DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Long time lurker, first time writer here. I’m a college boy dating a fellow student that we’ll call Jackie. I’ve dated only a few times in the past, mostly out of shyness, but never consistently until I met her. We’ve been going out for a bit more than a year now, and I’ve never been happier. She’s the kindest, smartest, most caring person I know, and I love every moment we spend together. But a few years ago, before I met her, Jackie was diagnosed with lupus, an incurable disease that has a number of awful, sometimes visible side-effects including hair loss, facial rashes, mood swings, and joint pain. Most of the noticeable side-effects have lessened in severity with a combination of time and medication, but they’re still there, and will always be a part of her life. Add the fact that one of her old medications made her gain some weight that she’s still working on losing, and it understandably left Jackie with very low self-esteem.
We’re both in the same major and she does consistently better than most of the students, including myself, in every class we share, but she tells me that she’s not that smart, or that she’s just a good guesser and didn’t really deserve the good grades she’s earned. Whenever we start to get intimate, she always apologizes profusely for her inflexibility and stretch marks, things that I honestly couldn’t give a flying f
k about when she shoves me onto my bed with that irresistible, wicked smirk and starts riding me like a Harley. And when I tell her as much, she says that I don’t have to pretend not to notice them to make her feel better, but thanks me for trying anyway. Recently she told me that I’m too good for her, that she doesn’t deserve me, and that she’s just waiting for the day I’ll get tired of her problems and leave her. I have no idea how I stopped myself from crying when I first heard that, and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t even sniffle by the fourth time Jackie said it.
I will never, ever claim to know what this horrible disease has put her through, but I have dealt with my own self-esteem issues before, so I have no delusions that I can just “fix” her in a week with the power of love and compliments. But Jackie isn’t broken, she isn’t a failure, she isn’t a problem, and even if she did lose her hair again, I would still think she’s just as beautiful as she is today. I guess what I’d like is some way to help let Jackie see herself the way I see her. Not to “cure” her of her low self-esteem, but just to let her know that I love her, and that I think she’s a charming, sexy, intelligent, and just overall brilliant woman, no matter what her stupid immune system has to say about it.
Livin’ La Vida Lupus
DEAR LIVIN’ LA VIDA LUPUS: Damn it, LLVL, this is the first time I have the opportunity to make a “It’s Not Lupus” joke and you have to undercut me by making it a serious, emotionally tense issue.
But. Y’know. It’s not lupus. It’s the way that society teaches women that they’re only valuable when they’re beautiful and sexual and to downplay their own accomplishments, lest they seem immodest.
Let’s take Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series, for example. Part of what made her a revolutionary character in YA fiction isn’t that she’s brilliant; it’s that she’s brilliant and doesn’t hide it. She’s smart, she knows she’s smart and it’s just how she is. Girls are taught over and over again that being visibly competent is a bad thing and that things like intelligence or talent are things to be apologized for or hand-waved away. Hell, you can see it right the hell now with all the bulls
t about Rey from The Force Awakens being a Mary Sue because she’s following the exact same arc as Luke Skywalker.
Having flaws are acceptable as long as they’re minor or quirky. Serious issues like, say, hair-loss – and not “gives you a beautiful shaved scalp” hair loss but “falling out in uneven clumps in the shower” hair loss – are hard to accept. Doubly so considering how much stock is put in gender presentation for women by having long, flowing locks of hair.
Your girlfriend has, in all likelihood, been hearing bulls
t all her life about not showing off or being a know-it-all or being too proud or vain. And when she’s suddenly “deficient” (for suitably bulls
t definitions of deficient) in the areas where women are supposed to excel (but it’s better if they don’t realize it – looking at YOU, One Direction…). Mix that in with the difficulties of dating in general when you have a chronic condition, the literal pain of said condition, already existing low-self-esteem issues and… yeah, it’s going to seriously mess up somebody’s view of themselves.
But you know all that already. The big question right now is: what do you do?
Well, part of it is: tell HER all the things that you just told me. She needs to hear all of that. But you also don’t – and shouldn’t – pretend that her flaws aren’t there. She knows you see them, and pretending they don’t exist (which is what she thinks you’re doing) doesn’t help. Instead, acknowledge them but point out that they’re part of her and part of what makes her the person you love. She wouldn’t be who she is right now – the person you have chosen to be with – without all these component parts that add up to a bigger whole. Tell her this. Tell her this regularly, not just with words but with your actions and behavior. Holding her and telling her you care, quietly helping when she needs it, being her support when times are difficult, giving her space when she needs that instead… all those little ways of letting her know you’re there for her add up over time.
The other thing is to NOT lie. She believes you’re lying to make her feel better when you say that you’re OK with all of this. And just to be honest: yeah, dating somebody with a chronic condition can be hard. It can be frustrating. It can be tiring. And you feel like an a
hole for feeling that way. But the fact is, even for those times when it is frustrating or exhausting, it’s ok because she’s worth it all to you. Hearing that moment of honesty from you might help it sink in that you’re not sticking things out until you can find an exit strategy, you’re in it because you want her, specifically.
I know that the traditional response is to quote Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, but I think that a better idea might be to acquaint her with the concept of kintsugi – repairing lacquerware and pottery in such a way that illuminates the breakage and repair instead of hiding it, usually by filling the cracks with gold or silver. It treats the process of repair as part of what makes the object unique and special by acknowledging its history. Your girlfriend isn’t broken by any stretch of the imagination, but she feels like she is. She has a condition and it sucks and pretending that it’s not there doesn’t help… but it also doesn’t make her less beautiful or desirable or special.
You know this. I know this. SHE needs to know this. Tell her.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)