Chronic Companionship

April 5, 2010

It had to happen. In the last few years, dating web sites for the chronically ill and disabled have suddenly appeared, becoming a little known fixture in an increasingly diverse social scene. Niche dating is nothing new, but in this new world of online social networking, web sites such as Prescription4Love.com or nolongerlonely.com appeal to the physically, if not socially, disadvantaged. This is the American version of untouchables.

There is no question that in a culture that celebrates physical perfection and beauty, many of us with chronic conditions have become outsiders. The computer is changing that. There are designer sites for those living with mental illnesses or sexually transmitted diseases. Positivesingles.com was created as a home for those who have tested positive for whatever, the new level playing field. In this era of general dating sites, these sites are targeted.

After all, there is a site for single cyclists who want to spin their wheels together. And another requiring an IQ test, for those who seek stimulating conversation or smart kids. Religions have their own sites for those who want to keep the faith. Why not for the sick and disabled, who believe they begin their social lives behind the starting line and automatically are at a disadvantage in the social marketplace.

I believe it is true that young people living with physical problems have as much social currency as amputees and ugly girls. Illness is a high hurdle in a race that is very fast. There is at least the illusion of safe and solid ground when someone is dealing with a pool of possible soul mates who have so much in common.

I will be open about my skepticism regarding any and all dating web sites. I have heard too many stories of exaggeration and lies in people’s appeals to each other. Singles lie to each other in the effort to sell themselves. Whether it is claims of fancy job, the elevated income or a sophisticated taste for high culture, truth becomes elusive.

There is a perception of safety and security in sticking with your own. I am not sure anyone’s own are more honest and safe. Awkwardness is averted, the reasoning goes. Compatriots in chronic conditions get it when it comes to what they all are up against. Dating through the standard sites, explaining the intricacies of your condition, all the while wondering how quickly a date will scramble for the fire exit can feel like a high wire act. The hope is that all the BS becomes unnecessary on these specialized sites. Telling the chronically healthy the truth about compromised health does feel risky.

We seek connections. Loneliness and the search for community are chronic themes for the sick and disabled. Our self-imposed isolation and appreciation for others like us seem polar opposites. Many who have been drawn deep into their own heads long to be saved from themselves. These sites are seen as a solution. That assumption, too, seems risky.

In theory, these specialty sites let a person cut to the chase and draw those with similar conditions into each other’s orbits. Sometimes I feel like a physical train wreck with my medical problems. I am not convinced I would want to get on track with another, simply based on who else might be going along, careening out of control.

So the instinct to find a sick soul mate may seem like a safe bet. But an odd set of statistics pulls the rug out from under us. In a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, adults living with chronic conditions are disproportionately offline. They simply are not playing the game.

Social networks such as those I write about are under-subscribed. According to the survey, eighty-one percent of adults with no chronic diseases go online, while only sixty-two percent of those living with one or more chronic conditions do the same.

What is that about? Polls do not tell us why something is happening or not happening. Chronic illnesses, of course, are incurable. Maybe those of us who carry no hope that life is going to improve have less of a hunger for connections we fear will deteriorate with them. Relationships unravel with the challenges of illness. The sick and disabled may not want to play the dating game anymore, even with each other.

I have written about the search for community by the sick and disabled. I believe that journey can be intense. Maybe the question is how one defines community in the first place. The Pew survey found that adults with chronic conditions prefer connecting to health professionals and friends. Many of those friends are individuals with the same or similar medical problems. People with their feet on the ground, not individuals parachuting in from cyber space seem more trustworthy.

Marriage put an end to my dating days when the Internet existed only in some geek’s imagination. Investing emotionally in the possibility of meeting the woman of my dreams through disjointed text messages, when we are free to lie and exaggerate, seems unappealing, Living happily ever after sounds improbable. I am not convinced that sick people are any more honest than perfect specimens. Seeking community and marrying your mirror image are not the same thing. The danger here is that we are creating cyber-ghettos in which the alienated and fearful will hang together, which makes it easier to withdraw from the world.

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