When should I tell Mr Right there's something wrong How to break the news of a chronic health condition to a loved one
21:01 GMT, 13 October 2012
When is the right moment in a relationship to reveal that you have a chronic health condition I happen to have multiple sclerosis (MS). But do you drop it casually into conversation on the first date, or bide your time
Do you make your announcement – ‘/10/13/article-2217266-157DC2D5000005DC-465_634x470.jpg” width=”634″ height=”470″ alt=”Uncertain future: Cathy, who has multiple sclerosis, with her partner Michael, who suffers with Type 1 diabetes” class=”blkBorder” />
Uncertain future: Cathy, who has multiple sclerosis, with her partner Michael, who suffers with Type 1 diabetes
It is the reason I can no longer walk very fast. It affects my balance. It wipes me out with fatigue and casts uncertainty over my future.
MS is unpredictable. It may remain benign for years or become dramatically degenerative and disabling.
I don’t know if, in a few months’ time, I will be unable to walk at all. On the other hand, I could never get any worse.
MS is also what a lot of my work is about. I have a blog about living with the disease, which is caused by the immune system inexplicably turning inwards and attacking the nervous system. I wrote a book about being diagnosed with it, in 2010, and I am a trustee for shift.ms, a social network for people with MS, who are known as MS-ers.
But the world of post-diagnosis dating was new – and more nerve-racking than I’d anticipated. Ironically, when I met my future partner, I had been working as a script adviser on a short film, Gallop, which was about one man’s experience of life with MS.
We had rejected the conventional health documentary in favour of a magical love story we hoped would appeal to all.
I felt we had achieved the perfect scene when the character Dave, played by Joseph Beattie, ‘comes out’ as an MS-er to Karen, the young woman he is falling in love with, portrayed by the Hollyoaks actress Holly Weston. Yet my own true-life disclosure scene was very clumsy.
Multiple sclerosis can be a crippling condition (file picture)
I had been single for years – and after my diagnosis with the relapsing/remitting form of the disease aged 30, I did not feel emotionally stable enough for the uncertainty of a relationship.
It took a perky friend of mine to convince me not to write myself off. During a dinner last November, she said: ‘Come on Cathy. You’re young and you’re beautiful, you just need to get out there.’
Spurred by her words, I joined a dating website, via which I met classical guitarist Michael Hulmes. Our first date was in a cafe near my Dorset home and, instantly, I thought: ‘He’s nice.’
We had so much in common. Michael, who is 38, had studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which is next door to the Barbican, where I had worked as a film programmer. We had mutual friends.
I was due to discuss ‘coming out’ about my diagnosis to colleagues and friends on BBC Radio 4 the next day. Yet I said nothing to Michael. It felt too soon, too personal.
But not saying anything felt dishonest. I was petrified he’d turn on the radio the following day and hear me talking about this serious disease I’d failed to mention.
He didn’t, luckily, and I didn’t discuss my MS on our second date either. It wasn’t that I believed he’d flee. All my previous experiences of coming out had been positive. Family and friends had been immensely supportive, work colleagues had done everything to help me adapt.
But I’d heard enough anecdotes on online forums and from friends of friends to know not everybody is lucky. I’d heard of husbands leaving wives, of partners promising lifelong support only to disappear when mobility deteriorated. I knew that in real life, unlike films, there were not always happy endings.
MS is not unique in this. Any point of stress, be it bankruptcy or cancer, can have the same consequence.
Revealing you have a chronic health condition is an act of exposure, and the stakes felt high, since I liked Michael a great deal.
I made up my mind to come out on our third date.
Bizarrely, though, Michael pre-empted me. Our meal arrived and, before I had my chance to say anything, he said I should know he had Type-1 diabetes.
He explained he hadn’t wanted his condition hanging over us before we knew each other.
On our second date, he’d secretly injected insulin in the gents. But he didn’t want to be sneaking around.
Grateful, I said I had something to tell him too. To my surprise, I struggled for words and realised I had tears in my eyes. Our meals sat untouched. A couple at a nearby table stopped talking, fascinated by our unfurling drama.
I had written this very scene so perfectly for the film. Why couldn’t I say it
‘I’ve just told you I have diabetes,’ Michael encouraged.
‘This is worse,’ I replied. And then I blurted it out, naming my condition in full – multiple sclerosis, not MS – to avoid any confusion.
I can’t remember exactly what happened next. But I do remember what didn’t happen. Michael didn’t talk to me differently, or look at me differently. He recalls that I said I would understand if he left – and that he insisted he was going nowhere.
Eight months on, Michael and I are still happily together. We talk a lot about the future and I find it hard to picture my life without him in it.
With both of us having a chronic health condition, we share an uncertainty for the future – we each have a question mark over the end of our lives. It is a solace, though it is not the key to our relationship.
More important is the pure chemical magic of love. I met Michael while I was filming a love story. I’d forgotten how much you cannot make up.
Sometimes truth can be as magical as fiction and when it happens, you just have to go with it.
Cathy John is a writer and MS advocate. Cathy’s blog is at Lickingthehoney.org and her film, Gallop, can be viewed at shift.ms.