I have an invisible disability. The way men I date react to my handicap parking pass tells me how they'll treat me.
Ever since my divorce, I've noticed it's difficult to talk to men I date about my handicap placard.
Because lupus is an invisible disability, sometimes men have wondered whether I actually need it.
When a date responds with empathy, though, I know I'm on the right track.
"Uh … are you sure this is your car?" my date asked as I stopped in front of the sedan in the handicap spot. For an instant, I regretted accepting his offer to walk me from the door of the movie theater through the parking lot. This was my first date following my divorce. It was also the first time I'd have to explain to a romantic interest that I am disabled. My stomach clenched. I didn't feel ready to have this conversation.
When most people think of a person with a disability, they picture someone in a wheelchair — someone who looks like the symbol on the blue placard that hangs from my car's rearview mirror. My disability comes in the form of lupus, an invisible chronic illness. While I don't use a wheelchair, cane, or service dog, my chronic illness is limiting all the same.
My disability may be invisible, but it doesn't mean I don't need to use a handicap spot
I've lived with lupus, an autoimmune disease, for 13 years. Every three to five years, my disease becomes life-threatening and debilitating. I once had to spend years relearning to walk, speak normally, and play the violin again after an especially brutal flare. Even when my lupus isn't flaring, my disease is like a constant hum in the background of my life that can't be silenced or ignored.
Daily chronic fatigue means I can't work full time, walk long distances, wake up early, or stay up late. It means I'll never live what most people consider to be a "normal" life. Sooner or later, any guy who lasts longer than two dates will learn that I often feel like I'm 80 years old. Even if we haven't had a conversation about my lupus yet, the handicap placard in my car is often their first clue.
As my date stood by my car that evening, the neon lights of the theater behind him, I tried my best to explain the medical condition that controls so many aspects of my life. It's been seven years and over a dozen dates since that date, and I've learned that telling men I'm chronically ill is like using a rock for a pillow. No matter how many times I do it, it will never feel comfortable.
Telling potential partners about my disability has never been comfortable
Now I typically talk about my disease to men I'm interested in after a few dates. Nearly every one of them listen and nod as I explain autoimmunity and how chronic fatigue feels. But for many, their discomfort with my disability shows on their faces the first time they sit in the passenger seat of my car as I park in a handicap spot.
I've heard it all: from "But you don't really need it, right?" to "Let's leave it for someone who's actually disabled." People often have trouble reconciling the smiling woman in the colorful dress in front of them with the stereotypes they might harbor of a disabled person.
Like anyone else who uses dating apps, most of my interactions with potential romantic partners fizzle out long before they ever turn into relationships. But I know that a guy I'm dating might be relationship material when he's not fazed by where I park because he understands I need my pass.
If he doesn't seem confused when I pull out the emergency can of coffee I keep in my purse for an additional boost of energy, he's probably going to be accepting of the other quirky habits that come with having lupus. If he isn't impatient when I need to stop and rest, he's showing me the kind of empathy and adaptability I'm looking for in a partner. And if he makes a lupus joke — one that's unoffensive, of course — it's a good indication he's learning to be comfortable with the idea of my illness.
My handicap pass is a tool to make the world around me more accessible. But I've learned to be grateful for its dual purpose in showing me the character of the men I go on dates with. Ultimately, I want a partner who is not just adaptable and empathetic, but who also understands the sometimes contradicting parts of who I am as a person. Someone who sees that I'm extroverted but can't stay out late. That I'm strong, independent, and sometimes need someone to take care of me and drive me to the doctor. That I'm not just a woman they're attracted to or a disabled person — I'm both.
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