For as long as I can remember, I've felt sick on dates. On time in high school, a guy I’d crushed on for months came over to watch a movie and as soon as he made “the move” (the sort of yawn lean stretch situation to get closer) I felt the contents of my stomach surge into my throat and I leaped off the couch.
“I have to pee! Do you want a soda?” I somehow managed to call out as I fled the scene trying not to heave until I was safely out of earshot. I grasped onto the toilet, shaky and still nauseated after I was done, trying to figure out what I could tell this guy. How do you possibly explain that your body is warring with your mind over whether he could stay. Quickly I brushed my teeth and splashed cold water on my clammy face before hesitantly making my way back to the den.
“So uhhh bad news, it seems I have food poisoning, so it’s probably a good idea if you go home.”
“Food poisoning?” He looked at me dubiously. I nodded and exaggeratedly placed my hand over my still queasy stomach. After looking somewhat confused and insulted, he reluctantly left that night and I was equal parts relieved, embarrassed and disappointed. Especially since as soon as he left, my stomach felt completely settled.
I had anxiety attacks at a young age before I even knew there was a name to be put to them. I can remember lying in bed at night in middle school suddenly convinced that my heart was going to spontaneously stop beating and my stomach would twist into sick knots at the idea that I might die before I even hit puberty. Stress and anxiety would continue to manifest in the form of stomach issues as I grew older. To the point that when guys I really liked asked me out, I initially insisted on coffee dates (where I’d drink tea) or going to see a movie because the idea that I could potentially regurgitate the nice dinner we had shared put me into panic mode. Once during a movie date, the guy pulled out an apple and an orange and when he handed me a piece of the orange, even eating the one piece made me nervous about how my body might react.
A guy I had just met could NEVER understand how sensitive my stomach was. My friends on the other hand? The equivalent of benevolent and concerned grandmothers. Running to get me a piece of bread or a bottle of ginger ale, or completely understanding when I dipped out early because my stomach was acting up. They never questioned it, they just accepted that it’s an annoying and frustrating issue that plagues me. One friend sat with me once while I draped my overheated, nauseated self with cold compresses made on the fly from public restroom paper towels and bar napkins.
As I got older - and with the help of my therapist and diagnosis from my gastroenterologist - I was able to identify that my main trigger for these stomach issues was anxiety. Stress had found a way to physically wreck me, compounded over the years by genuine acid reflux and gastritis issues. And dating sometimes was the source of this stress.
So how do you tell a guy, hey if I puke around you, don’t worry it’s probably because you give me butterflies? I dated a guy once who would get so irritated that he finally said to me, “You ALWAYS have some kind of stomach thing, and I think it’s all in your head!” And I said “it kind of IS in my head, that’s the problem!” But his lack of empathy about it was the source of our undoing and made me even more nervous about revealing this problem going forward in future relationships.
I always carry some kind of antacid, I have learned to know what is going to affect me the most and try to head off any potential stomach revolt, but it’s often been hard to discuss because it feels weird or embarrassing. Until a guy I dated once helped me sprint to a public bathroom because I suddenly said, “I think I’m gonna be sick” and guarded the door that wouldn’t quite close all the way. And another time while we were in a hotel away for the weekend and he microwaved bathroom towels into a makeshift heating pad for my stomach while running down to a 24 hour Duane Reade to get a bottle of ginger ale and surprise me with a silly stuffed animal.
As our relationship progressed, I realized that my stomach flare ups happened far less frequently because I wasn’t also stressed about covering them up around him, or using the guise of food poisoning to explain it. And my comfort level around him equaled that of when I was with my close friends. Which is how it should be, with any health issue, chronic or otherwise. That relationship ran its course, but we’re still friends and when we do catch up, he even jokingly asks “how did your stomach handle it” if I’m telling a story that involves any element of a stressful situation. And I’m reminded how going forward, the level of comfort we shared should be the standard when it comes to romantic relationships.
If someone can’t empathize with something that affects your health, whether it be large or small, that’s someone who can’t accept all of you, imperfections and flaws included. So these days when my friends ask how a relationship is going, they’re really asking, “hey have you thrown up at his place yet?” I’m always thrilled when I get to report a very promising, “no I haven’t.”
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