This October, I’m celebrating 10 years of being in a committed relationship with Todd. We met at the dewy, starry eyed age of 15. Although Todd is strong, confident, and incredibly unique, he is also...without a doubt...the rudest, most aggressive, unforgiving piece of shit I’ve ever encountered. When he forced his way into my life all those years ago, I assumed he was like a bad haircut - merely a phase I would grow out of with time. But little did I know...the two of us were strapping in for a lifelong, tumultuous relationship.
“Todd” is my disease. Specifically, my incurable autoimmune disease. I’m calling him “Todd” for a couple of reasons. The first is because it offers a bit of light hearted separation from the painful reality that has plagued my body for the last decade - please be warned, this is a somewhat sad story. The second reason is that Todd has taken up all the time, energy, and money that is required of maintaining a typical intimate relationship with a human being. What could be a better way to honor my commitment to him than with a name? His actual title is Rheumatoid Arthritis.
If you read “Rheumatoid Arthritis” and thought any of these things:
“Oh yes, my grandma has that.”
“Aren’t you too young to get arthritis?”
“I got that from playing softball.”
I’m afraid you’re mistaking Todd for someone else, but that’s okay! It happens all the time. Your grandmother likely has Osteoarthritis, the kind of joint damage that comes with the wear and tear of age. And you definitely might be experiencing similar pain from overusing a joint through a sport or physical activity.
Todd is a type of arthritis that is caused by the immune system mistaking joints as being harmful to the body, attacking them like it has something to prove. Todd can waltz into a person’s life at any time, any age, and his origins are still largely unknown. To put it simply, my immune system is broken. In the Covid-age, it’s what one would call being “immunocompromised” and surprisingly, it’s not something I’d recommend!
Now that you have an idea of who Todd is, let’s skip to the fun stuff...our meet cute. The first time I noticed the guy, I was rehearsing a play my sophomore year of high school. Back then, I had a wildly dramatic personality, typical of many theatre kids. Despite my nature to exaggerate, I knew the issues Todd brought along desperately needed to be addressed, because my life was changing drastically.
It all started with my hand. The character I was playing had to carry a broom around the stage, and one day I was having issues keeping a grip on it. After that, the pain spread like wildfire. To paint you a “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” picture, within two months, my neck was barely strong enough to keep my head up. My jaw was constantly tight. My shoulders completely gave out. My elbows were always swollen, so I couldn’t lift my arms above my head. My hands and fingers were also enlarged, causing the loss of a lot of motor function. There was a sharp pain in my hips, knees, and feet, barely allowing me to walk.
Todd’s pain threw me into questioning my self worth. How could I contribute to society if it hurt too much to turn the knob on the shower? How could I have friends if bringing up the strife of my day to day was a major bummer? How could I be a positive member of my family if they were struck by secondhand grief for me? Todd robbed me of my will to live, and in one semester of high school, I converted from a normal teenager to a troubled girl sent to an overnight facility surrounded by professionals to keep me from killing myself.
This is another reason why I’m choosing to say, “I’m in a committed relationship with Todd.” The only way I could think to “break up” with him back then was to end my life. The doctors made it very clear the son of a bitch was probably never going away, and at the time, my future looked bleak. I had to figure out how to find my life worth living.
As much as I resented Todd, he showed a different side when I got back from inpatient care. Apparently, his aggressive demeanor also came with blessings, the first being the kindness of those around me. My friends Lauren and Kinsey had put together a scrapbook filled with notes from all of our friends detailing why they believed I should stay alive. My sister helped me get dressed in the mornings. My mom looked into every possible vitamin and alternative treatment that could help. My pal Max once carried me on his back all the way home from dinner (a very long walk!!!) My friend Natalie would grab my hands and start massaging them in class without me even having to ask. These are a few of the countless ways my army of a support system has helped me cope with Todd’s demanding needs over the years. I knew people were kind before Todd, but now I know how kind they really can be.
Todd and I grew up together, and slowly but surely, I found ways to be grateful for him. He’s made me extremely empathetic by giving me a visceral example that you never know what someone could be going through. He’s also proof that the “fake it ‘till you make it” strategy really works! My seemingly natural sunny disposition is a product of living in constant disassociation with my body. As mentally exhausting as it can be, I’ve truly transitioned into being an optimist. I think this also comes from hitting such a low in high school, providing me with the comparison that even when life is hard, it could always be worse. And on that note - after five years of trial and error, I finally found a medication that alleviates a tremendous amount of my pain. So even though Todd still causes hi-jinx for me on the daily, at least I have regained my autonomy!
For 9 years, my most consistent, dependable relationship I’d ever had was with Todd. And then one day, about a year ago, I met Jeremy.
Good news! “Jeremy” is NOT another disease. “Jeremy” is my boyfriend. Which, if you’ve known me for the last decade, is a very radical label for me to put on a person. When you’re getting prepped for what living a life with chronic pain will do to you, no one tells you about the issues you’ll have with dating. I think it’s different for everyone, but for me it translated like this:
Bouncing from person to person, usually no longer than for a month.
Being with people who took advantage of my low self esteem.
Never truly enjoying intimacy because tuning into the “pleasure” of the moment also means you have to tune into the constant presence of pain.
Those were the symptoms of the root psychological issues Todd gave me. I held a deep, intrinsic, unconscious belief that I was ultimately a burden on everyone who entered my life in a serious way. Sure, I would let my friends and family be kind to me when I was dealing with Todd’s bullshit, but I think I found comfort in the fact that my support was spread out over several people. Hopefully, no one ever had too heavy of a load. But asking someone to pick me? A woman with a broken body? To be their PARTNER? I couldn’t do that to a person. Way to shoot someone in the foot midway through the grand relay race of life, am I right?
Granted, I didn’t realize this was an issue until Jeremy and I were dating for a bit. It manifested in different ways. I would worry that every text I’d send him he’d find annoying. I constantly apologized for things I shouldn’t. I was always convinced he was on the brink of breaking up with me. One day, we spent several hours together, longer than a normal date, and as I was leaving I said,“I’m really sorry if I took up too much of your time today.” Cringe!
The first time I had a flare in front of him (a flare is the word for when Todd is acting up in a particularly aggressive way), I cried and cried, deeply embarrassed, feeling like I ruined the good day we were having. The limitations of my life were no longer only affecting me, they were affecting this guy I spent most of my time with...and it was really hard. It felt like I was pulling a fast one on him. “Hey! I know when we met on the dance floor at Funky Sole, you probably thought I was a perfectly healthy, upbeat, uncomplicated lil lady, but I’m actually a diseased freak with hefty emotional issues associated with it!”
If you’re wondering how we could’ve lasted this long with all of that stacked against us, it’s because of one very simple reason: Jeremy.
He’s everything that Todd isn’t - loving, patient, playful, funny, and understanding. On our third date, we had a conversation over dinner that illustrated his perspective on life, which inspired me greatly. As I confessed the details of my illness, he confessed to me the details of a tragedy he experienced as a kid. When I asked how it impacted him, he said, “I guess it just taught me that life is unpredictable, so I might as well be enjoying my time here as much as possible.”
Hearing something like that was unbelievable to me. I had spent years dating people who had used their sad circumstances as an excuse to treat me poorly, or on the flip side, I had used my own circumstances to treat others poorly! My heart skipped a beat and I thought to myself, “Oh, so this is what it means when they say that someone can change you.”
Jeremy has demonstrated that belief of his in every possible way. On my worst days, he makes me laugh. Whenever I express any shred of self doubt, he tells me to shut it down immediately. He reminds me not to take certain aspects of life too seriously, but also reminds me of the things that should be treated with reverence.