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Being at peace with self, illness attracts others

Hi, Carolyn: I’m in my early 40s and have multiple sclerosis. My ex left me because she didn’t want to “play nurse” for the rest of her life. I don’t blame her, but I am left to pick up the pieces of my life, and am having a hard time getting up the motivation to dive back into the dating pool. Why would any woman want the future that I have to offer, one of inevitable debilitation? Should I just resign myself to a life of solitude? It seems like the path of least resistance at this point. – Struggling in Olympia

I think we’d all be better for resigning ourselves to a life of solitude. Not in a woe-is-me sense, but in the sense that we are the only people we can be absolutely sure will be with us at every stage of our lives.

Your illness – a rotten break by any measure, I’m sorry – doesn’t necessarily make you worse off than others on this particular account. The ex who wasn’t up to dealing with your MS may well have decided, had you not been ill, that she wasn’t up to the ravages of time that every longtime couple must face: familiarity, boredom, various other ills of social attrition, not to mention the physical deterioration that even the healthy endure.

Committed is committed, and she wasn’t.

Where that leaves you is exactly where it leaves everyone else: in need of plans A, B and C. Plan A represents what each of us has now: Whether paired or single, it makes the most sense both to live in the moment and make plans for that moment to last. As in, have a healthy dinner, splurge a little on dessert, keep feeding your 401(k).

Plan B is the anticipation of change. Anything we have can be gone tomorrow, including companionship or solitude, health or illness, fears or dreams. You don’t need to build your life around the possibility of change, but you do need to acknowledge and accept it. Buy insurance, keep your will up to date, don’t burn bridges with people personally or professionally, and keep your eyes and heart open to opportunity in all its subtle forms.

Plan C is the wild card. If you start asking around, you might be surprised by the number of people whose lives don’t bear the slightest resemblance to the lives they’d expected to live. The only way you can “plan” for such a life is to get right with yourself, get right with your choices to this point, and take a quick mental walk through your past to note the times you’ve had to be braver, stronger and more flexible than you ever cared to be.

If you’ve been this emotionally resourceful before, you can do it again. If you haven’t been, you can start now. It’s hard work, but where’s the appeal in the alternatives? No one can take away the sense of yourself – the sense of peace – you derive from passing these tests.

While your illness will deter some potential companions, your ability to Plan-A-B-and-C it into a full, rewarding and well-managed life will attract others – specifically, those who appreciate that circumstances change but character doesn’t. There may be fewer of them, but they’re exactly the people you want.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 9 a.m. Pacific time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.
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