Despite the heart-shaped chocolates, red rose buds, and stuffed animals holding their hearts in their hands, this time of year can make me feel overwhelmed with guilt and anxiety instead of feeling the joy associated with loving somebody. I'm reminded of all that my lover has done for me that I can never repay him for -- the years I felt like a burden and couldn't understand why he was sleeping in the hospital beside me.
My partner, Michael, and I have been together for almost 13 years. When we first started dating, I was living a mostly normal life. I was in college and had to be hospitalized about four times a year, but I felt well when I was home. We could go to concerts, go out with friends, travel, and experience new things together, just like any normal relationship. As time went on, I was hospitalized more and not feeling as well after I returned home. I had to drop out of college because I was too sick. Over the next decade, I got sicker and sicker, until I got a double-lung and liver transplant the year I turned 30.
And Michael was with me through all of this. Our relationship morphed from one as equal partners to one as caregiver and patient. He was by my side as new problems came up with my health -- hemoptysis, kidney issues, and reactions to medications. He was by my side as I started sleeping more and contributing less energy to the relationship. He was by my side when I got a feeding tube. He carried me up the stairs when my legs just wouldn't make it, and he held my hand after surgeries that branded me with new scars.
The feeling of being a burden emerged as a contentious thorn in my side when he started to do things for me that I had previously been able to do myself. I questioned what I was bringing to the relationship. Why would he want to be the one to fetch glasses of ice water during bouts of retching so bad I couldn't get off the bathroom floor? Why would he try to work from the hospital bed next to me with all the incessant beeping? He's smart and attractive and funny and could get anybody else. Wasn't I just weighing him down?
These thoughts became heavy, and combined with my chronic depression and physical illness, I was the human equivalent of a muddy puddle on a sidewalk that everybody sidesteps.
But Michael was with me all the way. He'd let me cry without asking questions and would deal with me patiently on the days I wouldn't take my grumpy pants off.
I guess part of me wanted to give him a way out so he could live the life I thought he deserved, instead of the one with the defective girl. He had to work full time, do the cooking, go to the grocery store, and keep up the house, while I tried to get out of bed and sit in the bath for an hour at a time multiple times a day. It wasn't fair to him -- I was like a child instead of a partner. I felt like he was with me out of obligation -- like maybe he made a Faustian deal with the devil and had to stick it out with me to get something greater in the end.
After my transplants, I started pulling my weight. Our relationship dynamic changed drastically practically overnight. I can unload the dishwasher now and get groceries. I can show him the love he deserves, but it makes my heart ache to think I'll never be able to make up for everything he did for me. I know my chronic depression makes me feel worse than I should, but I feel so incredibly guilty for that whole decade. I wasn't what he signed up for. The fact that he's still here, despite me surely being different than what he expected, should show me that he loves me.
He was there and he is here, right by my side, and that says more than my doubting mind could ever writhe its way out of believing. I still feel like I was a burden, and I don't know how that could ever go away. I am, however, more comfortable with it because I've come to realize that he chose me. He chose to take me on that first date, and he has chosen me every single day since then, just like I've chosen him. I know he loves me. I don't know if he would have picked me if he knew what the years to come would bring, but that's irrelevant and an unanswerable question.
I've learned that a relationship can't be 50/50 100% of the time. It's a myth that we'll be able to give our best effort every day; especially with physical illness that is out of your control, you can't expect yourself to be in a “normal” relationship.
You have to figure out with your partner the best way to face the abnormal together. Some people won't be able to handle it, but I promise you, some people will.
I'm working hard to assuage the guilt associated with my real or perceived burden-ness. I'm jealous of people in other relationships who haven't had to go through what we have, but then their story isn't nearly as interesting as ours. Like my body, our relationship has been forever scarred by things from the past, but it's not something to hide or be ashamed about. It's something to point to and say, “Hey, you and I made it through that so we can do anything.”
This Valentine's Day while other couples reminisce about past adventures, I'm going to stop wishing to have lived a different past and remind myself that we've had adventures too, just not ones involving a lot of passport stamps. I'm going to focus on the fact that we are here today, loving each other and supporting each other, knowing that “in sickness and in health” rings true.
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