Sharing your disability in a new relationship doesn’t have to be scary

Knowing how and when to share your story at the beginning of a new relationship can be tricky to figure out. Niamh Sullivan shares some advice for how to tackle those conversations.

It was an Instagram message that brought me undone.

You see, I went out to a bar with friends and met a really nice guy. After spending the entire night together, talking, sharing stories and laughing, we said goodbye in true 21st Century style: by swapping Instagram handles.

The next morning, I woke to a message from him. The conversation went back and forth until he said he needed to get ready for work.

“Oh, what do you do for work?” I asked, hoping the conversation could continue for just a smidge longer.

“What do you mean?” he responded.

“I’m a physiotherapist,” he followed up, “We spent over an hour talking about my new job last night?”

Most people would laugh it off and put the forgetfulness down to the previous night’s red wine. But we both knew I was the designated driver for my friends. And the truth was, I couldn’t really remember anything we’d spoken about. I could tell you his name and that we’d gotten along well, but the details beyond that were very fuzzy.

So, I dealt with the situation the only way that seemed reasonable at the time. By deleting his number.

Sharing your story doesn’t have to be scary

I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a teenager. An illness that has led to more than a decade of long-term side effects. One of the most challenging being a brain injury that affects my short-term memory. My condition is like living in that moment when you first wake up from a vivid dream. You can remember all the details, but when you try and think back to it later, or when you try to tell someone else about it, you can slowly feel the details slipping away. Eventually, you can’t remember ever having a dream at all.

Over the years, I’ve gotten so good at hiding my memory problems that most people never realise when we’re mid-conversation, and I’ve suddenly forgotten who they are or where I am. This ability to hide my struggle means I am often plagued by questions: when do I tell them? How do I tell them? Have I already told them and forgotten?

Whether it’s a romantic interest, a colleague or a new friend, the start of a new relationship is generally when these questions pop up. Finding the right words and the right time can be complicated, overwhelming and downright confusing.

From speaking to friends that face health challenges, I know many of us are scared these conversations may scare away a new partner or lead to unwanted sympathy and special treatment. But I’ve learnt a few lessons since that Instagram message, and I’m slowly learning that sharing my story doesn’t have to be so scary!

Timing is about feeling comfortable

Just like Goldilocks discovered, finding the perfect option is never easy! Give it a day, a week or a month, and you’ll probably still be questioning if it’s the right time.  The truth is, it doesn’t have to be a big, serious conversation. Every single person comes with a story, and your disability is just part of yours. The perfect time to have that conversation is whenever you feel comfortable and if that’s on first meeting—great! If it’s a year later, that’s great too!

Honesty is the best policy

Honesty is the best policy is a lesson that’s probably been drilled into you since your primary school days. But it turns out that our Mums really do know what they’re talking about! If you’re about to share something that you’re not comfortable with other people knowing, just be honest and open with them. Your new partner isn’t out to hurt you. But they may not realise that your story isn’t theirs to retell so make sure you’re clear.

You are not your disability

I like to think I am a good person. I donate to the charities that are important to me, I bake cookies for my friends when they’re going through break-ups, and I’m not about to be the subject of a true crime podcast series. But when my condition gets in the way of everyday life, it can feel like I am liability or unnecessary stress for the people I love. 

Yet it is those incredible people in my life who remind me that I am so much more than my disability. They don’t care if I forget our coffee date. Or if I’m running late for dinner because I got held up in a doctor’s appointment. Or that I’ve ended up in hospital on more holidays than I would like to count. They love me for me.

The people that accept you for who you are and celebrate your wins (even when you forget theirs!) are the ones you want hanging around. If this person doesn’t stick around after your conversation, they’re not worth losing sleep over.

Niamh Sullivan is a 22-year-old ocean loving and solar powered storyteller. When she’s not chasing her latest yarn as a TV reporter, you’ll find her attempting to catch waves on her malibu, planning her next backpacking adventure or solving any life problem with coconut ice cream.
Don’t take it personally if Niamh forgets your name or stands you up in a coffee shop, two years of chemotherapy treatment and time spent in a coma means her memory is worse than a goldfish. This brain injury may mean she struggles to retain any short-term memories but it’s a good excuse to get out of washing the dishes.

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