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.
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.