How Having a Chronic Illness Can Screw Up Your Sex Life

Imagine stopping mid-coitus to grab your inhaler because sex is causing an asthma attack.

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Mar 1 2016, 5:00am

The author's collection of epilepsy medication

Let's just get this out of the way: I have epilepsy. For the most part, it's managed by the medication I take every morning and night, but I have this nagging anxiety about when to introduce it in new relationships. I've never convulsed on a guy mid-coitus (at least, not for seizure-related reasons), but I have had seizures on dates before, and trust me, it's surprisingly not cute. Nobody asks for a sexual partner with medical issues—I mean, I don't even want to date a guy with roommates—and my insecurities have led me to enter every relationship thinking that as soon as my partner finds out, he'll leave. It's as if I'm in a polyamorous relationship with my partner and my epilepsy, or a very loveable Anne Hathaway in that movie Love and Other Drugs.

It's not just me. According to the National Society for Epilepsy, one third of women and over half of men with epilepsy say the condition negatively affects their sex life. Besides the anxiety, and you know, the occasional seizure, some epilepsy medications also affect how hormones are processed, which can reduce sex drive. It's all very awkward to explain.

I've written before about how epilepsy affects my sex and dating life, but I wanted to see how other people deal with their chronic illnesses. So I asked some friends who have Crohn's disease, asthma, and narcolepsy how their sex lives have been affected by their illnesses.

Crohn's Disease

Stephanie Mickus, a writer living in Los Angeles, was diagnosed with Crohn's disease when she was 11. Crohn's involves inflammation of the digestive tract, which can cause fatigue, abdominal pain, and bloody diarrhea. Not super sexy.

Early on, Crohn's affected her dating life. "I was really weak, sick, pale, and for years, was fed through a tube surgically placed in my abdomen," she told me. "I wasn't physically intimate with anyone on any level until I was in college because of this."

That's not uncommon, according to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America, which also acknowledges that symptoms like incontinence and constant shitting can ruin "the mood." One man, whose story is highlighted on the organization's website, said his "symptoms hit hardest right after my wedding—cramping and diarrhea. I did not have much energy to be terribly frisky."

Besides the practical elements, dating with an illness like Crohn's can lead to a lot of doubts about relationship longevity. "I've always considered my Crohn's a liability in romantic relationships," said Mickus. "When you're at war with your body, it's hard to feel sexy and be able to express love the way you want to."

Asthma

Remember those kids who got out of PE in elementary school for having asthma? Not so fun once you've grown up and moved onto adult PE (by which I mean, sex). In a study of 350 emergency room patients treated for asthma at the Harlem Hospital in New York, 58 percent reported that asthma inhibited their sex life in some capacity. Some positions limit lung capacity by putting too much pressure on the chest; fucking too fast or for too long can wear out the respiratory system; and the adrenaline, especially during first time sex, can trigger an asthma attack.

As if that's not enough to deal with, asthmatics are also predisposed to a semen allergy. That's what happened to Brittany Meyer (not her real name), who found herself in a precarious situation after swallowing her boyfriend's semen triggered a severe asthma attack. "I had to go to the hospital and stay overnight," she told me. "I was 19 and afraid to tell anyone what actually caused it." Imagine if giving head sent you straight to the ER.

The condition, called human seminal plasma allergy, causes chest tightening, wheezing, full-blown anaphylaxis, and other symptoms when ingesting semen. For someone with asthma, who's already predisposed to these kinds of symptoms, it can be debilitating.

"To this day, my parents are like, 'Is your EpiPen up to date? What about your inhaler? We don't want that freak accident to happen again!'" said Meyer, who hasn't swallowed semen since.

Narcolepsy and Sexsomnia

Extreme tiredness from narcolepsy can lead to low sex drive or impotence, according to the Mayo Clinic, and some narcoleptics will even fall asleep during sex. Studies have also shown that orgasm can be a trigger for cataplexy, a narcolepsy-related condition that can cause someone to collapse from muscle weakness (yet remain conscious) at the onset of extreme emotions—fear, laughter, or orgasm.

Julie Flygare, a narcolepsy spokesperson and author of the narcolepsy memoir Wide Awake and Dreaming, wrote about her struggles with narcolepsy and cataplexy in an article for Women's Health, where she explained, "With orgasms, my head would start falling back like I had whiplash. It was really uncomfortable."

Narcolepsy isn't just limited to lethargy and spontaneous sleep. Another potential symptom is sexsomnia, defined as "sexual vocalizations or conversation, masturbation, sexual fondling, sexual intercourse with or without orgasm, and assaultive sexual behaviors during sleep."

On Motherboard: I Have Sexsomnia and Can't Be Cured

Obviously, the condition comes with huge emotional and even legal repercussions.

"I've woken up in the middle night having sex with girlfriends," said Dustin Marshall, 31, who suffers from sexsomnia. "I'm speaking and functional like I'm awake. I'm scared it could be perceived as rape and technically, it is, if the person doesn't want it." Marshall added that if he does have a sleepover with a girl, he stays awake until sunrise as to not do anything sexual in his sleep.

The consequences of sexsomnia trickle down into several aspects of Marshall's life and his relationships. "To this day, I'm cautious about where I spend the night—at a friends, or even worse, around family members. I have only spent the night at a serious girlfriend's house for years, because I'm horrified it could affect a relationship."

Follow Alison Segel on Twitter.

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