Dating is never easy. But dating when you have a chronic illness can be even harder. After Sarah Kirwan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — an autoimmune disease that disrupts the central nervous system — in 2011, her health wasn’t her only concern. “You worry that you will never find love, that you will never have a significant other,” she tells Yahoo Life.
“I was just kind of done dating.” But that all changed when Kirwan met Carl Deriso, who was diagnosed with MS in 1996, at an MS self-help group. “When she first walked in, she definitely caught my attention,” Deriso tells Yahoo Life. “I don’t even remember what you were wearing — it was just the energy and your smile.”
“There are two thoughts — there’s one where, ‘Oh, I don’t want to date anybody with MS like me because then who is going to take care of me,’ and then the other thought is, ‘I really want to date someone who has the similar and shared experiences that I have because they know what I’m going through.”
However, Deriso points out that, even though they both have MS, “we are both completely different as far as symptoms, responses, treatment.”
As Kirwan puts it, they “compliment each other very well.” So much so that the couple, who live in Santa Maria, Calif., got married in August 2020. They agree that keeping an open and honest dialogue is key in any relationship but especially when you’re both living with a chronic illness. “If you can talk openly about what you’re feeling, that will really help through some of the tough times,” says Deriso.
CARL DERISO: I'm at a point now where I want a companion and a life partner. And she's the perfect one.
SARAH KIRWAN: When I was diagnosed, you worry that you will never find love, that you will never have a significant other. Just because you have MS, that's not a negative.
CARL DERISO: My name is Carl Deriso. I was diagnosed with MS in 1996.
SARAH KIRWAN: I'm Sarah Kirwan, and I was diagnosed with MS in 2011.
CARL DERISO: When I was first diagnosed, I was already married with my first wife. And years and years later, when I was divorced and now I'm dating, the reactions from the very few people I shared it with in that environment just had no knowledge. They just didn't know what that meant. So what does that mean in a relationship?
SARAH KIRWAN: After I was diagnosed, it was very difficult, because do you wait till the fourth date? Do you disclose on the first date? You know, I had one gentleman say to me, you know, that's just really not something I can take on. I was just kind of done dating.
CARL DERISO: I got involved with a self-help group. And so that's, ultimately, where we ended up meeting. When she first walked in, she definitely caught my attention. And I didn't even remember what you were wearing. It was just the energy and your smile. So I bought her lunch that day as we were doing the presentation.
SARAH KIRWAN: I was like, sure, you can buy me lives.
CARL DERISO: And I chased her for, like, three months.
SARAH KIRWAN: Well, I think there's two thoughts. There's one where, oh, I don't want to date anybody with MS like me, because then who's going to take care of me? And then the other thought is, I really want to date someone who has the similar and shared experiences that I have, because they know what I'm going through.
CARL DERISO: Even though we have the same diagnosis, we are both completely different as far as symptoms, responses, treatment, and all that stuff.
SARAH KIRWAN: Like 180 from each other, we do not have the same experience. I have run the gamut of not only the physical, but the mental issues and symptoms of MS in a much different way than Carl has.
CARL DERISO: If you can talk openly about what you're feeling, that would really help through some of the tough times.
SARAH KIRWAN: Absolutely.
CARL DERISO: We've been married since August of 2020. And life has been good.
SARAH KIRWAN: There are other things to consider when you have MS before you get married. Many people that live with disabilities who don't actually get married, they'll lose their benefits.
My biggest fear is that if my disease progresses debilitating me to a point that my vocal chords no longer work, that medical power of attorney, and that advance directive are my voice. They're important. They know what my wishes are. I think it's important in any relationship for anyone with MS to talk about their needs as far as when we age and what that looks like.
CARL DERISO: About a year ago, we took over this MS self-help group. We want to make sure that we're available to people that could be in the same situation that we may have been in the past.
SARAH KIRWAN: The whole process of MS, the diagnosis is a grieving process. We're constantly grieving some loss. But I have gained more than I have lost in this process. When I'm with Carl, Carl's my home. I'm safe. I'm supported. It's everything that I needed that I didn't know that I needed it.
CARL DERISO: Thanks, baby.