“Dating Yourself” with a Chronic Illness &/or Disability

Mirror selfie of Sakara taken with a digital camera, she is smiling into the lens and is supporting her head with one hand up to her face, squishing some of her golden brown hair.

Today’s post is an expansion on something I shared to Instagram earlier this year, my thoughts on being single as a chronically ill person. The first half the caption was as follows: [ For an audio file of me reading this post, please click here (you may have to download the file before it will play but the process is simple!) this will open in a new tab so you can come back to the main post easily ]

In theory I hold arguments for the benefits of being single in high regard. In practice they’re not always inclusive. The core point that you’re enough (whether engaged in romantic love or not) is often lost under a sea of advice on how to “date” (read: distract) yourself.

What if you’re sick? What if you can’t explore a new city alone? What if that wouldn’t be safe for you? What if you don’t feel free and happy? What if you’re scared and alone and struggling with your mental health?

None of these things are fixed by romantic love. But still we are surrounded by stories which suggest they would be. And countering stories which create a picture of the “right” way to be single. The empowered way. The way which suggests you have chosen this in order to focus on and develop yourself.

Single people are viewed as unfinished adults. Unfinished in the sense that there’s a missing piece waiting to fit into their lives, an “other half” we must be longing to find. Disabled people too are framed as unfinished adults, only differently: as childlike and somehow lacking. Both are seen as unhappy, less productive and at odds with the norms of development across a lifetime. So, as my Insagram post suggested, while adult singles foster a culture of proud independence, and set off to challenge long-held sexist stereotypes that are (almost exclusively) aimed at single women, I feel left out. These bright lights of freedom and fashionable clothes on the Instagram feed do work to counteract an idea of single as “less than”. But in doing so we can fall into the trap of so many, the trap of trying to compete with the “norm” to prove you’re as good, if not better. We can’t play by or appeal to those established rules. We can’t build acceptance on the grounds of a game which has always been rigged… In favour of the male, the white and the non-disabled.

A further selfie of Sakara from the same day, she wears a brightly coloured thick and cosy shirt and gentle sunlight is touching half her face and one arm.

This is not to say I’m against empowered, single people living for themselves and encouraging others to do the same. I’ve bought books written by such people and found them to be comforting and inclusive, unlike the picture I’m currently painting here. I’m saying we must remember that nobody -and no movement or trend- can exist in a vacuum. If we’re addressing the fact that those of us who identify as women don’t need a “big strong man” to save us, can we also talk about how this idea is intensified for disabled women? How in every young adult book I picked up about sick girls and so-called misfits, her happy ending was always heterosexual, romantic love?    

I’m not lacking as a human being because I don’t have anybody to share my romantic love with at the moment. 

My disability is not a tragedy, crying out to be counteracted by the imagined triumph and validation of a relationship.

This post is not aiming to say that relationship status and the lack/presence of disability are directly comparable. Rather that they’re aspects of who we are which coexist and cross over on different levels.

It’s hard for me to feel included in movements of empowerment which encourage thinking about how incredible you are, in a world telling me disabled people are anything but. It’s hard to relate to people pushing the absolute freedoms of independence, when we (the disabled community) are crying out for more appreciation of the nuances of care-giving and the receiving of personal care, as well as more funding to support those things.

Don’t tell me to value my independence without learning about (and advocating for) increases in the welfare support which would give me more choice in my living situation.

Don’t tell me to “date” myself, while a massive proportion of your favourite bars, clubs and independent book shops, are far from accessible to many disabled people (even before the current pandemic when they were all, uh, open).

A photo of Sakara looking focused, thinking about taking the picture.

In the act of listing those date ideas I’m revealing something: what I consider a valid “date”. There’s a standard to live up to, one which involves energy, mobility and often leaving the house. Though the pandemic has forced people to be more creative and find romance at home, these evenings still involve activities like cooking and screen time which can be just as difficult as a car journey or navigating uneven pavements in town. Plus, when speaking of mental health, your mood and subsequent experience of such evenings is not something always within your control. We don’t seem to discuss this enough, leaning instead towards “positive vibes only!” and heavy pressure on individuals to do “what makes you feel good.”. What if nothing makes you feel “good”? What if your “good” is different from the accepted norm?

Showy displays of independence and self worth play up to established ideas about what it means to have a good “quality” of life. Ideas which don’t include disability -in terms of both physical and mental health conditions. Ideas which I don’t doubt weigh heavily on disabled people in relationships (with many writing about struggling to feel they “contribute” enough in their relationship because of internalised ableism) and which I now find myself carrying as a single person, through encouragements to focus on a career, when I’m not well enough to work. Encouragements to spend my energy on self-improvement, on days when I barely have any energy at all.

Sakara's head is turned to the side, her eyes are closed and she faces the sunlight as though bathing in and absorbing it.

We can take something from these messages, we can learn to prioritise ourselves in accessible ways. Real rest wouldn’t look too flashy on our social media, but it’s a part of our lives for so many great reasons. We can take the idea of dating ourselves and make it our own. Perhaps my next “date night” will be as simple as going to bed early and spending an hour with my favourite acoustic albums, twinkling fairy lights and supportive pillows. I know that in this “yay, singles!” area of the internet there are people encouraging us to slow down, to really value ourselves and respect our mental health more than we desire a partner, any partner. There is so much good stuff out there, that’s why I felt this post was important. To wedge my own space into this discussion and acknowledge everyone who resents the fact that, with the rising ‘cool’ status of being single, there have come those same ideas of the right way to be single, the right way to live our lives -not new ideas, only a fresh take on the same old patterns. The patterns prising exclusive fantasy and unattainable perfection over reality and inclusion.

Because deep down, single is still seen as less than. Partners are still seen as “more than” friends and anybody who is single ends up smiling twice as wide to prove they’re really really happy. “No really. I’m okay, really.”. The ableism which suggests anyone dating a disabled person is some kind of hero, seems also to exclude us from the “ideal” relationship single people are proud of forming with themselves. So here’s a note to say that if you can’t like yourself all the time, if you can’t take yourself on a date every week, you’re not less than. With “wellness” being commercialised and framed as some kind of aesthetic trend on social media, there’s pressure for even the time we spend with ourselves, caring for our bodies and mental health, to be picture perfect. If, for you, a date with yourself looks like curling up in bed with comedy videos and distracting yourself from your daily reality for a moment, it’s as though that’s not inspiring enough. But it inspires me. Moments like that inspire me to keep living, to smile for myself, to still be here. There’s no right way to go about any relationship (with yourself or anyone else) but embarking on anything under a ton of pressure to achieve perfection, seems like the wrong way to me.

-Sakara.

One last mirror selfie, this one is blurry but I included it for my happy, playful expression. Almost as though I'm in animated conversation with or greeting someone. (The someone is you! Hello internet person!).

2 thoughts on ““Dating Yourself” with a Chronic Illness &/or Disability”

  1. This is so well written, your words really resonated with me. There’s so much to takeaway from this post, thank you x

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