Seeing Myself As Healthy, MS And All

Nov 16, 2017

Illness: the word itself can evoke fear, disgust, pity. Even suspicion.

I was having lunch with friends when one of them asked me if I was healthy. I didn’t know how to answer.

I could have said: I have Multiple Sclerosis.

But I didn’t. Since my diagnosis 13 years ago, I have kept my illness in the closet. Because I am able to.

When I was growing up, I knew that my Great Aunt Yelda walked with a limp. In the parlance of my family, she was "crippled."

That was the only thing I knew about her.

When I was diagnosed, I learned that I was like Aunt Yelda. That's when my mother told me that she'd had an illness, and that illness was MS.

Illness: the word itself can evoke fear, disgust, pity. Even suspicion. Like when it's seen as a sign of physical weakness, moral failure, or even God's wrath.

Yelda Rauenzahn with her husband in the 1940s.
Credit unknown / Courtesy Erin Valentino

One answer to that friend's question could have been, “well, it depends on how you define health.”

In fact, we do have a working definition, provided in 1948 by the World Health Organization: "Health is a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." 

The skeptic in me wonders if I know anyone at all who matches that definition.

Despite my MS, I see myself as healthy. There is more to me than my illness.

Just like, as I recently found out, there was more to my Aunt Yelda than people ever talked about: she had a family, and lived a full life.

I'm stepping out of this MS closet, because I realize I'm able to.

I would like to join you in the conversation fully. Even though openly answering questions like my friend’s feels risky, both personally and professionally.

I could be rejected, or denied an opportunity.

But I'm trusting you to see me beyond my illness. I'm trusting you to see me the way I see myself.

Erin Valentino, a librarian at Trinity College, has been conflicted about talking openly about an illness she’s been living with for over a decade. Valentino lives in Coventry, Connecticut.