• Sophie Azaraf

My journey to the Chuppah

**I wrote this article for Endurance magazine**

The Pesach after Shana Bet, all of my friends started dating, however I was in the peak of my illness and planning a long awaited trip to the Mayo clinic hoping to finally find answers. Dating was the last thing on my mind, yet it was an overwhelming anxiety. I was too scared to put myself out there so people didn’t know me and so, I wasn't set up often. Most guys who got my name said no once they heard there was “something”. I did not feel like I could write a resume to be sent out to perspective shidduchim because what was there to say about myself? On paper, to put it bluntly, I looked terrible: No job. No college. What guy would want to date me? And once they found out about my health challenges, why would they want to stay with me? I saw myself as a huge burden, with nothing to offer to a relationship. How would I be a good wife, how would I be a good mother, what would they ever see in me? These were just a few of the many thoughts that would go through my head. My parents and Rabbi would tell me that I have so much to offer, that I am such a caring and special person and anyone would be lucky to call me their wife. But it was just too difficult for me to believe. As I got more adjusted to my new reality and living with chronic illnesses (POTS and epilepsy), I began trying to believe what my parents and Rabbi were telling me. To believe that I had what to offer and I would be a good wife one day, I had what to contribute aside from my health issues. The anxieties were still there, lots of them. I thought, Ok so I can make dinner, that’s great for a relationship, but then I’m too tired to do the dishes and clean up. Who would want that? OK so I can be a great emotional support for my husband after a hard day of work, but I can’t even work myself, maybe my husband will come to resent me? Every positive thought had an anxiety attached to it. I never wanted to go to Shadchans because I didn’t want to be judged on a 15 minute meeting. I was really hoping to meet someone naturally or to be set up by someone close to me, who can truly relate to them my positive traits instead of focusing on all the “negatives”.

My first date was with someone I met naturally, which was great since he got to “know me” before my illness. I asked my Rabbi at what point my health should come into the conversation, and he said if it doesn’t come up by the 3rd date, I should bring it up but not offer any information that wasn’t asked for. It always came up in the first 15 minutes of the first date because the small talk questions like what are you up to were hard to get around without it. I was terrified to bring it up the first time, but I did it. And I have to say, the guy handled it pretty well. I quickly learned that guys will take my lead in how they react. Meaning, if I kept it light and positive it was less scary for them to hear. I always left the floor open for questions though, and they knew they could always ask in the future so they didn’t have to ask while the subject was “open”, which made it a bit less scary. Usually they were all the same questions: can I have children? Is it genetic? How does it affect your everyday? The first two I would answer along the lines of “in terms of my condition, Baruch Hashem I can have children, the rest is in Hashem’s hands”. The last one, I perfected my answer over the years. I would say “I can do everything it just has to be done “Shira’s Way””. After a few questions I would try and change the topic because talking about such a vulnerable topic with a stranger is emotionally exhausting and made me feel a bit exposed. When the time came to get more detailed, I would bring it up again and every so often, check in to see if he had any more questions or doubts.

A couple years into dating without being set up, I decided to try something new. Something that had been suggested for a while but I was reluctant to do it, since a resume doesn’t properly convey who I am. I had two friends visit me one summer and they signed me up for a website called YUconnects. This was terrifying as it meant I had to put myself on paper. My rabbi advised me not to include my health on my profile, and simply focus on my personality and what I'm looking for in a mentsch. Because I repeatedly got emails asking me why I wasn't in school or working, I mentioned in the section that was only visible to the shadchan, that I had some autoimmune issues and would be happy to answer any questions. I went out on a few dates from there, using my strategies mentioned above. As upsetting as some experiences were, they actually strengthened me and made me realize “I really am so much more than my health”, but how were guys going to see that? That is where emunah had to come in. I davened like crazy that I would be able to find someone who would love me for ME, see me for ME, and be able to love and accept ALL of me.

One of my greater anxieties, were the dates themselves: What if I was in a flare up before the date and had to cancel the date? What if we ended up walking a lot and I got dizzy? What if I suddenly got a rush of symptoms and felt sick? What if something so embarrassing happens? Funny story, well, now I can say it’s funny, at the time not so much. I was on a date in Israel and we met at the tachana in Yerushalayim. We ended up walking from there until Shaare Tzedek hospital, which is about an hour uphill walk. My health surprisingly didn’t come up so quickly so he didn’t know anything yet and I was way too embarrassed to say anything. I was just hoping we were going to stop and sit at a cafe but we kept on walking. By the time we got to Shaare Tzedek, my knees started to buckle. He asked me what was wrong and as much as I tried brushing it off as nothing he knew something was up so I simply said sometimes I have a hard time walking long distances and I just got a bit dizzy but I’m fine. He was very nice and not phased by it, we sat down and got ice cream and water. Lesson learned: speak up, the guy probably will care less than we think.

Let’s fast forward to summer 2018. I got a nice guy from Toronto on YUconnects. At this point in time I had just finished a course for life coaching and had become certified, so I was able to discuss school and not my health right away. Using my coaching certificate was a great softening of my health issues because it helped put a positive spin on something that could potentially be perceived as a negative. I would say to him, “I have this health condition but I’ve learned to use my life experiences to help others deal with chronic illness“. We talked on the phone and Skype for about two weeks and then it became time for him to come to Chicago to visit me. We had talked about my health a bit previously but not at length. He was really good about getting to know me as a person before caring about my health, and that was something I really appreciated. When he came to Chicago we were together all day. I made sure to advocate for myself and let him know that I couldn’t start my day too early. The more time we spent together, the more he got to know my health better and how to do things the “Shira way”. In time, more serious conversations came up about my health, and even if they went well, I would usually end up crying because I felt so vulnerable and exposed. I would go to my mom and just cry because I was sharing such intimate details of my life with someone and that felt so scary. I remember the first time I gave him my pills to hold, which was a big turning point for me. It was like I was giving him some control of my health, allowing him into my life on a much more intimate level. Things were going amazing, and of course that made me more nervous. When was he going to break? When was he going to start making insensitive comments about my health? When was he going to get sick of dating a “sick” girl? I was so scared to get engaged because even though we had spent so much time together, he had not yet seen me in every situation, the not-so-pretty moments. We have now been married for 4 months and Baruch HaShem he continues to amaze me every day. Hashem has truly answered all my tefilot. That is not to say that he isn’t still learning about my reality or that there are not times that are difficult. It’s definitely not easy for him to see me in flare ups, and getting used to this life together is hard, but I couldn’t have asked for a better partner by my side.

I want to leave you all with a few words of Chizuk. If any of you are in shidduchim now, please know that you are worthy of being loved. You deserve to find an amazing husband and have an amazing life. There is someone out there who is going to be so lucky to marry you. You have so much to offer as a young woman who has been through so much, is mature beyond her years, and has a sensitivity to others that only someone who has been through what you have been through can have. I also want you to remember that everyone has their own “pekalech”. Ours is our health, for someone else it can be family issues, finances, mental health, or so many other nisayonot in life. You are not alone. You are so much more than your health. You are so much more than a college degree. You are a hero. You are a fighter. You are kind. You are smart. You are sensitive. You have so much to bring to a relationship. And as if I haven’t said it enough, you are worthy and deserving of being loved. Hashem should bless you all with your Zivug very soon without any more troubles.

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