Living with a chronic illness impacts every aspect of our existence and can easily affect our sex lives. Patients may find themselves with decreased libidos, increased fatigue, or intrusive pain. All of these issues are a big bummer, especially when they put a damper on sex. But chronic illness doesn't mean our sex lives are dead. They may just need some adjustment. I've lived with a chronic illness since I was 19 years old. Being chronically ill creates innumerable challenges in my daily life. Fortunately, I've been able to maintain a robust love and sex life despite my illness. My positive attitude is one of the reasons I'm having the best sex of my life in my 50s.
"Wear smoky eye shadow," my friend with benefits recently texted me on the day before one of our trysts. When I received the text, I thought, "Sure, if that's what's going to work for you, I'm all in." My FWB knows that I don't wear makeup, but I'd suggested we get together after a hair appointment, and he understood that my hair stylist could doll me up. An hour after the appointment, my eyes resembling Cleopatra's, my FWB and I went at it, doing things we'd never tried before in our four years together. Being adventurous has been important to my sex life.
I've had three long-term relationships, including a marriage. Now, in my 50s, I don't care about living with anyone again. But I want to be in relationships that are honest, open, and kind. My four rules for sex are: no sex with men who have committed partners, no pain, no third person in the bedroom, and no leaving marks that are observable in street clothes. Beyond those restrictions, I'm up for most things.
Focus on the Positive
When I lost my virginity, my older lover told me I was good in bed. Since I'd never slept with anyone before or even come close, I had no idea what he meant. He explained that I was relaxed and confident. The next few guys I slept with made similar observations. It never occurred to me that being sick would interfere with my sex life, and it hasn't. Like all things affected by my chronic illness, I work around my deficits and focus on my strengths. My first few lovers told me what makes me attractive in bed, and that feedback has been my guiding principle for the last 40 years.
Go With the Change
For some people living with chronic illness, parts of our bodies that once worked liked porn stars' now don't work as well, or maybe at all. I practiced taekwondo for five years and used to be extremely flexible. Now I get injured if I'm in the wrong position for too long. One sex injury necessitated a doctor visit.
We can be sexy and sick — the two are not mutually exclusive.
It's helpful to remember that there's a vast sexual menu available to us despite our chronic illnesses. We can explore a multitude of options from appetizers to dessert and do whatever works and is consensual. It's so easy to focus on our losses and forget that any part of our bodies can be erogenous zones, even with compromised health. Don't be afraid to switch up your sex life. If your body is different, the way you enjoy sex can be different, too. Use your illness as an invitation to play and experiment. Try toys, role-play, or anything else you've always wanted to explore. Never tried a little light spanking? Maybe now is the time. If you have a regular partner, invite him or her to go on this adventure with you. Explore every inch of your body with your sex mate to find out what areas respond happily to stimulation.
We Are Still Hot
When our bodies or our physical abilities change because of chronic illness, it's easy to assume we're less attractive to romantic partners. I don't believe this. We simply need to enjoy sex with someone who can appreciate us as we are now. The mass media would have us believe that we need to look like cheerleaders or rock stars to be attractive, but this isn't true. Everyone knows someone who doesn't fit the conventional mold and yet is in a romantic relationship. Sexiness and attraction are multifactorial as well as personal. We can be sexy and sick — the two are not mutually exclusive. I usually tell men after the second or third date that I have a chronic illness. I explain that I have a full life but need to rest more than other people. Evenings when my love interest and I plan to go out sometimes turn into movies-on-the-couch dates. No one has complained yet.
Spice It Up
What I lack in zoom, I try to make up for with va-va-voom. I'm more than willing to venture outside the box if it makes my lover happy. One man whom I slept with for several years had a thing for my grandmother's antique dining room table, which I'd inherited. Once I realized that sex on the table was not an aberration but his preferred location, I cleared it off before he arrived, threw a blanket over it, and away we'd go. This man was so ardent that sex with him often made me lightheaded. Another man wanted to buy vibrators for me. I've never had any interest in sex toys, but if my new guy wanted to give them a whirl, I was game. As expected, they weren't the X factor my lover had sought, but at least I'd given it a good college try. This same lover liked to count the number of positions we used each time we had intercourse. Needless to say, we had fun without the vibrators.
We can still have great sex lives when we're ill. We only need an open mind, the willingness to adapt to our current circumstances, good communication with our sexual partners, and acceptance of all that we have to offer as sexual beings. Then we can go to town.
Joanna Charnas has been a social worker for 30 years and currently works in the mental health department of a large California teaching hospital. Her first book, Living Well With Chronic Illness, evolved from her career experiences and years as a patient. Her second book, 100 Tips and Tools For Managing Chronic Illness, elaborates on the numerous methods she utilizes to maximize health and wellness.