Kelley O’Brien’s hands shook as she stood in her bathroom, preparing for a date. It wasn’t that she was nervous, or at least, she wasn’t nervous in the way that you might expect. She had gone out with the girl she was dating, Kaylyn, four times before actually– so far everything had been going great. But Kelley didn’t know if it would change this time, now that Kaylyn would see her chronic illness in action.
Kelley had explained to Kaylyn that she suffered from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), but there’s a big difference between accepting a disease in theory, and accepting it when you really see it. Kelley decided against the temptation to reschedule– POTS was a part of her, and if their relationship was going to last, it was a subject they would have to breach sooner or later.
POTS is a disorder that fits under the dysautonomia umbrella. Dysautonomia is a group of different disorders that are all linked by automatic nervous system (ANS) malfunction. POTS specifically refers to a condition where insufficient blood travels back up to the heart when a person stands up after lying down.
POTS can cause dizziness, fainting, blurred vision, fatigue, headaches, stomach problems, difficulty breathing, and a whole list of other symptoms. In Kelley’s case, her heart beats abnormally fast when she stands up. This leads to a drop in blood pressure, nausea, pain, fainting– basically everything you don’t want to feel on a first date. It’s unknown what causes POTS, but episodes often seem to appear or worsen after surgery, pregnancy, illness, or trauma. To learn more about POTS, click here.
There’s no known cure for POTS, although there are several treatments to help mitigate symptoms. Patients are also encouraged to increase salt and water intake, although for Kelley, that didn’t help much. It took her some time searching and struggling before she found specialists who had an in depth understanding of her illness. At this point, she was 25, and had been struggling with fainting for 6 years. She found new therapies and met people who shared her experience. Things finally started looking up. Still, the illness still had a major presence, especially when it came to dating.
Kelley had been on another journey that began around the same time as her POTS diagnosis. She began to accept herself as bisexual. This meant there were two areas of her life that had suddenly been flipped upside down, two equally large transitions to make. The hard part wasn’t over once she came out to her friends and family– it had just begun. She had to figure out how to meet other LGBT women, and how to date them.
Not only that, but many potential romantic interests would immediately shut the relationship down once Kelley admitted she had a chronic illness. Although she knew that it could be complicated to date someone who might have to cancel plans at the drop of a dime, it still hurt to be rejected for something largely out of her control.
All the frustration and disappointment changed once she met Kaylyn on an online dating app. They messaged a little, and it was easy for Kelley to tell her right off the bat that she suffered from a chronic illness. Kaylyn was different than the partners Kelley had talked to before. Instead of shying away, she wanted to learn more about it. She respected that chronic illness was a personal topic that might make Kelley uncomfortable, and never forced her to answer questions she didn’t want to.
In person, she didn’t disappoint. She came all set with water bottles, and an awareness that certain activities could exhaust Kelley. This paved the way for a relationship where both partners could share more honestly, and trust more deeply. They now approach life together, strengthening each other along the way. It’s impossible to know how life would have gone or who Kelley would have been with had she never had a chronic illness. However, she knows that, while rejection hurt, it helped her raise her standards and paved the way to the relationship she’s in now.