Dating is never easy. But dating when you have a chronic illness can be even harder. After Sarah Kirwan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2011— an autoimmune disease that disrupts the central nervous system — her health wasn’t her only concern. “You worry that you will never find love, that you will never have a significant other,” she tells Yahoo Life.
Kirwan — who is the founder and CEO of Eye Level Communications, which provides disability, equity and inclusion training and consulting services — shares that dating was “very difficult.” She says it was hard to know when she should bring up the fact that she has MS while out on dates. “Do you wait until the fourth date? Do you disclose on the first date?” she recalls thinking. “I had one gentleman say to me, ‘That’s just really not something I can take on.’”
After that, Kirwan shares, “I was just kind of done dating.” But that all changed when Kirwan met Carl Deriso, who was diagnosed with MS in 1996, at an MS self-help group. “When she first walked in, she definitely caught my attention,” Deriso tells Yahoo Life. “I don’t even remember what you were wearing — it was just the energy and your smile.”
Deriso bought her lunch and then says he “chased her” for three months before they started dating. Kirwan acknowledges that there are certain challenges to not only dating when you have MS but also dating another person with the same chronic illness. “There are two thoughts — there’s one where, ‘Oh, I don’t want to date anybody with MS like me because then who is going to take care of me,’ and then the other thought is, ‘I really want to date someone who has the similar and shared experiences that I have because they know what I’m going through.”
However, Deriso points out that, even though they both have MS, “we are both completely different as far as symptoms, responses, treatment.” For Kirwan, she has experienced both physical and mental symptoms of MS “in a much different way than” Deriso has, including using a wheelchair and a walker in the past and dealing with MS-related brain fog.
Dr. Jeffrey Dunn, an MS specialist at Stanford Health Care, tells Yahoo Life that MS affects the central nervous system, impacting the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. “But because the central nervous system controls our awareness of everything, MS can really cause any symptoms that a human body can feel, from the top down,” says Dunn, including fatigue, double vision, tingling, dizziness and weakness. So symptoms can be different for each MS patient.
But Kirwan and Deriso have learned to better manage their symptoms and their health together. As Kirwan puts it, they “compliment each other very well.” So much so that the couple, who live in Santa Maria, Calif., got married in August 2020.
They agree that keeping an open and honest dialogue is key in any relationship but especially when you’re both living with a chronic illness. “If you can talk openly about what you’re feeling, that will really help through some of the tough times,” says Deriso.
Kirwan calls Deriso “her home,” adding: “I’m safe. I’m supported. It’s everything that I needed that I didn’t know that I needed.”
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Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove