Last fall, my wedding day ended with me crying in my mother’s lap as my new husband held my hand, both of them assuring me I had done so well. All I had wanted was one spotless day.
But there are no spotless days in a chronically ill life and my wedding day was not an exception to that. I spent hours leading up to the ceremony carefully parceling out medications to keep my symptoms at bay. As the makeup artist painted my face, I dissolved a pill under my tongue. A nurse I hired to give me intravenous migraine medications prepped my treatment in the bridal suite. The small needle was in my arm while my best friend showed me letters I had written to her in elementary school — and we both cried.
My husband, Alex, now 32, and I, now 29, started dating a few weeks before I graduated from college and, when I invited him to my graduation party, I didn’t think it was serious. Later, my dad would tell me he knew that night, surrounded by celebratory balloons and champagne toasts, that I already loved Alex. I like that he knew before I did.
Growing up, I never dreamed of my wedding day, even though marriage is expected of women in Albanian culture. But also: I have loved my husband since the week I turned 21.
And almost from the beginning, our love was marked by sickness.
Here’s an incomplete list of the medications I took on my wedding day: Ritalin, Klonopin, Ubrelvy, Sprix, Zembrace, Tylenol, Aleve, and a $400 intravenous of Zofran meant to tackle migraines caused by a traumatic brain injury. This isn’t everything and it doesn’t take into account the medications I take on a daily basis (Levothyroxine to make up for my formerly cancerous and now missing thyroid; Prozac to counteract my depression; Lyrica for the constant pain from the brain injury).
All throughout the golden, beautiful day — as I got ready surrounded by my sisters, mother and friends, as I danced to the beat of the traditional Albanian drum I had insisted on having — I sneaked away to swallow pills and push needles into my arm. This was all in the hopes of extending the battery life of my chronically ill body. And despite my best efforts it was only 10:30 p.m. when I gave in, two hours before our reception was scheduled to end.
In 2015, Alex and I had been together for just over a year when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. We were just kids. I tried to break up with Alex, telling him he still had a chance to be young and healthy and free. He asked if I loved him. I said yes. He said that as long as I loved him, it was his choice if he stayed. And he did.
That year was marked by three surgeries, two rounds of radiation and many bouts of throwing up in public from the cocktail of medications. Within nine months, the cancer was gone with nothing but a necklace-like scar across my throat left behind.
In January 2019, we lived together in Los Angeles where I was a freelance journalist and he worked in film for 20th Century-Fox, when I was knocked unconscious in a car accident. When I woke up behind the wheel, I threw up in the street and told the E.M.T.s I lived at an address that didn’t exist.
Even with the cancer and the traumatic brain injury (and the accompanying, debilitating depression and crushing migraines), I always thought I would find my way back to the land of the well by the time we were ready to get married. I didn’t picture us getting married as much as I pictured us being married. In that picture, Alex wasn’t stopping by the pharmacy on his way home from work to pick up my medications. I wasn’t rationing pills depending on my pain level, and he wasn’t holding my hand when I cried over yet another failed intervention.
The future I saw was spotless, unmarred by chronic illness — but our union was imminent and I was still sick.
I cried on and off for days when we got engaged in May 2021 in my sister’s backyard, surrounded by roses and loved ones — I was so happy. But as I got used to the ring on my finger, I also felt panic set in. How would I get well before the wedding? I had never seen a sick bride before.
Among my friends, I am infamous for the “Irish exit” — the act of leaving a party without saying goodbye. We all laugh about it but there’s a tender truth behind it. I leave when my symptoms become overwhelming, when I can feel the pain inching closer or when the medications that keep me upright start to wear off.
But you can’t Irish exit your own wedding.
My internal monologue in the weeks leading up to our wedding was filled with my fears and, therefore, exhausting. What if leaving early meant letting down our guests and wasting money? Would it break my parents’ and in-laws’ hearts? Everyone might notice and think I’m weird. They might even talk about how my husband should’ve married someone who isn’t sick. Wasn’t it all such a great shame?
I thought often about what it would be like to be worried about the things an able-bodied bride worries about: seating arrangements and dress alterations and whether that one family member would get too drunk. These rote wedding anxieties seemed like a paradise to me. Not having to worry about my sick body on one of the biggest days of my life would have felt like a miracle.
Even still, the day was beautiful and meaningful and life-affirming in a way I hadn’t expected. We were married in Tucson, the city we both grew up in, where we met and fell in love. Surrounded by cactuses and the open desert sky, my older sister performed the ceremony, threading in Albanian phrases from our family and Norwegian phrases from Alex’s background to tie our families together. My nieces and nephews were the flower girls and ring-bearers, and my in-laws and friends gamely joined the traditional Albanian dancing that quickly became the life of the party. It was everything I had been too scared to wish for, sure that my body would stand in the way.
Throughout the day and night, there was a constant ticking in my mind, a bone-deep knowledge of when to take the next medication and when to duck into the bathroom to throw up when the mix of medications became too much. And, finally, when I wouldn’t be able to stave off the inevitable any longer.
I both saw the end coming and I didn’t. When I walked into the bridal suite to take a break from the festivities, I found myself sitting on the floor and desperately ripping the buttons of my dress. The internal alarm was going off, and I was immediately ashamed of my silly hope that this one day would be different from the rest. How could I have believed for a moment that I could escape this ruinous body?
I cried my beautiful wedding makeup off and told my mother that I was tired of listening to my body. When my husband came in, he crouched on the floor and held me. My mother excused herself to give us a moment together, and that tender deference to our new marriage broke my heart all over again.
Alex told me what he had told me so many nights before, in our eight years of togetherness, that no one else could deal with the pain better than I had.
I did end up Irish exiting from our wedding. My husband stayed behind at my insistence, and I wondered how many nights of our marriage would end like this, with me running to a quiet room to be alone with my pain and him alone without a partner.
So our wedding ended with me fleeing the venue with my best friend while my husband drank champagne with our family and friends and toasted to our new life. It ended without me.
But it also ended with me being married to the love of my life. There are so many things I have lost to my chronic illness but in this way, I am lucky: I already know that Alex loves me through sickness.
Fortesa Latifi is a reporter for Teen Vogue and a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work focuses on politics, chronic illness and mental health. She’s working on a memoir about life with a chronic illness.