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Chronic Disease: Losing Self-Esteem

Chronic illness can erode self-confidence, so it helps to focus on the positive

When my wife, Meredith, and I dropped our daughter Lily at JFK International Airport for a post–high school graduation trip through Europe with buddies, Lily and I entered the terminal while Meredith parked the car.

See also: 7 pain-fighting foods.

Richard Cohen

Richard M. Cohen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than 30 years ago. — Courtesy Richard M. Cohen

"You wait right here while I get my ticket," she instructed firmly as she dashed off to do battle with a ticketing machine. "Yes, ma’am," I thought to myself. I had the uneasy feeling that I was with a sitter, and she was instructing me to behave myself. My daughter is 18, and I had the horrifying sense that generational role reversal already had set in.

This was not the first time I felt that my physical limitations undercut my image of myself as a strong parent. Self-esteem suffers when a father figure sees himself as less than he once was, unable to assume his parental duty. Humiliation comes quickly. I have written before about the pain of feeling like a child. This is nobody’s fault, only a predictable consequence of dealing with a progressive disease that increasingly diminishes a person.

Our flight home from San Francisco only days earlier made the same painful point. We were out there attending son Ben’s graduation from Stanford. The plane would board in less than an hour. Meredith and I sat at a wine bar, discussing how glorious the event had been and the special horror of flying home on the red-eye, leaving at 11 p.m. and landing at JFK just after dawn. I left my wife at the wine bar and hobbled across the concourse to a restroom. “I’ll meet you at the gate,” I told her.

After exiting the restroom, I began to make my way back to Meredith and the kids, looking for landmarks I had noticed on my way there. My legal blindness is as much a problem in these situations as my limited ability to just to walk. I eyed a fork in the concourse ahead that had escaped notice coming from the other direction; I now had to guess which road to take. 

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