests. Her Crohn’s has showed her that not every friendship is meant to support you in the same way.

This is a great piece of advice. As you live with a chronic illness, you’ll come to know which friends you can share your deep dark secrets and worries with, and which you give the high-level cliff notes version of your experience to. Your chronic illness will help you set those boundaries in a graceful way.

Her love story with her husband embodies what those of us with chronic illness deserve, a partner who sees us as more than our disease, but understands the severity and complexity at the same time.

Juggling a Career and Crohn’s

One of the biggest challenges of life with IBD is knowing how and when to disclose your health situation with your employer. You may wonder how the news will be received, if it will jeopardize your chance for promotion, if your coworkers will resent you…the list goes on and on. As someone who worked in the TV industry as a producer, news anchor and reporter for nearly a decade, and as a PR professional and corporate communications specialist, I’ve been lucky that all my bosses have been incredibly understanding of my struggles with Crohn’s, but never used them against me in any way. I’ve always waited until after I have received the job offer and then told my boss in a meeting the first week of work. This alleviated some of the stress on my shoulders and ensured my coworkers wouldn’t be blindsided when I had a flare that landed me in the hospital. By communicating openly, it also to set an expectation that I may not always feel up to par and that I may need more bathroom breaks or to work from home or come in late after doctor appointments.

Tessa so eloquently writes, “You want your boss to understand that while your disease affects your life, you’re still capable of doing your job. Deliver the necessary facts about your illness without bombarding your boss with information—keep it direct and simple. Be clear about how you manage the illness and that although you do your best to keep it under control, it can flare up. Tell your boss what you’ll do if and when that happens.”

Realizing the Power of Pain

One of my favorite analogies that Tessa shares in the book is that each of us carries an invisible bucket, some are heavier than others, and the weight of that said bucket is constantly in fluctuation. She says that as she started connecting with those in our community, she came to realize that her personal pain was no better or worse than anyone else’s. So often we weigh our struggles against those of others, and that’s not helpful to beneficial for anyone.

“Think about it: If a friend came to you in pain, would you tell them that other people have it worse and that their pain isn’t valid? If you did, you’d be a lousy friend—so why do you speak to yourself in such a way?”

Rather than thinking that ‘someone always has it worse’ ask for support when you need it. Don’t downplay your struggles out of guilt thinking you aren’t deserving of help. Give support when you can but don’t forget about the person you see looking back in the mirror, be loving, kind, and patient to them, too.

Leaving the Rest to Imagination

Some of my other favorite excerpts from the book are Tessa’s “Seven Secrets”. The secrets (both big and small) she keeps from loved ones and friends about her experience with IBD. The secrets are relatable. We don’t want to come off as a burden. We don’t want to scare those who mean something to us. We want to hold on tightly to the notion that our illness doesn’t define us, so we often don’t disclose the true reality of what encompasses our illness.

Another section I know you’ll love is “Thirty-Eight Experiences of Joy” where Tessa shares quotes from 38 different people with chronic illness and how they’ve discovered joy despite their illness. I’m honored to be featured in that section of the book.

She understands the power of community and how finding your tribe within your disease space and outside of it is an important aspect of disease management and life fulfillment.

“Connecting with other chronically ill people teaches you how to carry each other’s weight—when to lift when you have strength, and when to share the burden when you have no energy left,” writes Tessa. “I’ve found the chronic illness and disability community to be one of endless empathy and generosity.”

The Gratitude That Comes with Chronic Illness

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book and a perspective that I wholeheartedly share:

“At the beginning of my illness, I was so inwardly focused on what I’d lost that I couldn’t see the gifts illness had given me. Mom, a determined optimist, taught me to always look for the silver lining. Mine is this: Yeah, my body won’t allow for any bullshit—no jobs I hate, no relationships I’m not fulfilled by, no hours crying over wrinkles. Illness made me braver, kinder, and more empathetic, and that gives me way more radical power than the faux control I was clutching to for so long. In the most unexpected way, illness freed me. It compelled me to begin therapy, which kick-started the process of tending my wounds old and new. It made me focus on the present more than the anxiety of the future. And it made me be in my body in a way I never experienced before. Suddenly, I had to mindfully care for my body and brain as best I could and understand that beyond that, it’s out of my hands.”

Connect with Tessa:

Twitter: @TessaJeanMiller

Instagram: @tessajeanmiller

Her website

Purchase “What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness–Lessons from a Body in Revolt”

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

IndieBound

Stay tuned to my Instagram (@natalieannhayden) for a special book giveaway kicking off today (February 8)! Five lucky followers in the United States will receive a FREE hardcover copy of Tessa’s book.

You are not a burden if you have IBD

When I was 21, in the matter of one week I received an IBD diagnosis and had my heart broken. My boyfriend from college who had previously treated me like a queen, never visited me in the hospital and broke up with me the day I returned home.

I’ll always remember walking into my parent’s bedroom and telling my mom about the break-up. My body frail. My arms battered with bright purple bruises up and down. The weight of a lifelong disease and 22 pills a day hitting me head-on with every emotion possible. My mom’s response, “Well, you’re not perfect in his eyes anymore.”

From that point forward, I worried about the invisible Scarlet Letter of my illness and how it would impact my love life.

Would a man ever be able to love me, for all of me? Crohn’s and all?

You are not a burden.

The recent advice column shared in the New York Times entitled, “Is it Ok to Dump Him Because of His Medical Condition,” plays into every fear and every worry IBD patients grapple with. While Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis can happen at any age, people are more frequently diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 35. Finding out you have a chronic disease with no cure in those youthful years of life—often prior to finding a life partner or starting a career path, is incredibly overwhelming. The fear of the future and what is to come with your hopes and dreams is nearly debilitating at times.

So, it’s pretty freaking ironic when the author of “The Ethicist” who considers “readers’ ethical quandaries” responds back to this question about breaking up with someone because they have Crohn’s by saying:

“Committing to this person may be committing to a life as a caregiver”… and… “You don’t owe it to anyone to accept that burden.”

You are not a burden.

not a burden2Referring to people with any chronic illness or disabilities in this way is not only hurtful, but extremely ableist. You can’t assume everyone with IBD is going to need a caregiver in a partner. If the author had any idea about how Crohn’s manifests, he would know that the disease is a rollercoaster…oftentimes years of being able to manage, followed by hardships, setbacks, and flares and back again.

As a 36-year-old married woman and mom of two, I have referred to my husband as a caregiver, but he’s more so my source of support and someone who sees me for much more than my disease. He would never think of me as a burden. He would never have considered breaking up with me because life could get complicated with my disease. He sees my disease as a part of who I am, but recognizes I am so much more. not a burden 3

You are not a burden.

To the 25-year-old single girl with ulcerative colitis reading this. To the parent of the child with IBD worried about whether their little one will ever find love as an adult. To the guy being talked about in the NYT article who most likely was broken up with—believe this:

You will meet people who turn a cheek once they find out you have IBD or suddenly show disinterest. It sucks in the moment. It feels like you’re getting punched in the gut. But use that pain to recognize that type of person isn’t meant to be your person. Take that heartbreak and use it to your advantage. Set you bar high. Settle for no one. Use your disease to shed light on people’s true colors. Who is going to be there when the going gets tough? Who lifts you up when you’re too weak to stand on your own? Who sees strength in your vulnerability with your health and the way you take on life? your are not a burden5

You are not a burden.

I’ve had Crohn’s for 15 years (next month!). Last night I needed to take a pain pill to quiet the gnawing pain in my abdomen. This morning I had to make a fast dash to the bathroom multiple times in front of my husband and in-laws while my kids needed tending to. I apologized for needing to go to the bathroom so many times. Even as a veteran patient who’s four years into marriage with a man who loves me unconditionally, the words of that damn article rang out in my mind. I felt the guilt and wonder creep in….am I a burden?!

No matter how long you have IBD, no matter how well you have it managed, there are still moments where you feel less than your peers. There are still moments you can’t keep up. There are still moments if you wonder whether you are enough.

Just remind yourself…and I promise to do the same…YOU ARE NOT A BURDEN. And shame on you New York Times…as a journalist, I expect more. And so do your readers.

Why my husband is much more than a caregiver, Dr. Phil

I still remember the moment I told my husband I had Crohn’s disease. It was a beautiful August afternoon. We sat overlooking water at a boathouse in St. Louis on our third date. As we enjoyed casual conversation and a mutual interest in one another, I knew I had to tell him about my chronic illness.

IMG_0787

Photo from our third date, the day I told Bobby I had Crohn’s disease.

Nervous to rock the boat. Scared to be judged. Worried it would tarnish the image of who I was so far. I just wanted to rip off the band aid and get this conversation over with.

It was never easy to navigate dating and relationships with my disease. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 21 in 2005. I met Bobby in August 2013 at age 29. Rather than seem put off by my disease, he inquired and showed empathy from that point forward. Never once did he make me feel less than or unworthy of love. In that moment, I knew I had found someone special and I felt a huge sense of relief.

Fast forward to this past month and all the conversation surrounding Dr. Phil’s heartless and ignorant comments about caregiving and relationships. I didn’t see the episode live, but have seen the countless posts on social media being shared to prove him wrong. I watched the interview clip after the segment aired and couldn’t believe my eyes or my ears. Dr. Phil told an interabled couple that “100 out of 100 relationships that involve caregiving fail.”

Photo by J Elizabeth Photography www.jelizabethphotos.com

Helping me walk down stairs during our engagement photos–21 days post op from my bowel resection surgery. Photo cred: J. Elizabeth Photography

It pains me to even write the idiotic words that man said. Not only is it upsetting, but it breaks my heart to think of all the young, newly diagnosed chronic illness patients out there who were already wondering if they were worthy of love because of living with a disease.

IMG_0077I’m here to tell you that you are. I truly believe my vulnerability with my Crohn’s and how I deal with flare ups is a big part of why my husband fell in love with me. Chronic illness isn’t pretty. It forces you to see the world without rose-colored glasses. It makes you realize the importance of your health and how quickly it can be taken away from you.

There’s a reason why you say “in sickness and in health” in wedding vows. My husband chose to spend his life with me, because he loves all of me—even the part of me that is riddled with illness. People are cut out to be caregivers or they’re not. You’ll come across this in your life and know which family members and friends have a special way about them. Those who don’t have this trait and ability aren’t meant to marry people like you and me. And that’s fine.

But to say that 100 out of 100 couples will fail because caregiving is involved couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s through Bobby’s caregiving that I continue to fall more and more in love with him. It’s those moments when I need help to get through a pain-filled day that I’m reminded just how strong and unbreakable our love is.

IMG_9492Caregiving looks and means different things to everyone. It’s not just about being a caregiver in the hospital or at a nursing home. It’s taking care of the one(s) you love on a typical day at home. It can be something as simple as rubbing your back or taking care of the kids while you’re stuck in the bathroom. It can be dishing you out ice cream after you give yourself an injection. Or holding your hand on a walk outside following a hospitalization. It’s those caregiving moments in particular that remind me constantly of the everlasting love I’ve found and make me 100 percent positive we will make it through, for the rest of my life.

My words of advice for you—if you’re a caregiver, know how appreciated you are—for all the little things and the big things. photo by J Elizabeth Photography www.jelizabethphotos.comIf you’re someone dealing with a disability/disease—don’t allow Dr. Phil’s ridiculously inaccurate comments make you think you aren’t worthy of love, because you are and always will be.