How would you cope if you or a loved one were suddenly struck with a condition that would affect the rest of your life? That would probably not get better and that would likely get worse? That is what happened to Richard Cohen at the age of 25 when he learned that he had Multiple Sclerosis. His memoir Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness, A Reluctant Memoir tells us how he lived with this progressive disease for 30 years of his life. The span of his life that it covers is one of the ways in which this book is remarkable. You will really learn what it is like to live with Multiple Sclerosis.
Another important aspect of his account is that Cohen is not always “good” at dealing with his condition and the title of the book tells us how he felt when he learned about his condition. He also situates the reader into the paradigm of a privileged man of his generation:
“The trouble with men is that we cannot forget that once we were boys. And boys see their lives as cinemas until we are forced to grow up, to walk away from the theatres in our heads and go home to reality.” (pp. 30-31)
As Cohen discusses the period in which he first accepted his illness, what he stated crystallized for me what a patient’s role is in the treatment of their illness:
“Attitude is not to be easily dismissed as a source of power and influence governing the course of a disease.” (p.141)
This one sentence says a great deal about what a patient must strive for when they learn they have a chronic illness. That attitude is likely best fostered by empowerment – hence the success of Cognitive Therapy models in treating mental illnesses. This statement also supports the view that education, support for patients and families and other resources likely also help patients develop the best attitude to treatment.
Cohen’s profession was also a hindrance to his treatment. The chapters that describe his life as a journalist, specifically a television news producer in the 70’s and 80’s reveal the true biases of that world at that time. Also, journalism certainly did not help Cohen develop the attitude that he came to realize was necessary for him to have to best manage his illness in the context of a very full life. Cohen lied to remain at work and to advance. In fact, he was advised to do so by the few friends who knew he has MS:
“So much of what I had learned about journalism had to do with basic honesty and full disclosure. Yet there I was, about to perform a dishonest act to inaugurate my relationship with an institution built around honesty.” (pp. 63-64)
We follow Cohen through the life stages of moving into a committed relationship, having children, moving out of Manhattan – all in the context of ever worsening Multiple Sclerosis. In case you’re thinking, “Well, now it gets boring,” Cohen’s life takes another twist when he learns he has cancer. In final chapters, Cohen considers how his children and his wife have managed his worsening and developing illnesses. His account of these life struggles is nuanced for the reader by the fact that Cohen and his wife, Meredith Vieira, are giants in the United States world of journalism and so much of their coping is ultimately in the public domain. Cohen emphasizes that it is only after many years that he finally realizes that resilience is fostered by an active role in his own treatment:
“The moment was sobering. A new era had to begin. Coping evolves. It was time to take charge and stop making a monkey of myself. There is work to be done. Trying to sneak away from the truth worked for a long time but now seemed foolish. Adulthood must be learned anew from time to time.” (p.233)
(The page numbers are taken from the Harper Collins first edition of this book, published in 2004, New York.)