Strong at the Broken Places: An Interview With Richard Cohen

  • Three weeks ago, I reviewed Strong at the Broken Places: Voices of Illness, a Chorus of Hope by Richard Cohen and I recently had the opportunity to speak to him about the book.


    In his memoir Blindsided, Cohen writes about to struggle to have a normal life, family and work while battling multiple sclerosis and colon cancer.  As he traveled around the country after the publication of the book, he says "people came out of the woodwork with their own lives in powerful authentic voices."  With 90 million Americans living with chronic illness, the idea of Strong at the Broken Places began to take shape as "a valuable exercise to tell stories of normal people trying to live their lives with chronic illness."

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    Cohen works with the National Health Council in Washington, DC, an organization comprised of numerous advocacy groups, and the council helped him contact the five individuals who were interviewed for the book - Denise, Buzz, Ben, Sarah and Larry. 

    Although the five have different illnesses, Cohen states that they have much in common: "concern for others, connections to others, and a real common thread of a core of strength."  In coping with their conditions, the five also work hard to find hope in their lives, whether through faith, spirituality, human connection or helping others.  Cohen says "if you don't have hope, how can you live, how can you be in a relationship, how can you love?"


    In the book, Cohen talks about one of his coping mechanisms being anger - in his opinion (not shared by the other five), anger can be a productive way of dealing with chronic illness.  "It depends on how you use it - you can't inflict it on other people, but it defuses a lot of the pain."  I asked him if he was still angry and he said, "Oh, I'm always angry." Not at other people, he explained, but at the limitations imposed by his illness.


    Illness puts limits on your life and can take much away, but I asked him if it could give something, as well.  "I never thought illness gives much," he said, but continued that "It changes your view of the world, how you see your own problems and others' problems. It helps you cut to the chase, not sweat the small stuff and ... gives you a more refined sense of what you want your children to know."


    In light of the strength of the five people whose stories are told in the book, I wondered whether resilience is acquired through living with illness.  Cohen is of two minds on the subject, alternating between believing that resilience and strength are in our genetic makeup and, at other times, believing that strength develops through living with a chronic illness.


    Learning to live with chronic illnesses is not just about adapting to the illness.  Cohen says that "We fight two battles: the illness and how people see you, the limitations they assume exist."  The most challenging aspect of interacting with healthy people is "getting them to see you as a whole person, treat you as an equal."  We live in a culture of perfection and beauty and we who are not perfect are marginalized. "People don't want to see us. It's not malicious. They just turn away, assume we can't do it, we're pushed to the side." That happens in the workplace, in social situations, etc.  In the book, Larry calls it "the soft discrimination of low expectations," which happens with people living with a physical illness, but, Cohen says, is much more destructive for people who have a mental illness.


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    Healthy and able-bodied people are fond of using the word "overcoming" in talking about those of us who live with chronic illness and I asked if Cohen believed you can overcome an illness.  He replied, "No, it's going to beat you," and continued to discuss the importance of getting on with life anyway, "[you have to] find a practical way to live, be what you want, do what you want, try not to be beaten down by it."


    We spoke about the importance of finding others who live with chronic illness.  "We seek a community, we all derive strength from each other," he said. He continued and said that reaching out to others on the same journey offers a sense of solidarity.  "Those who have walked in our shoes know what most doctors do not.  They know the journey and have shared the pain.  We speak the same language.  We counsel each other in a way no one else can."


    To share your story with Richard Cohen, email Denise, Buzz, Ben, Sarah or Larry and to access the message boards on the book's website, click here.


    You can read more of Lene Andersen's writing on The Seated View.

Published On: June 20, 2008