A Dating Guide for Women with Parkinson's Disease
Navigating the circus of the dating world is tricky at the best of times. Still, the onset of a degenerative condition such as Parkinson's disease (PD) adds another level of complication. It is possible to fulfill your romantic desires while living with a chronic condition.
What is Parkinson's disease?
"Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological disorder that affects millions of people worldwide," said Gurneet Singh Sawhney, M.B.B.S., M.Ch., a neurosurgeon in Mumbai, India.
Approximately 500,000 Americans are known to be living with Parkinson's disease, according to the National Institute of Health. However, many men and women with Parkinson's go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed, so the actual number is likely higher.
"It is caused by the death of neurons in the brain, which leads to impairment of movement and other symptoms," Sawhney said. "People with Parkinson's may experience difficulty walking, tremors, slowed movements, stiffness, loss of balance and coordination, depression, fatigue, and problems with speech and swallowing."
Although there is no cure for Parkinson's, treatments, including medications that replace dopamine, can make symptoms more manageable and help improve patients' overall quality of life.
"In the beginning, it changed my perspective, and I was really depressed about it, and it's scary," said Melissa Livingston, 48, a full-time mom in Bethelville, Pennsylvania, who is medically retired.
Livingston was diagnosed with PD in August 2020.
"The symptoms are there, but my symptoms are a lot less uncomfortable than some people's, and while they do get more uncomfortable as the day goes on, by that point, I'm like, 'It's almost time for bed,'" Livingston said.
What is the impact of Parkinson's disease on dating and sex?
"I feel like it does close you off [to dating] in a way," Livingston said. "Sometimes with people, I get into this mindset where I'm like, 'You should run, I'm a dumpster fire,' and that's just me being self-conscious. I know I have a lot to bring to a relationship, but there's so much for another person to take on, if not now, then in the future."
'No matter where you are, no matter where you move in the world, you're always going to find that one person you connect with.'
Navigating the dating world with an unpredictable body requires a flexible schedule. Prospective dates must be patient people.
"I've canceled plans because I'm not feeling well, and then the other person's left feeling like, 'Well, you don't care about me,' because they don't really understand," Livingston said. "And I‘m like, 'No, I really can't function right now.'"
Sexual problems in Parkinson's disease can include vaginal dryness and sexual dysfunction, such as an inability to orgasm. For women and men with Parkinson's disease, the condition typically increases or decreases libido.
"Some common symptoms associated with the condition that may lead to diminished libido or difficulty performing sexually include muscle rigidity, tremor, stiffness and fatigue," Sawhney said. "Other issues related to taking medications for Parkinson's, such as depressed mood and anxiety, may also contribute to decreased sexual desire."
A dopamine agonist, a prescribed medication for the disease, can affect sexual interest, according to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. For Livingston, Parkinson's increased sexual desires tenfold.
"Parkinson's affects people's sex drive differently," she said. "For me, mine is overcharged, so I try to warn them, and they're like, 'I'm down for that,' but then you get six months in, and they're like, 'I have had a hard day,' and I'm like, 'I had a hard day, too, I have Parkinson's.'"
Even with a heightened sex drive, pleasure may cause complications, particularly due to the amount of energy it requires.
"Orgasms are good for dopamine, but it's a double-edged sword because if I do it myself, then I'm tired and I want to go to sleep," Livingston said. "When I first got diagnosed, my friend would ask me, 'What's your day like?' and I'd say, 'Masturbate, weep, repeat.'"
Rebuilding a dating life
Before reentering the dating world after a diagnosis, conduct a wellness self-check and make sure you are in a good place mentally and physically to cope with the ups and downs of dating.
Identify your limits and boundaries internally before attempting to consider someone else's needs. When you are ready, take the leap. Denying yourself happiness because Parkinson's entered the picture is a waste of precious time.
"With a nerve-degenerative disease, you're the best version of yourself every day because you're not the you that you were yesterday," Livingston said. "Today you're the best version, and tomorrow you're the best version, and the next day you're the best version, so go out there: you're the best."
'We all have features and benefits that are attractive to other people.'
Communicating your diagnosis is crucial for dating successfully with Parkinson's. If you only want casual fun, then there's no need to open up, but dating with the intention of finding a relationship requires honesty.
"Providing accurate information normalizes the conversation and sets the tone for how you are comfortable discussing the topic," said Natalie Fraize, L.M.H.C., L.P.C., a licensed mental health counselor in Buffalo, New York.
It is helpful to provide a broad view of the symptoms of Parkinson's and the side effects of your medication.
"Some people want it to be all facts, while others prefer to use humor. It's your choice. You didn't choose your condition, but you get to choose when and how people discuss it with you," Fraize said.
Owning your sex life
"The good news is that many of the effects of Parkinson's on sex drive and function can be mitigated," Sawhney said. "For example, if you are having trouble with muscle rigidity or tremor, try engaging in activities that help to relax your muscles before attempting sexual activity and make sure to find comfortable positions during intercourse."
Accommodating your physical needs, just like we do when it comes to figuring out how best to climax, is simply part of a healthy sex life. Be mindful of how your body is changing, too, because you may need to update adaptations as the condition progresses.
Sex doesn't have to be painful, and you don't have to stop. It's still possible to have an enjoyable, fulfilling sex life with your partner.
Try solo play to build up your tolerance to physical stimulation and exertion. It will provide insight into your physical limits, making it simpler to figure out how these apply in partnered sex.
You might also try edging your orgasms, as Livingston does.
"With Parkinson's brain, you create more dopamine by not having an orgasm than you do having one, so I'll just mess around myself, and then I feel good," Livingston said. "It's like edging. Chemically, it's better for you."
The bottom line
It's easy to give up on dating when your body is in a constant state of rebellion. Internalized stigma should not starve you of joy and connection.
"We all have features and benefits that are attractive to other people, but if you never put them out there, you're never going to know who your people are," Livingston said.
To find love, give yourself the opportunity to do so. Be your own cheerleader and recognize your worth.
"No matter where you are, no matter where you move in the world, you're always going to find that one person you connect with. Do the thing, do the dance, have the drink, eat the cake. It's fun, and it's good for dopamine," Livingston said.