Finding love isn't easy for anyone, but especially for someone who has social anxiety and a physical disability. I was born with a congenital eye condition called Achromatopsia. This condition causes high light sensitivity, poor visual acuity, and partial or full color blindness. Besides these challenges, Achromatopsia has contributed to my experiencing a large amount of social anxiety.
Social anxiety is the intense fear of being observed and judged by others. It is more than just being shy, and in some cases can be debilitating. Growing up, I experienced a daily amount of social anxiety in relation to Achromatopsia. The fear of being judged on my visual limitations caused me to forgo attending parties, and joining clubs and other extracurriculars. Finding my first job was a process full of anxiety, as I imagined how I would navigate certain situations where my vision would be challenged. I'd been bullied and patronized in relation to my vision as a kid by my peers, as well as adults, and I feared those encounters being repeated. It was hard to overcome my social anxiety in relation to Achromatopsia. However, there was one area I knew I couldn't let my social anxiety hold me back: dating.
From the time I entered high school, I fantasized about having a boyfriend. I imagined how wonderful and exciting it would be to experience my first kiss, to go out on dates, to have someone love me. Finding love, though, requires taking a major risk, the risk of rejection. This is, of course, the worst fear of someone with social anxiety. For many years, I went through the process of having crushes, but social anxiety prevented me from acting on them. Finally, in my mid-twenties, I decided to try online dating. This required me to find ways to navigate my social anxiety, so I could reach my end goal of being in a relationship.
When I first signed up for an online dating app, I spent a lot of time pouring over my profile, deciding how to best represent myself. I wanted to highlight my interests, my love of reading, writing, and art. I wanted to emphasize my values: spending quality time with family and friends, and my love for animals, especially my dog. I tried to create the most genuine profile. However, there was one important thing I left out: my eye condition. I assumed people would, immediately, judge me if I revealed this part of myself too soon. The timing had to be right. I’d learned, from experience, the more someone got to know me without having this information beforehand, the less likely they were to negatively judge me when I finally chose to disclose my eye condition.
As I began talking to different guys, I could feel my social anxiety increasing over when I’d have to reveal, what had turned into, a major secret about myself. The more interested I became in a guy, the more I agonized over when was the right time to tell him. Should I tell him before our date or on it? Should I wait until a few dates in? Finally, I worked up the courage to tell one guy I had been talking to for a couple weeks. I read and reread what I’d typed out before finally, with my heart racing and hands shaking, pressed send. I waited and waited. And waited. Finally, my phone pinged with a new notification.
He said it was fine. My biggest fear was telling him I couldn’t drive because of my condition. I envisioned what a problem this would be, what a hardship it would feel like to a potential future boyfriend to have to always pick me up. This particular guy said, though, he likes to drive, and that it’s okay. We continued talking about other things.
A few days later, I messaged him about meeting up and never heard back. I sent a follow up message a day later, but received no reply. I accepted then that I’d been ghosted. Needless to say, this didn’t help my self-esteem, and of course, my first thought was it was because I told him about my eye condition. Who would want to be with someone who requires you to accommodate them? Relationships are hard enough without the addition of this added work. I felt depressed and could feel my confidence slipping as I decided to take a breather from the online dating world.
When I worked up the confidence to try again, I experienced ghosting a couple more times. Each time I’d disclosed my eye condition, and I continued to blame that as the cause of the ghosting. As painful as this idea made me feel, a part of me remained determined to find what I wanted: love. I worked hard to build up my confidence as I underwent online dating. Therapy was a lifesaver, and helped me see my worth, and make some peace with the negative feelings I held regarding my vision. I also took it slow, and gave myself time to recover after being ghosted. There was no timeframe I needed to follow. It was important for my mental health that I took breaks from online dating.
Finally, a year ago, I felt ready to try again. I committed to six months on Match. A day after signing up, I started talking to this guy. He seemed kind and thoughtful. Our conversations were interesting, and I could tell he was intelligent. He was also empathetic, and as a bonus, he loved dogs. I wanted to meet him, but, again, I was scared to disclose my eye condition. Finally, a few days before our first meeting in person, I told him. I did it over text, and he responded he appreciated my honesty, but it didn’t change how he felt about me. He said he was more than happy to do the driving. I was happy and relieved, but didn’t trust it completely. After all, the other few guys responded similarly before ghosting me. Why would this guy be any different?
He proved me wrong, though. We met up on New Year’s Eve at a Dunkin Donuts. I had my mom drop me off early so he wouldn’t see her driving me before we’d even officially met. My social anxiety was high as I ordered a mocha latte and found a table to sit at and wait. I began worrying over how I’d recognize him from a distance. I worried about when the date ended and he’d have to see my mom pick me up from a date. I was in the middle of worrying over these things when a guy called my name. I looked up, and there he was. He was smiling, and I began to feel at ease as he sat down and we naturally fell into conversation.
For the next three hours, we talked. I felt a connection with him that made me pray he was feeling the same. Meanwhile, that anxiety about him seeing my mom drive up to get me after still niggled at me. Finally, the place was closing, and I had no choice but to face the music. He walked me out to the parking lot, and we waited for my mom. When she came, he smiled and gave her a small wave. Then he turned and gave me a hug. I felt thrilled, but was worried he was simply being nice, and would never call me again. I’d been home for a half hour when my phone pinged with a text from him, asking me on a date that Sunday to see the movie West Side Story.
It’s been a year now, and we are still together, and I couldn’t be happier. Being in a relationship has helped me power through my social anxiety, and build my confidence. The experience of finding love has helped me grow, but most importantly, it has shown me that my eye condition isn’t a burden. It doesn’t make me undeserving of love. It is a part of me, but not the whole.