By age 25, writer Cory Martin had credits on the hit TV show, “The O.C.” and had been asked by Scholastic to pen three young adult novels based on the same TV series. Three years later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Among her whir of thoughts upon hearing the news, she wondered how the condition would impact her love life. One day at the library, unable to find books about MS from a young woman’s perspective, she realized she needed to pen one.
The resultant award-winning memoir, Love Sick, explores life and dating in Hollywood while living with multiple sclerosis and has touched quite a few people on similar paths. Chatting with the big-hearted author on Girl Boner Radio was such a treat for me.
The episode also features thoughts from Dr. Megan Fleming, for a listener who was recently diagnosed with a rare form of arthritis and wonders if chronic pain will impact her sex life with her newfound love.
August: Tell us what your life was like before you were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Were you dating then?
Cory: Yeah, I was dating. . . I was working in TV. I had this great career that I thought was going to go places. My friends, a few of them had started to get married, but we weren’t really settling down. We were just kind of enjoying life because we finally had the money to go out in LA. We weren’t working those 80-hour weeks that we were when we were 22. And so I felt like, Wow, this is it. This is what your late 20s are supposed to be. And then I was 28 when I got diagnosed [with multiple sclerosis] and I was like, Oh, no. Life is over.
August: What was the first symptom that you experienced?
Cory: Numbness in my hand. It would come and go and I honestly thought it from sleeping weird or stress. . . I told my doctor at a physical and she said, “I’m sure it’s nothing, but how are you sleeping?” And I said, “I don’t sleep. I’m in a lot of pain. The numbness wakes me up.” And she’s like, “Well, that’s not good, but I’m sure it’s fine. You’re young, you’re healthy.”
She sent me to a neurologist and they started running tests. By the time I got the MRI of my brain, it was like very clear that I had lesions on my brain and she was like, “This is probably what you have.” I went to see a specialist and the specialist agreed.
August: What a great doctor to ask you questions and to also not diminish anything. There are many wonderful doctors, but I’ve also heard from people who get told it’s no big deal. So once you heard the diagnosis, what went through your mind? Were you familiar with the disease?
Cory: I was familiar because I’d gotten on Google and I had like typed in my symptoms. . .. Doctor Google is not a good doctor. He’s very mean. And he will tell you all the worst things that could happen to you. So when I first heard the diagnosis, I remember breaking down in tears and thinking, What is going to happen? I don’t know what my life holds.
And it had been a series of appointments and at one appointment the doctor was all, “We don’t think it’s anything.” My parents had flown out from Chicago to be with me for that appointment and so they thought it was just a vitamin deficiency. So I took some vitamins and by the time I went back to check in with that doctor [and was diagnosed], my parents were like, “You’re fine, you’re fine.” So I was all alone at this appointment. I think that was the hardest part.
August: That must have been a really isolating feeling. You may have doctors who are being considerate and kind, but that’s very different. They’re used to diagnosing every day. What did they tell you about treatment?
Cory: The first neurologist was just a neurologist, not a specialist, and said, “Okay, so have you seen the drugs that are out there? I want you to go home and research them all and then I’ll put you on one.” And I was just like, wait a minute.
Yeah, I had numbness, but I was also pretty healthy. I didn’t look sick. I didn’t have crazy symptoms. And so I thought, maybe I’ll seek a second opinion. I went to the actual MS specialist and she confirmed [the diagnosis], and said, “You know, it looks like things are pretty stable. Let’s just keep watching you.” She didn’t immediately put me on treatment, and I was like, thank you.
August: I love that you had the wherewithal to seek a second opinion because it’s pretty common for people to get misdiagnosed or told that this is your only option.
Cory: Yes. This was more of a “wait and see” approach. And it’s still kind of like that. I mean, things have progressed. I’ve also been diagnosed with another disease like last year.
August: Lupus, right?
Cory: Yes. It’s another autoimmune disorder that can attack anything. So it can be your lungs, your blood, your bones, your joints, your brain. . . anything of that sort. It hit me with fatigue and crazy bone pain. It hit my lungs, where if I walked up steps, I was totally out of breath—and I had been a triathlete. I had always been active. . . So I went back to that same first doctor. She’s been my primary care doctor and I brought this up and she was like, “I think this could be MS but it also sounds very odd. Let me send you to a rheumatologist.
Thank God for her, because I have heard so many stories, like you said, where doctors ignore it. They tend to ignore women more than anyone else. But this is a female doctor and she listens to me and I feel so grateful that I’ve had her in my life.
August: That’s a good lesson for anyone listening. It’s always good to double check and advocate for yourself, which can be challenging. . . I have felt like a hypochondriac at times because my appendix burst in my early 20s and so now I listen to my symptoms and I’m like, “Do they think I’m overly worried?” But who cares? This is your health. It’s important. What was treatment like?
Cory: I was put on a drug called Plaquenil, which is an anti-malarial that works to calm the inflammation. They want to keep that down so it doesn’t affect your major organs, like your kidney and your heart and all of that. So that’s helped, but I’m still not 100 percent normal.
August: It must be affirming to find out, “Okay, it has a name. There is a treatment.” But then also to know this is a journey. I imagine it teaches you a lot about trusting the unknown. Interestingly, around the same time that you were diagnosed with MS, you became really gung ho about dating. Was that intentional? Did the MS diagnosis prompt that?
Cory: I think in some way, it did. Maybe it was the writer in me that was like, Hmm. . . What am I going to do with this? I went to the library and I was like, Who’s writing books on MS? And it was all older married men, famous men. I was like, There’s nobody young telling their story. So maybe I’ll tell my story. And then I started thinking, this was the age of Sex in the City. . . People were starting to talk about their sexuality, so it wasn’t so scary to put your stories out there. I also had the thought when I got diagnosed—I don’t know why this came into my head because I had never thought about marriage—but suddenly I was like, Nobody’s going to want to marry me because of this. And it’s a crazy thought, but it was one I really believed at the time.
August: I imagine a lot of people don’t say anything about it, which is one of the beautiful things about writing. Your stories will reach people who relate.
Cory: Oh, for sure. People have reached out to me since then and said, “Thank you for sharing this. I felt all the same things.” The first person that sent me that message, I thought, This was all worth it to put my story out there and to deal with the like crazy comments on Amazon or whatever. You know, like there’s always those bad reviews online that you’re like, oh really?” You have to proactively focus elsewhere.
August: Yes, those are the ones that stick in your head and it’s so important to have boundaries around that. . . So when you started dating, what was your process?
Cory: I liked dating in LA. I liked that it’s a city full of really interesting people. I wasn’t back in my small town in Indiana where I grew up. . . Here, you could meet a director, a writer, a finance person, a person who’s just fully creative and doing their own thing. . . So I threw myself into that. And in the back of my head, I always had the idea, Can I marry this person? It probably either allowed me to go too far with somebody because I had the ideas of Ooh, his mom does this and his family is like this. I could see this all meshing. . . There were so many other red flags that I ignored.
August: What were the dating first experiences like? Did you tell people, “I have MS?”
Cory: Yes, I sort of played with it. I would tell some people right away or I would wait three months. I would wait one week. I would be at a bar and be like, “Yeah, I have MS.” And some people would freak out and some people will be like, “This is amazing.” . . . One guy said, “Oh yeah, my dad had MS.” And I’m like, “Had? There’s no cure. How does that work?” And he said, “Oh, he cured himself,” and so stupid me in my head goes, “I should marry this guy. I should meet this guy’s parents. I can’t wait to have dinner with them.” And I literally had just met him at a bar.
Then I think towards the end of the night, he went to kiss me and said, “Oh, sorry, I can’t. I have a girlfriend.” I was like, “Why did you spend the entire night getting my hopes up?” I had played out my whole future and then it just disappeared. I was like, “Oh, okay. That’s dating in Los Angeles.”
August: Yeah, it’s an adventure. And I love that you approached it that way because, ideally, dating is fun. . . What was one of the more fun, vivid, positive experiences along the way?
Cory: I think with my current boyfriend. We’ve been together almost six years now. We had been dating for a little bit and I thought, Okay, it’s time to tell him. We were out to dinner and I told him I have MS. And he was just like, “Oh, okay.” I went to the bathroom, came back and he was on his phone and I thought, “Oh no. Total an LA guy. . . He’s probably on Tinder.” But he was researching MS and said, “There are so many new options and I think we’ll be okay.”
August: That’s sweet. He wanted to be supportive. . . . How did you approach sex and intimacy when you were navigating all of this? Was that part of your concern?
Cory: Yeah, it was part of my concern. I think the biggest and hardest part about finding out I had MS was the unknown. There’s a myriad of symptoms. Nobody can predict what’s going to happen. I remember there was one point that I had this huge patch on my back that was very numb and when water would hit it, I could barely feel it. I thought, What if that travels down to another region and I can’t feel sex and I can’t enjoy that? I worried about that. I’ve been fortunate that that hasn’t happened, but I know it could. And I think you just kinda go with the flow and improvise. You try other things, use toys and do what you need to do.
My first real relationship after the MS diagnosis, we didn’t have sex the whole time and we were together almost a year. I thought there was something wrong with him, but looking back, it was me. It was, “I hate my body. I’m so scared of what it’s going to do that I can’t even make love.” And it’s that cliche: If you don’t love yourself, how is anybody going to love you? But this went even deeper. . . I still felt sexy, but I didn’t feel like I really wanted to be intimate.
August: Were there any conversations about it with this person? It’s a tricky subject for a lot of people.
Cory: It was, and I remember we were on a vacation and I remember thinking, Okay, this is it. I’m just going to do it. We were in Vegas, so I was like, This is perfect. We’ll be out all night. . . It’ll be fine. We’re staying at the Hard Rock. They have condoms in the minibar. And it got close, but not there. The next day he had some excuse, then I had an excuse and it just didn’t click. We were not meant to be together and that’s fine. But it did teach me a lot about learning to love myself again in that way. That’s so important. It really is.
August: The self-love piece seems to be a big part of your journey. You feel that chronic illness is a gift. What do you mean by that?
Cory: I think it’s a gift in the sense that it keeps me in the present moment. I do a lot of yoga. . . I can’t worry about the future because that is so unknown to me. And I know it’s unknown to everybody, but it’s like really unknown to me. And I can’t think about the past, because the past meant I could swim a couple miles or I jump out into the ocean and I can’t do all those things anymore. And so I have to just live in the like, Okay, I woke up this morning. How do I feel? I have to check in every day: Do I have the energy to even do my work?
But I also think it’s a gift because when we talk about dating it, does give you a sort of barometer, right? The way people respond to it. The most genuine, nice people will have a good response and even if they don’t want to be with you for the longterm future, they’re not going to be mean to you. They’ll at least be honest and say, “I can’t handle this or I could handle this, but I don’t see a future.”
August: You mentioned body image struggles early on. Has this experience kind of forced you to grow there? Where are you now with your relationship to your body?
Cory: I would say it’s like a roller coaster. That first year it was like, “Please don’t touch me.” Even though I was working out and probably looked physically great. I look back at pictures and think, Wow. Why didn’t I enjoy me at 28? And then you kind of get used to it and everything’s good, but of course you’re a human being and things are gonna happen. You’ll get injured. You’ll get sick again. It’s been a year since being diagnosed with lupus and that really made me readjust again. It made me look at things like, Okay, I turned to exercise as my stress relief and thing that made me feel good, but when you can’t exercise. So I had to find new things that made me happy. And I think part of self-love is always looking for that thing. Once something’s gone, you don’t have to give up and say, “That’s it.” You can go find something else that replaces that. For me, I found hula hooping, which is so random, but I love it. It doesn’t require a lot of energy, but it makes me happy.
August: I love that and it reminds me of a friend who has chronic illness. She has this wonderful blog called Aim for Even. It’s not about this perfect balance, but finding your even in the moment. . . There’s so much growth in your journey. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned through this process?
Cory: I really think it is to take things day by day. I don’t get stressed about things as much anymore.
August: How has all of this influenced your writing?
Cory: I think giving myself permission to be open and honest has strengthened my writing because I don’t have those fears. I don’t really fear rejection anymore. Yeah, it sucks. I’ll turn in an essay, hoping this big magazine will publish it, but they don’t. Then I’m like, Okay, next. And then I sell it somewhere else. I do care, but I don’t take it personally anymore.
August: If you could send a message to yourself the day you were diagnosed, what would you say?
Cory: So funny you asked that because I literally a week ago posted a younger photo of myself and said, “Here’s what I would tell her. I would tell you her ‘Thank you.’ Not the typical, “Oh, you’re beautiful. You’ll get through this.” Everyone wants to say that. But thank you. ‘Thank you for persevering. Thank you for being you. Thank you for being honest. Thank you for crying, for being upset, for going through all of that because you let me be the person I am today.’
August: What would you say to somebody who’s listening who was diagnosed with MS or something similar?
Cory: I would say, “Look. It’s going to be a rough year. . . It’s okay to ask for help. Cry as much as you need to. Talk to your doctors as much as you need to. It’s okay to feel all of these things. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to go out and do something grand, like in the movies—say like you’re diagnosed so now go skydive. You don’t have to do anything. You can just hole up in your house for a little bit and cry. You can go on vacation. You can do all of these things. Life isn’t over. It might feel like that for a while, but it really isn’t.”
Learn more about Cory Martin’s work at corymartinwrites.com.
Purchase Love Sick on Amazon or most anywhere books are sold.