“A Leader Defines Reality”: Katrina Blank Shares Her Chronic Illness Breakup Story

On our most recent double-episode, we covered breakups because of chronic illness. Here, writer Katrina Blank shares a bit more of the story she tells us in Part II about living with Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease. This has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Katrina Blank

Why did you like Joey to begin with?

The day after my 36th birthday, we were matched on EHarmony and started to get to know each other from a distance. He was in Colorado, and I was in Michigan. At the end of our first phone conversation, he asked if I’d like to talk again sometime. He called me every night for two months until we finally met in person in New York. I liked that laughter came easy for him, and the fun banter that we’d have on the phone. I appreciated his consistency in my life and his intentionality in doing nice things for me, like sending me flowers and chocolate covered strawberries. At some point, he started calling me Beautiful rather than Katrina, which was especially nice to hear on days I felt especially awful.

I liked that he was tall, fit (training for a triathlon), and well educated (MBA). He was ambitious and dreamed of starting his own company. We both loved snowboarding and felt similarly about our faith and the Church being important to us. We connected well with each other’s friends and family members — everyone gave us the thumbs up.

We were both at a point in our lives where we wanted to meet someone with the hope of marriage and eventually starting a family. Joey assured me finances wouldn’t be an issue if I were to be a stay-at-home mom, or pursued my dream of writing. We talked about places we might travel to, and having my last name changed to his on my passport before it expired in 2018.

He kept hope alive as he had me dreaming of a future with him, even as I faced an unknown illness.

At what point into dating did you tell him about your history and your illness? How did you tell him, and what was his initial reaction? 

I shared my health issues gradually, through phone conversations. I didn’t shy away from explaining that the reason I had returned to my parents’ place after living a full life in NYC was to get my health back on track and to start applying for jobs out west.

When it became clear that something more was going in addition to iron deficiency, I became convinced that my health issues stemmed from my time in Africa (as I had initially suggested to my doctor shortly after my trip). Since I couldn’t easily find a tropical disease specialist in Michigan, and I could in NYC, Joey and I decided to meet there Memorial Day Weekend.

The focus at that point was in finding the fix so that I would be healthy again and be able to apply for full-time jobs – possibly in California, possibly in Colorado. I had no intention of staying in Michigan for very long; only long enough for me to get better.

Initially, Joey was supportive as I sought for answers. But when my first round of blood work came back empty-handed, things started to shift.

How?

While in Colorado we had dinner with one of my college roommates and her husband who had worked as a financial advisor to military personnel. Hearing about his work prompted me to inquire about PTSD. I then wondered aloud at dinner if I might have some sort of PTSD that was causing my symptoms.

Joey didn’t comment at dinner, but when we got in his car he pried further as to why I might think that. He seemed greatly concerned that I had even mentioned it. I told him about a couple of my work experiences in NYC — one that involved a dead body and another that involved me sitting in a detective car as it sped across the city. With my blood work not revealing anything, I didn’t know what else could be causing me to feel so terrible. I told him that I had to at least acknowledge the possibility that my symptoms might be psychosomatic.

How did your illness contribute directly to the breakup?

Traveling and flying had become increasingly difficult for me. Waiting in long TSA lines did me in, and walking around large airports on a “bad” day was especially challenging. There had been one instance where I had literally wondered if I might die on my flight home because I felt that weak, and like my heart might give out on me at any second. It’s not uncommon for me to feel like I’m suffocating. Navigating airports by myself, without access to a place where I could lay down, made me nervous.

To clarify, I’m not a fearful person. In fact, prior to falling ill in Africa, I went skydiving for my 34th birthday. But in not having a diagnosis, or knowing what was going on with my body, making travel plans was overwhelming. It’s still a challenge, but now I build in rest days prior and recovery days, and plan trips around my added fatigue.

That said, I believe Joey perceived my initial hesitation to fly to Colorado as me not wanting to be with him. He had already visited me in Michigan; it was my turn to make the trek. Eventually, I did book the flight, and we had a great week together and talked about moving forward in our relationship. Except, by the end of summer, a diagnosis still hadn’t been made and I still wasn’t better. I wasn’t well enough to look for jobs. Joey was tired of doing long distance, and he started to fade in communication. He then stalled in booking another flight to see me. He told me he wanted to travel to more exotic places. I eventually offered to fly to Colorado again, pleading for more time together, but he declined.

He broke up with me and jumped back on EHarmony.

What do you remember about the time immediately after the breakup?

Just before the breakup, I tested positive for malaria exposure, but another test came back after the break up showing there wasn’t any active malaria in my system. The news of my second test meant it was likely my health issues were chronic. I was distressed by the breakup and devastated by the news that I may never get better.

Preparing my first book initially helped distract from the heartache, but then I sent my book off to the printer and pictures of Joey with his new girl flooded my Facebook newsfeed. It was terrible, and I kept thinking, if only I was healthy, I would be the one with him. I felt numb as we entered the holiday season. I watched the movie Elf, over and over, hoping that Will Ferrell might help me crack a smile. He didn’t. My New Year’s resolution for 2015 was this: stay out of depression.

Who did you turn to for comfort, advice, or guidance? Did you felt they fully understood?

My best friend from college just didn’t get it. When I found out I didn’t have something simple that could be treated she told me, “Katrina, I just feel like if you got a job you’d feel a lot better.”

Meanwhile, my friend Jen in California invited me to stay with her for a couple of months – $300 a month to stay on my air mattress in her living room. Doing so helped heal my spirit as I absorbed the news of a likely chronic condition and sought to get over Joey.

How did this breakup change your approach moving forward?

In one of my grad school classes, we read a book called Leadership is an Art. In it, author Max Depree insists, “A leader defines reality.” I recognize that I get to put my own spin on my life. I get to define my reality and who I am as I’m meeting men and interacting with others.

I’m still growing in this area, seeking to minimize dialogue focused on my health. I epically failed recently in sharing too much information too soon. After three dates, the guy called things off. It didn’t help that our third date was to see the musical Evita, which brought tears to my eyes during the show as Evita’s health declined and afterward my date and I discussed the play. Still, he texted, “I enjoyed getting to know you and see you as amazingly strong, talented, spiritually oriented, and beautiful.” He affirmed that he saw some positives in me, despite my health being poor.

After that text, I debriefed with my friend Sarah, who reminded me that I need to be careful not to divulge too much health information early on. I already knew this to be true, but my conversation with Sarah discouraged me and I wondered if I was capable of dating at all. When I returned home I Googled to see if I could find dating advice for when you have a chronic illness and found your article.

Are you over him?

Yes. But it definitely took some time, and right after I had reached a point of being “over him” he started calling me again, in the spring of 2015. At the end of last year, we met up while I was passing through Denver. We spent two evenings together, enjoying each other’s company, but also both knowing we weren’t meant to be together. It felt far better to end on that note, than the long distance break up that had occurred two falls prior.

Yes, I’m over him.

About Katrina Blank

Katrina Blank is a writer, speaker, and former student development professional. For over a dozen years, she has worked with youth and college students in various capacities. Upon returning from a 2012 trip to Uganda, she has honed in on writing and investigative medical research including her book, I Hate Books on Christian Dating: A Memoir Journey Towards a Mysterious God. Katrina studied communications at the University of Michigan and holds an MA in Leadership from Fuller in Pasadena. She grew up in the rural Midwest, down the road from a llama farm, then ventured off to New York City and Southern California.

Katrina can be found on twitter @katrinablanknyc and you can read the first chapter of her book at www.katrinablank.com.

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