We met because we share an uncommon illness. We both get physically sick from Wi-Fi.
Not just Wi-Fi, actually. But also cell phones, computers, air conditioners, transport vehicles, televisions, and other devices that graduated the human species from life in the wild.
I have a functional impairment called Electro-Hypersensitivity, which means I experience extreme neurological and immunological symptoms in the presence of electromagnetic fields. In short: the modern day world debilitates me. This makes dating a little difficult.
I wasn’t born this way. My illness developed over the last few years. I used to adore my wireless life, no cords or strings attached. I was the consummate Manhattan girl, flitting from creative meetings to happy hours to lattes with friends. I spent my single girl nights chilling in my apartment, laptop on my lap, earbuds in both ears, my emo Pandora playlist whirling, until I fell asleep with my iPhone streaming YouTube next to my pillow. The men I dated were hyper-connected to their digital personas: the MTV production manager, the online ad sales director, the biotech jetsetter. And I could flirt with the best of them on iMessage.
Then I got sick, and my world narrowed from thriving in a city of nine million people to surviving as far off-the-grid as possible. Just try being a single, mid-30’s New Yorker with this disability. It’s not like there’s an EHS dating app. How would that work? Swipe right if you sleep with your circuit breakers turned off. Swipe left if moving your forefinger across the glowing screen triggers neurological spasms.
Outwardly, I don’t appear sick. So when I unmask my invisible illness to a potential romantic partner, the guy nervously shifts away from me, and then disappears into the ghosting void.
But meeting Chris was effortless. Being electro-hypersensitive, he’d lived it all too – the pain, the displacement, the disorientation, the marginalization. There was an implicit understanding of what I could and could not tolerate, as opposed to the stoic men of my recent past who balked at my limitations.
We were introduced by a mutual friend who envisioned us soul mates. Sharing a strikingly similar medical, personal, and professional history, we consequently suffered similar existential losses. As he observed, “We’ve missed each other by seconds, our entire lives.”
I lived in a New York suburb. He lived in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. After a handful of emails, we arranged to meet in a quiet village while he was in my vicinity on a trip. I suggested an “outdoor meeting to grab coffee” (translated to: dash into a Wi-Fi pulsing café, order, pay, run out in five minutes flat), and then stroll leisurely around town. He was totally up for that, despite it being 32 degrees and sleeting.
We talked for three hours, our synchronistic dialogue including tales of our lives, pre- and post-illness.
“I used to surf off the coast of Long Island,” he said. “Now I spend nights researching vitamin B supplements.”
“I used to down vodka shots with ad sales guys until 4:00 a.m.,” I countered. “Now I read biochemistry journals on metabolic function.”
He was smart, witty, sardonic—cute, in a brainy-scientist kind of way. A building biologist by profession, he waged wars against chemicals, mold, and electromagnetic fields, transforming toxic houses into healthy homes.
For an EHS woman, Prince Charming does not arrive in a BMW checking his investment portfolio on an iPad en route to Per Se. Instead, he appears with a suitcase of EMF detectors, voltage probes, and frequency spectrum analyzers, and can quote the latest peer-reviewed research on brain absorption of mobile phone radiation.
Google Maps told me we lived 371.7 miles away from each other. Too sensitive for the electrified tin cans known as planes, trains, and buses, we were unable to take public transportation. We could have re-awakened 19th century letter writing. But with a nod to sadomasochism, we opted for digital transmissions instead.
Our communication required technology that physiologically caused us harm. Yet the lure of talking to each other was as addictive as the smart phones themselves. Testing the limits of radiofrequency safety, he called me often. With my mobile on speaker-mode, positioned a three-foot buffer from my body, we talked for hours at length, several times a week, for months straight.
During one conversation, he spoke about his former relationships.
“I wish I could go back in time and teach boundaries to all the women I dated.”
I paused, stunned, before responding, “That’s kind of harsh, no?”
He disagreed, “Boundaries are very important. We all need boundaries. Alison, you do too.”
I couldn’t tell if that was a subliminal hint at our undetermined romantic versus friendship status or if he had sincerely fallen victim to a series of stalker chicks.
A research assignment brought me to his region in September. I slept at an Airbnb down the block from his place. But otherwise, we spent seven days together. We took ethereal car rides through the Blue Ridge Mountains. We ventured far into the Radio Quiet Zone, to a West Virginia town without Wi-Fi. It was silent. It was still. I had never been more present with anyone.
On my last evening in his city, we sat on a cobblestone wall outside an old mill.
“Are you ready to move here yet?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered, “I feel better here.”
“You look better here,” he smiled and said, “Welcome home.”
The next afternoon, awaiting my ride in a DC parking lot, pockets of silence marked our final hours together. We had shared so much, it seemed incongruous to speak.
“Come back,” he suggested, “Spend more time here.” I concurred.
With a hug goodbye, a wave from his car, and a “see you soon,” he drove home.
“Soon” was December, three months later. I secured another week-long rental, but this apartment was an electromagnetic nightmare. With radiofrequency-blocking fabric, he constructed a makeshift faraday cage around my bed, so I wouldn’t be irradiated in sleep. But outside the bed wasn’t safe; we both felt electrocuted. I needed asylum. He offered his apartment as sanctuary between daylight and twilight.
His home had a healing scent, an alluring blend of natural wood and herbal remedies. For a couple of days, we split time online with his Ethernet cord. We ran errands, cooked dinner, and swapped supplements tips. When he was tired, he took a nap. When I was tired, I made more tea. I learned that fennel makes him sleepy. He worried my daily caloric intake was too low. And I saw he’d kept every handwritten note I mailed him.
Two nights before my departure, in the dairy aisle of Kroger’s, he asked if I wanted to try a new brand of almond milk.
“Pick whichever one you want, my dear,” he said.
So, I did.
That bottle remained in his fridge where I left it, unopened. I never came back.
We didn’t quarrel that night. Nor did we awkwardly wind up entangled in bed. We were friends, almost family. We cared about each other. And then this:
“Are you home? I need to talk to you.”
That’s what his text message read the following morning.
When he came over, his guarded stance put me off guard. His arctic gaze was an arresting contrast to his adoring glimmer. His body positioned a calculated distance from mine, when only the night prior he gave me his hoodie to wear, insisting my clothes weren’t warm enough for the valley’s chill.
“I need the keys back. The ones we made for you,” he demanded.
“Ok.” I implored, “But why?”
“Because,” he yelled, “I’m not your boyfriend. You’re not my girlfriend.”
“I know that,” I said, “But I’m your friend.”
“We’re not together,” he blankly stated. “You have one more hour of my time. Then I’m gone. What can I do for you in that hour?”
Held by his gravitational field, I couldn’t fathom the perceived tragedy of his impermanence. For that one hour, he fought for disconnection to save himself, the narrow limits of his personal border security requiring distance versus proximity. I fought for connection to save myself, the expansiveness of my orbit requiring communion versus separation.
For our final seconds, I was compelled by the resonance of his vocal patterns, the unique way he always pronounced “very” as “vury.” Then he left, his energetic imprint my only remaining incarnation of him.
So I slept one more night in his city, under the bed canopy he had made for me. In the darkness of that room, I looked up at the billowing fabric streaming down from the ceiling, placed there as a shield to envelope me, a haven he made with his hands for my safekeeping. It was the closest we ever got to holding each other in slumber.
I returned home, freezing at the microcellular level. The sudden absence of him drained me. His goodbye was so drastic, his detachment so brusque, it was like he flipped a master switch, unplugged. He powered off our relationship, leaving me enervated in the dark.
We as humans are bio-electrical beings. Our hearts and brains function through electric pulses. So of course, we can be physically affected by our electromagnetic environment. But being electro-hypersensitive also grants me heightened emotional interaction.
When I walked toward him outside the café, our first encounter one year prior, I sensed we were etheric mirrors. I knew we’d have a transcendent love, if we didn’t first destroy each other. A life source that intrinsically potent must either flow continuously or explode spectacularly.
But what I experienced as love with Chris was really energy. There’s a difference between the two, even though they both imply connection. Love is boundless. Energy may be contained. Love is stillness. Energy is dynamic. Love is authentic. Energy can be manipulated. Love relinquishes barriers. Energy can be shielded. Love is empowering. Energy is power.
In our unspoken contract of radio-silence, I’ve since wrestled with the solitude of heartbreak, my body vibrating differently devoid of his rhythm and frequency. I think of the man I met, on a brisk December morning in New York, the man who asked if he could hug me hello. I think of that same man, in the midst of our breakdown, on a frozen December morning in Virginia, the man who asked if he could hug me goodbye. And the space between those bookended embraces, which moved us in an unconscious exchange of evolution and stagnation, a test of our boundaries and our ungrounded identities.
For two people overcome by energy, it was inevitable our connection would be about power—lost in each other’s force fields, unsure how close to stand, uncertain how to protect our hearts.