Love, Connection & Chronic Illness

Happy V-day! Did you know that as a female, being single is actually better for your health and longevity, than being in a relationship? (The reverse is true for men…sorry guys! Why this might be is a whole other fascinating issue…)

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As a woman with chronic illnesses, I have been aware that when in a relationship, I used my very limited amount of energy in different ways to when I am single, (as I am now). It has to be spread thinner, your ‘battery’ (or ‘spoons’… a ‘theory’ amongst chronic illness sufferers) are used up just by being around others: I get exhausted by ‘noise’ and movement around me, in particular. I then have less to cope with myself on a day to day basis. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love being with people, I’m a ‘people-person’, but I am also quite literally allergic to people… well almost. If you ever come across the ‘Lesser-Spotted India’, I may appear relatively ‘well’ then, out ‘in the wild’. But you can bet that when I get home, and for the next few days, weeks or even months, I will be a floppy, sleepy, pained, confused, sweaty, exhausted, bed-ridden mess.

I loved being in a relationship. But I know it took its toll on my health too. I wanted to give to my partner equally, but I strived too much to and didn't respect my own real limits. 

Those needs and limits are so difficult to communicate to others, and I would push way beyond them, whilst appearing to adhere to them (to my partner and even to myself). You convince yourself it’s ok, you are ‘being sensible’ and you can cope. You dare not hold back too much, feeling selfish, or perhaps out of fear of being rejected for being ‘too ill’…or a whole other load of other reasons (*it’s worthwhile working out which are yours.)

‘Relationships are bad for women’s health’ also goes for any other very close connection. 

When I was first diagnosed with Acquired Brain Injury (following Pneumococcal Meningitis) and M.E. (following EBV) by UK top Neurologist, Professor Findlay, he said that ‘as a single mum I would not be able to begin my recovery until my then-toddler son grew up’. 

I felt frustrated and somewhat indignant at the time I remember… and oh did I fight against it! But now I see the truth in it. I was not able to manage my own energy (and many other symptoms) until my health was my number one priority.

My son was my whole world then of course. I had to drag myself out of bed into my electric wheelchair to get him to nursery school somehow each day, even if it meant the rest of the day I had no energy or muscle power to sit up again to eat or drink. I’d save myself for managing the time when he got home again. Of course, I would never swap having my child for being ‘single’ (childless) however. That little guy gave me so much love, lightness, energy, hope, and purpose too. Being a mum made my life truly worthwhile.

A loving relationship can also. But it’s tricky where there is an illness. Even in the most respectful, loving and empathetic partnerships. And where there are any difficulties in less-than-perfect relationships, the health costs are even greater. 

This year I am ‘happily single’, but also admittedly ‘lonely’. Life is by its nature very quiet. Too quiet sometimes, even though it’s great to do what I want, when I want and I have plenty to keep me busy. I love my alone time to read, to work, to create, to learn. I am never bored. I can use my battery or spoons as I wish (well, to some degree, as illness ultimately dictates). But it’s also more closed down, I see less of the outside world as I can do much less on my own than when with someone (who can help with the practicalities of getting about, e.g. pushing my wheelchair). And I miss in particular the companionship of a partner, or people in general: the talking, laughing, sharing, hugging. 

Loneliness is bad for your health too. We need connection. We need oxytocin, the ‘feel-good’ hormone, released when we bond with someone. Hugs are good for our health! There is more balance (homeostasis) within the body and mind when we have regular connections, and levels are healthy. 

So whether you are single or partnered, (happily so, or not)…it’s about creating as much balance in your life by prioritising your health and managing your significant relationships. 

Your health must come first, if you have chronic illness, it’s all about your survival…but relationships are important too.

And if you are single it’s ok. Other relationships can provide the connection we need.: the wider family, friendships…and even the kindness of/towards strangers, all reduce loneliness and top up our oxytocin levels.

I’m working on ways of building up my connections this year, (last year I was newly-single so that needed adjusting to which was a whole long-term project in itself). But it has to be done slowly and surely, or health suffers. It takes time to build up meaningful, true friendships. 

Illness is terribly isolating, and at the same time, it’s a real physical and emotional effort to reach out. But if we can find ways to connect in ways that are more real and manageable to us, then that is a better balance for our health and happiness. 

Lots of love! India x

India Jeanne

Artist, Creative therapist, @WingstoFlyCreative

By facing, and working creatively on life's challenges, I believe we can alter our physical health and mental wellbeing for the better. We can fly beyond our pain!