In the winter of 2013, I came down with a nasty viral infection that I could not shake. What started out as mono turned into a chronic illness with regular bouts of pain, fevers, migraines, and extreme fatigue. Since my immune system was not functioning well, I was also vulnerable to the flu, which I got at least 3 or 4 rounds, and even rare, water-borne illnesses like Giardia that people in industrialized countries like the U.S. hardly get. The latter had me doubling over with nausea and stomach pain for almost three straight months. As I spiraled downhill with my health, I found that my romantic relationship with my long-term partner Eddy devolved as well. He grew scared about my illness, and instead of providing emotional support, he pulled more and more inwards until there was nothing left for him to share. I realized then that this health detour that I’m on had to be traveled, as Celine Dion once famously crooned, “All by Myself.”
As months of treatment and healing went by, I thought about creating an “online support system” for myself. Before I got hit with the illness, known as chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, or CFIDS, I had a good network of friends. Since I spent the majority of time healing at home, I thought that I would reach out to cyber-communities to recreate the same support system.
On my first post online, I said that I wanted to connect to people with similar interests while pointing out the autoimmune condition that I was trying to manage. I called on anyone managing autoimmune conditions who followed the Paleolithic diet faithfully to share their insights with me. To my delight, a man named Jude responded to my post. He claimed to have a “black belt” in using diet to heal and lived far enough away not to interfere with my healing. He immediately wanted to know if he “made the cut” in becoming my online friend. His won me over immediately.
For the next several weeks, Jude and I wrote to each other faithfully. He would check on how I was doing and encouraged me to follow what works for me, not necessarily what so-called “experts” suggested. Jude got me laughing again, which I hadn’t done nearly enough since getting sick, telling me how I was his “new best friend.” If I could afford a free-standing home in the Bay Area where he lived, and that if he showed me his abs, we would live happily ever after. Our exchanges became increasingly flirty. To my surprise, Jude even professed to have growing feelings for me. He got hit by a pang of jealousy when I mentioned, casually, that I was talking with other men online, even on a strictly platonic basis. He also said the days we didn’t talk that he missed me and our daily doses of online banter, feeling “under-stimulated” without them.
At first, I did not know what to do with my growing friendship with Jude. On some level, it was nice to have his ongoing support, something that was utterly lacking in my previous relationship. At the same time, I knew that I was holding back on getting close to him because of the potential fall-out, once he understood the full scope of my illness.
When I confided in my counselor Brendalynn, she said to me, “Rowena, you should allow yourself to accept the support that he’s giving you. He is obviously a selfless soul, which you will find refreshing, given your selfish ex!”
“But Brendalynn, how in the world is this supposed to work?” I asked. “I would rather wait until I’m fully healed to even think about dating.”
“Rowena, you can’t keep putting things on hold because of how you feel. You can have a relationship with chronic fatigue. Allow yourself to be loved. You deserve the love that’s coming to you.”
I almost cried after hearing I deserve love, especially at this most vulnerable and weakest point of my life. I was convinced, for two long years, that I didn’t or couldn’t be loved because of my illness. I’m sure a lot of people out there who are chronically sick have harbored similar feelings. They either hold back on their needs to keep from being a burden to their partners or alternatively, put the brakes on potential ones because of the impending disappointment or rejection. This illness triggered a deep-seated fear in me: that a loved one would run away when I needed them the most. My old partner Eddy did just that, and he even resurfaced in my dreams where he tried, unsuccessfully, to apologize for not being there for me. In contrast, I immediately dreamt of Jude being a source of support, albeit a quiet one.
In one scenario, he and I were sitting in a cramped car along with several couples. I asked the lady sitting next to me about how she met her current partner. She replied, excitedly, “Well, I was working as a travel agent at the time. He, nudging her partner, came in to book a flight. The rest is history.”
“How about you?” she asked.
I think she expected me to talk about Jude, but instead, I started talking about Eddy.
“Yes, I did have a love like that,” I said. “But it fell apart.”
I catch a glimpse of Jude, squirming in his seat. It was if he wanted to say, “Then what is she doing with me? How do I fit in all of this?”
Brendalynn gave the answer that Jude and I were both looking for: “Jude is now on a journey with you,” she said. “You’re in the same car, so that represents travel and movement together. He is here to share this next leg of your journey with you.”
I hope that this next leg, even in the midst of chronic fatigue, will be a happier one with my friend Jude by my side.
Rowena Llagan Author Bio:
Rowena Ilagan was working for years as a teacher and scientist (mainly to support her writing habit) before developing chronic fatigue syndrome. She is a native Angeleno who has spent short stints in Salt Lake City, Utah (testing athletes during the 2002 Winter Olympics) and Mallorca, Spain (doing anthropology research at an artist colony). Creative writing and social science research are some of her many passions. Despite a love-hate relationship with computers and technology, Rowena can be found faithfully texting friends, checking emails, or updating her status on social media.
Edited by Rachel Tannenbaum