Chronic Illness & Toxic Relationships

By Sarah

Some men and women with chronic pain and illness are blessed enough to have partners who have been with them from the onset and who are both strong and loyal enough to be with them every step of the way.

Some have found someone while in the midst of their illness who have a rare and beautiful ability to understand and stand by them, even take care of them when needed.

If either of these apply to you, then I’m jealous (lovingly of course) and this particular post is most likely not aimed at you.

Or maybe you have come to an esoteric and freeing conclusion that alone is not only ok but where you want to be on this journey. Again, I’m envious, and I have the utmost respect and admiration for you!

What I have to say here is for the rest of us… or at the very least for ME. But as I speak to my own situation, I truly hope that I will find I am not alone, and maybe my words and thoughts on this matter will help someone else.

So who ARE the “rest of us“?

Those who find ourselves alone whilst living with chronic illness, or worse yet, in some form of a relationship and yet STILL alone for some reason or another. I’m going to stop right here at any attempt at being poetic or a wordsmith and speak from my heart.

I am forty three, and for most of my adult life I have drifted from one bad relationship to another. A very few that had some positive impact and just weren’t meant to be, but the vast majority of them have ended straight-up toxic.

I’m being very open and, I just realized, vulnerable here because that statement alone (revealing it in black and white on a public platform) leaves me feeling shame and embarrassment. But I have a lot more to say and a lot deeper to go, and again I’m counting on the fact that I am not alone in all of this. So here goes.

This is where I find myself tonight–staring, lonely, at the back of a man that I love with all of my heart but who will never love me, truly support me, or really even know the real me (even after almost four years of this back and forth). He isn’t necessarily a bad guy (I tell myself)… he just loves someone else that he can not have as much as I love him (and let me say, unreciprocated love is agony). And yet here I am. And I have some theories as to why.

Why do those of us with chronic illness and/or pain sometimes find ourselves more vulnerable to toxic relationships?

I think this: When one suffers one hour to the next, becoming days, then weeks, and so forth, it becomes more and more difficult to find joy in anything. So when something, or in this case someONE, pulls us out of that dark place… even if just for a moment… we cling to that. We become literally addicted to that feeling because it is so rare.
We see, but choose to completely ignore, the red flags of a toxic person because of how good it feels to be briefly relieved of our pain (both emotional and physical) in the moment. We settle for so much less than we deserve because even fragments of a relationship and scraps of attention feel so much better than what we are used to in our daily struggle.

In addition, our illness depletes our self esteem and self confidence along with it. So many things we were able to do or be before we were sick or when we were younger are no longer easily possible. But here’s the thing, we aren’t even that old.

In my case I look at my sixty nine year old mother and feel as though we somehow switched lives. She works out regularly at the gym, spends two days a week running a statewide Bible study, takes care of my ailing father, and maintains a large home impeccably, among other things. At only forty three, I myself cannot even do a fraction of that, even if my life depended on it, as I have to spend the majority of my days in bed.

I remember when I was a pediatric nurse in a critical care unit. I remember what it was like before I became too sick to work anymore, when my energy used to outweigh my illness.

When I lost that, I felt like I completely lost myself. And I lost everything I had ever been proud of.

I could step in here and be positive and inspiring, talking about how we need to simply adjust and find or do NEW things to be proud of and although that may be true, that is another post for another day.

Self esteem tanks. Self confidence evaporates. Then, again, fragments of a relationship or scraps of attention seem like all we are really worthy of and the only version of “love” that we are now destined to receive.

It sounds bleak. And sad. I know. And I could stop here to give you verbatim the tools that countless therapists, books, and trusted loved ones have presented to me to break this cycle. And there are many. But this is not that post either.

Why? Because I want you to see me. Right where I am. Right in the middle of it. So you will know you are not alone. And know that I understand it is NOT as easy as it may seem to those who have the “answers”. I want you to stop hating yourself, loathing what those who can’t understand would have you believe is weakness, bad judgement, or some type of character flaw. Loving anyone with all of your heart, whether they are bad for you or not, is none of the above.

So am I saying that if you are alone you should let yourself fall for the next person despite warning signs? No. Or if you are in a toxic relationship that you should stay and suffer? Not at all.

In fact, I should get up right now, gather my things, and RUN out of his door and never look back. But I know that I will not. Not tonight.

So here, in this moment, where I am Right Now, I will choose not to hate myself, not to blame myself, and to have compassion for myself even in the midst of a bad decision. Sometimes just understanding why we do certain things, or make certain choices, is a huge first step toward changing it.

You are not alone, and if you choose or have chosen someone who can’t or won’t love you for you, and you (like me) don’t yet know how to love yourself, just begin by not hating yourself. Begin by giving yourself grace right where you are.

My ultimate goal, for myself and for you is this: Find peace with exactly who and what you are In This Moment by extending yourself some grace and releasing yourself from expectations (yours and others) of perfection. And at least tell yourself this truth until you are actually able to believe it (no matter how long it takes)–that you deserve to be and can be loved exactly as you are….illness, pain, limitations and all.

We must learn a new way of thinking (towards ourselves) BEFORE we can master a new way to be. So just start there.

I want to finish by saying thank you to each and everyone of you who reads this for helping ME come to a place of self awareness by sharing my story. I kindly ask each of you to please listen to the song that I felt goes along with my story and comment below with your thoughts, feelings, or experiences with this so that I too may know that I am not alone.


Header Image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-and-woman-sitting-on-sidewalk-226166/

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