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Stay Small: Dating First, Disability Second

I've been dating this way: Find someone. Act non-disabled.

Now I'm saying: I'm disabled. I'm lovable this way.

When I started this blog, I said that I would write without apology, shame or guilt. I admitted that one of the reasons I stopped blogging was because I feared that my honest portrayal of chronic illness would scare away any potential partners. As I prepare to get a power assisted wheelchair, I'm flipping how I've tended to my disability in the past.

At my sickest, I didn't even try to date. Once I started to improve a bit, I decided to give dating a go. With the exception of the first guy I dated, I focused my energy on trying to be non-disabled. Yes, non-disabled.

And small. So very small.

I had this idea (here we go internalized ableism) that I needed someone to fall in love with me first before I really let them in on the truth about my disability or asked them to accept it in any way. What an inauthentic way to live.

Yes, I told partners I was sick. They knew I needed a lot of rest or couldn't do certain things. But I didn't ask them to push me in a wheelchair or ask them to pick up some of the tasks I needed done. I didn't let them see me crashed out after pushing through a weekend together. None really cared to know or ask or listen to what I experienced. They didn't read my blog.

Instead, I continued to have my mom cook the meals (which she fed my partners too). I would bend over backwards to do the planning or the hosting at my house or to celebrate birthdays or be the snack provider for every outing. I took on an old-fashioned traditional role, supporting the career goals and aspirations of my partner, while ignoring my own passions and my own disability.

I would do things like commit to watching my partner's new puppy all day while he was at work--which meant that both my mom and I spent the days potty training, playing with, crate training, etc. his puppy while he went to work. It took everything out of me, left no energy for my own pursuits, and my boyfriend would simply pop over at the end of the day, pick up the puppy and be 'too tired' to spend any time together. It was too much for him to even thank me. Tovah and Gershwin hated the intrusion.

Why did I settle for so little?

  1. Because I didn't have another model. My model was to be small and to cater to a man's needs.

  2. Because I thought my disability made me less, that I should be ashamed of it, and that I needed to overcompensate for it by taking care of my partner's needs and not mine.

I became the primary nurturer in every relationship and received and expected little in return. I made myself so small. I asked for little. I gave up my own passions--like writing or putting energy into Rowe's Research Runners. I didn't ask for my needs to be met--emotionally, physically, sexually. I thought the only way to be lovable was to be thin. I put up with a lot of things because my partner had to 'deal with my disability.' Not letting me know you're not going to show up for dinner has nothing to do with my disability. It's just basic respect. I used all of my energy trying to overcompensate for all that I viewed myself as lacking.

Lots of women make themselves small. We haven't even mentioned the patriarchy in this post--it's a big and important part of how I live. But, trying to hide my disability added another layer to the lack of authenticity in my relationships. What an exhausting way to live.

A lot of this is on me. It's my job to break these patterns, to approach relationships differently, to do lots of therapy unpacking my internalized ableism. I'm sharing how my own beliefs shaped the type of relationships I chose. And it was never my disability itself that ended my relationships--it was the same sort of issues that any and all human relationships face.

I know that finding a partner is difficult. I know that it's more difficult the older I get and because I am disabled. It's also difficult because of where I live. I also know that there is no value in continuing to date the way I had been--to be inauthentic, to be small, to hide my disability. By getting the power-assist wheelchair and needing to wear a hard collar, my disability becomes visible--partly by choice and partly by necessity.

Part of my journey here at Chronically Emily is to live authentically, to pursue my passion for advocacy and awareness, to not live small. Maybe part of that journey will be finding a partner with whom I can truly be authentic and be loved, as Emily Ladau says, not because of or in spite of my disability, but just for me.



Photo: The beach. Where I am my most authentic self.

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