See me, feel me, touch me, heal me . . .: Heart Searching: Ill or disabled people are looking for partners too, says Lynne Curry

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The Independent Online
LET Helen McConnell write her own lonely hearts script: 'Woman, 43, ME sufferer for five years, legs wobbly, brain phasing in and out according to energy, seeks . . .'

Well, seeks what? A fellow ME sufferer, she suspects. Of course, he may be debilitated at exactly the times she feels fit and ready to take on the world (in her case, this equates to feeling up to a visit to Marks & Spencer), but at least he would have some grasp of her general condition.

Today is a good day: she is wearing make-up and a vibrant rich rust colour from head to foot, which complements her pale tan face and red hair. She is an attractive metropolitan woman. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that some man might come to the door of her flat in south-east London and ask her out but, really, he would be wasting his time. After an hour in the restaurant or cinema or theatre she would be useless; worn out.

ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) is the oddest illness, complicating life and love for Ms McConnell, who looks less like an invalid than an individual, slightly bohemian woman in her mid-thirties with a penchant for henna, stripped-pine clutter and growing flowers from seed. Therein lies her dilemma, and that of probably thousands like her. She's not the stuff that conventional dating agencies thrive on and sees herself falling between their remit and those specialising in physical or mental disability.

Why, asks Ms McConnell, are there not agencies whose ethos is strong on imperfection? After all, she argues, the world is full of people who fail miserably to live up to the ideal. Discounting those who are not feminine, slim, blonde, sporty, sexy graduates with hourglass figures and a great sense of humour (alternative: slim, tall, rich, accomplished, sexy graduate with sporty Mercedes and ditto sense of humour), there are others who have traits which are not immediately saleable in the sexual stakes.

Asthma was never a strong plus. A chronic bad back may win a vote of sympathy but is an ally on a par with a faint heart when it comes to fair lady. Many others who do not see themselves as disabled before anything else are still physically or mentally prevented from leaping through cornfields or up mountains in the way demanded by hackneyed images that still prevail.

In fact, Ms McConnell's illness would not debar her from joining two of the most established specialist agencies, though she may feel deterred by the names: Disdate and Handidate. As both are run by people sensitive to discrimination, they have a policy of accepting any sort of illness or disability.

Disdate was set up 12 years ago by Bruce Brown, a former Royal Navy nurse and transport manager. He was diagnosed as suffering from multiple sclerosis in 1975, at the age of 25, and says the illness played a part in the break-up of his marriage. 'Looking back, I can see that I had had symptoms for years. When it was diagnosed the steroids I took made me bad-tempered and irritable.' Since then he has become progressively more disabled and now has an outdoors wheelchair. Meeting other people is simply difficult, he says. 'You just cannot go out and meet people in the normal way. There was obviously a need for disabled people to meet and correspond.'

Disdate levies a low registration fee of pounds 30 for three initial introductions and is non-profit making. It has had 620 men and 340 women on its register and Mr Brown knows of at least five marriages and two children, these born to a registered blind woman who married a man paralysed down one side in a motorway accident. Only people with hearing problems, who communicate in sign language, tend to favour people with a similar disability, Mr Brown says.

Handidate was established five years ago by Conrad Packwood, who is physically disabled and was born with cerebral palsy. He and his mother, Margot, rent an office at the headquarters of the Ipswich and East Suffolk Spastic Society, which sponsors Handidate.

They run it as a commercial concern and charge pounds 40 to supply details of four clients to a new member. The new member's details are also sent out to any number of other members. So far there have been 1,084 registrations and 33 marriages, mostly between people with differing disabilities and right across the intellectual range.

Mr Packwood, 27, set up the organisation when a dating agency told him it could not cater for people with special needs. 'They didn't say he couldn't join but said it would be up to him to tell people he was introduced to of his disability,' says his mother. 'They wrote a nice letter to say they couldn't really help people with special needs.'

Ms McConnell is more blunt with her description of the problem. 'I have had normal relationships but sometimes I feel it would be better just to get the shit out of the way first. The hardest thing about this illness is that you're not only fighting the illness but fighting people who don't believe you're ill.'

Despite appearances, Ms McConnell's life is severely hampered. The most troublesome feature of her illness is probably the constant fatigue which overtakes her with such severity that it can literally paralyse her. Food allergies are another symptom of ME and, although she had enjoyed a cream tea on holiday in Kent last week, the indulgence had rebounded with a vengeance.

'It's like being a dog on one of those leads that go a long way, then somebody presses the button,' says Ms McConnell, who had to give up her job as a special needs teacher in a comprehensive school when she realised she could no longer recall the names of pupils she had taught for five years.

One of the contributing causes of failure of her last relationship was a few miles. The distance between her and her partner was nothing transatlantic - she lives south of the river and he lives north - but if she went to his home she had to move in for a few days. 'If it was a normal relationship we'd meet up in town and go and see a film, but I can't do that.'

Ms McConnell belongs to an ME group with 140 sufferers from an area bordered by Blackheath and Camberwell. Although some of her friends believe it must be debilitating to mix with other people who are ill, she says, it is a tremendous relief to know that she is not alone in feeling so low. Surely this ME group - which includes men - would be the best avenue for the times (not constant) she feels closest to her former self, 'lively, gregarious, humorous' and in need of a partner. There are complications even there, however. It's one of her favourite jokes: 'We have these meetings once a month but we're all too ill to go to them . . .'

Disdate, 76 Springfield Drive, Bromham, Bedfordshire MK43 8NT (0234 822598)

Handidate, Wellington Centre, 52 Chevallier Street, Ipswich, Suffolk IP1 2BR (0473 226950)

(Photograph omitted)

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