queer advice #54: my GF of nearly two years has Long COVID and I’m handling it super badly
"I missed the things we used to do together, and the social life we’d built together in this city. There were no more long walks, no more day trips. She could barely get up the stairs."
It’s Friday and I’m in your inbox with another queer advice column. This one is from someone who’s struggling to imagine a future with their girlfriend, who has Long COVID.
If you’re new to this newsletter, this is a column where I answer relationship questions from queer people. I write them quite regularly!! Check out an important missive from a MILF lover and ”I'm a 33-year-old dirty slut who loves to be alone and go to bed at 10 pm.” Also, "It's so rare that I find someone that I'm interested in, and when I do, it's never great."
If you have a problem for this here advice column, send it my way anytime. Also, I’m sending out a New Grub Street Diet and ode to rice krispys SOON. My dog was in the ER on Monday night (he’s fine) and it completely threw off my work week.
TL:DR: My GF of nearly two years has Long COVID and I’m handling it super badly!
The tiredness and exhaustion started at the beginning of last summer, and since then has been at times bad, at times awful. Working in the kinds of jobs where you can’t sit down for hours and hours have made things worse. She’s relatively new to the city where we met and romanced, and finding an apartment has been a nightmare. Over the summer, when I was staying with her, we were moving from sublet to sublet basically every month. Even more stressfully for her, she’s only recently managed to get a job with health insurance, so she hasn't been able to get much medical help.
We were fighting a LOT during all this. I missed the things we used to do together, and the social life we’d built together in this city. There were no more long walks, no more day trips. She could barely get up the stairs. Housework piled up as I struggled to manage it at the same time as finishing this huge project for school. I became withdrawn and irritable, she felt like she was disappointing me. Classic.
Anyway, anyway, anyway. That was a tough time. But fast forward however many months to now and I thought we were turning a corner. After realising that she was spending basically all the time she wasn’t at work in bed, she decided that she was going to try and go on long-term sick leave. I felt pleased in a not entirely altruistic way, because (((I thought to myself))) if she goes off sick and just like, lies down for a really long time, then maybe she’ll be well again and we can do all the things we used to do together, and things won’t be so stressful house-wise any more! We can go back to just like how things used to be!
But then I messed everything up again. Back in my home city, I had this really intense conversation with a friend about their (ongoing) Long COVID and how it affected their (now-ended) long-term relationship. And I just had this very painful realisation of like hey, maybe she might not actually ‘get better,’ or not in a linear, progressive way. And with it came this flood of fear and anxiety which I guess I’d been holding back, or trying to stuff back into the old repression sack anyway. Am I strong enough to do this? Will the passion and romance I still feel for this person die if I keep on doing the majority of these chores- the housework, the shopping, the cleaning- for a long time? Can I still feel looked-after, feel cared-for in this dynamic if this goes on for, well, forever?
So this friend is like, most of this is probably not a great idea to share with your beloved and I’m like, agreed! But then she leaves and I’m cleaning the kitchen, trying to cover my crying with Maggie Rogers played straight off my phone so my roommate won’t hear me, and my GF calls me and is like, why are you acting so weird and then all of a sudden all these unfiltered worst fears about our relationship come streaming out. I couldn’t help myself! My need for immediate reassurance in that moment felt overwhelming, and I guess I (naively) hoped she would say that it was ok to have these thoughts, and yes I was strong enough and yes I could feel looked after, etc. etc. etc. But instead she was like, I think I know where this is going and I need to survive this and I’ve prioritised being in this city so I can be near you, but I think I’ve been relying on you too much.
It’s been two days and several tearful phone calls since then. I feel hurt, lost, confused- and I’ve really hurt someone I love. But when we talk, I’m on the defensive. I want to acknowledge her pain and how difficult things are for her rn. But I find myself trying to justify what I said somehow, or fighting for the relationship she suddenly seems to feel lacklusterly about.
And I also feel hurt, and super, super guilty that I’ve found her being sick so hard!
During one of these conversations, she said I need to think about what I want and need in a relationship, and whether being with someone who’s sick is compatible with that. But isn’t it more complicated than that when you love someone? I get so much of what I want and need from this person- I mean, we really vibe! How do we transition through this crisis to a new, perhaps, chronically sick reality? And what do I do if I’m scared? Bisous bisous, thanks for all you do xoxo
In Sickness & In Health, 28
I have to admit, this question made me feel kind of mad.
We live in a world that has a really strict, inflexible idea of what a “normal“ body is supposed to be. A big part of that mythology is that illness is temporary—you become sick, undergo a period of rest and/or treatment, and return to health. Illness is something that is overcome. In reality, bodies are complicated. Medical knowledge is limited. Healthcare is expensive, so is making time and space to rest. This is literally eugenics (is there anything more dystopian than the phrase “cost of living“?).
You don’t use the word “disabled“ in your question. I don’t want to toss an identifier on your girlfriend, but I’m not sure how else to articulate this situation. Your girlfriend is disabled and by that, I mean that she has to consider her body and its capacities in ways that you do not. She lives and works on a different timeline—tasks might take her longer, or get completed on a schedule set by her body. It might be difficult for her to plan ahead, or trust that she’ll be able to follow through on plans.
I think it’s really easy to see disability as this separate state-of-being, something that has nothing to do with most people. But actually, disability is the norm. Many people are born needing things like wheelchairs or insulin, others become disabled after surviving accidents, strokes, and pandemics. There’s mental illness and addiction. There are developmental differences like ADHD and autism. Some people literally die if they eat peanut butter or get stung by a bee. Babies and children (and many adults!) are dependent on their parents or caregivers for food, shelter, and clothing. It’s pretty normal to be a human who depends on other humans to stay alive. I, personally, hope to live into deep old age. I will likely need hearing aids and a stronger glasses prescription as I grow older. I might also need a wheelchair or diapers or a house without stairs. There will probably be a period of time where I’m recovering from a major surgery or going through chemotherapy. Disability is something *everyone* moves through and towards, so to speak. I wonder how much of the fear you’re feeling is societal messaging and stigmas surrounding disability—that disabled people are tragic, undesirable, or sources of pity. I wonder what would change if you started seeking out media or writing from disabled people and questioning the assumptions you’re making about what your relationship will be like e.g. that you won’t feel cared for by a disabled partner, that you can’t be attracted to someone who can’t split household chores evenly, or that there won’t be room for you and your problems (why? because her life is so much worse?).
(For starters, I really recommend this essay by Ellen Samuels and Exile and Pride by Eli Claire.)
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mom and other chronically ill people in my life, it’s that there’s no “pushing through.” Chronic exhaustion is different than feeling tired or zapped after work. If your girlfriend doesn’t do her share of the housework, it’s because she cannot do her share of the housework (or maybe she could muster the energy, but it would come at the expense of her being able to shower or make it through a day at work). So if you’re going to live together again and you know it’s not sustainable for you to do all or most of the work, you have to figure out a new system. There are some material solutions here: can you get groceries delivered? Can you send your laundry out or pay a housekeeper to clean your apartment? If it’s not possible to solve your problems with money, do you have friends or family who will show up for you? What if you ate off of paper plates, or became militant about meal prep? There’s always more than one way of doing things, but you have to make a plan as a couple. Your girlfriend has to tell you what kind of support she needs without worrying that you’ll be angry or disappointed. You need to dig deep and be honest about how much support you’re willing to give. When she tells you she can’t do something, believe her!!
I understand from your question that your girlfriend’s Long COVID weighs on you like a burden, but you also feel guilty for feeling that way. What I also read is that your girlfriend has a chronic illness about which little is known. She’s been experiencing housing insecurity and domestic upheaval, and has struggled to find a job that meets her financial and physical needs. She’s been feeling exhausted since the summer and only just received care from a doctor!?!! Holy shit. At the same time, I don’t hear in your question that she’s making a lot of demands on you--it seems like you don’t even live in the same city?--and she is doing her best to prioritize her health and well-being while maintaining a connection with you. Facing the same circumstances, but in an abled body, you’re scorekeeping and catastrophizing about what your future with her might look like. If I were her, that would turn me off too.
It seems like you’ve written to me so that I’ll validate your feelings and tell you it’s okay to leave, or tell you you’re a big jerk who should suck it up and do the noble thing and stay. The answer isn’t that clean but the reality of the situation, and I say this without judgment, is that you don’t seem to have the emotional capacity to be a compassionate, loving, present partner to your girlfriend. If you can’t find joy and love in your relationship as it is right now, you should not be in this relationship.
Thank you so much for choosing to respond to this one Maddy. I’ve been mostly bedridden with Long Covid for almost 3 years now, having been a previously healthy 20-something living my dyke life in the city.
It is devastating and there are so many people in this situation, yet there is almost total silence about this amongst the public & in the media. This hurts even more when it’s coming from the queer community, who I (perhaps naively) expected to pay more attention to the ableist way in which the pandemic has been & continues to be handled.
So, it means a lot to see you addressing Long Covid and writing openly about this, about the way ableism pervades our understanding of our bodies, relationships and ways to be in the world. Thank you.
This is so good. I feel like I keep seeing people write into advice columns to ask for "permission" to do something they know goes against what they supposedly stand for morally. In some ways, I'd rather people be honest instead of being self-flagellating! Like, if you can't support your partner due to your ableist mindset, staying together is not the solution — but you don't get a pass on being honest with yourself about what is really going on.