From Personal Loss to Personal Growth

Blindness is a thief of much more than just vision. It robs you of many things and the impact is life changing. In the early stages of adjustment, loss is its anthem and grief is its mantle. Often depression is a close companion of vision loss because the losses pile up and overwhelm one’s ability and internal resources to handle them. This was my experience.

In the beginning, I was not even aware of all the losses that would come as a result of my vision loss, which served to protect me. There are many kinds of losses to catalog. There is the actual sensory loss of vision; losing touch with the physical world and missing out on information, colors and beauty. Shattered dreams are another significant loss. There are material losses caused by blindness like the loss of a job, car, home, or relationship. And there are internal, personal losses suffered such as self-esteem, confidence, social standing, identity, security and purpose in life. Indeed, blindness is a greedy thief that seeks to destroy…if you let it.

The task is to learn to accept, adjust, cope, and reaffirm life as a person who is visually impaired. The process is a long farewell to who you once were and how you used to do things. It is a tall order but the point is you can learn to adjust, limit your losses, and reclaim your life. Adjustment to blindness is a process; it takes time, training, and courage. It does not submit itself to a timeline or linear progression. According to The Hadley School for the Blind, there are 7 stages of adjustment to vision loss:
1. Physical and Social Trauma
2. Shock and Denial
3. Mourning and Withdrawal
4. Succumbing and Depression
5. Reassessment and Reaffirmation
6. Coping and Mobilization
7. Self-Acceptance and Self-Esteem

The Hadley course entitled “Self-Esteem and Adjusting With Blindness”, suggests that adjustment to blindness is an ongoing process as it calls for continually learning new techniques, revisiting issues of loss, reliving seasons of depression and reassessing goals and dreams. (I found this course to be very helpful.) Somehow it comforts me to know these stages. It gives me a roadmap and milestones to anticipate. There is much about the experience of “loss and grief” that is universal and it has been well-studied. It is reassuring to know that the myriad of powerful emotions I experience are all within the “norm” for a grieving person. And that eventually these emotions will give way to positive growth and progress. You never quite finish adjusting. This is also true of personal growth. We are always growing as a result of our experiences and life stressors. We are always adjusting to what life brings us; new stages, crisis, joys, challenges, set-backs and losses.

There was a time when I was not “adjusting” very well to my vision loss. I was angry and felt that life was unfair. I was afraid of the future. And I was depressed. In short, I was “stuck” and it affected every aspect of my life. Eventually, I sought counseling and began to understand the impact and implications of my vision loss. I learned about depression; that there was no shame in it, which freed me to address it. Through cognitive therapy, I learned that our emotions come from what we are thinking; negative thinking results in negative feelings. This seemingly simple concept was a key to turning my depression around. With my counselor, I worked through a book called “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by Dr. David Burns. This book proved to be a toolbox full of tools to deal with negative emotions which I have used over and over in life. It changed my thinking and perspective on my vision loss and many other things in life. It taught me to “reframe” the negatives, correct distorted thinking patterns, and find the good and positive side of things.

Joining a support group was an important step that helped me adjust to my vision loss. Meeting others who have successfully navigated through life encouraged me. It empowered me to hear their stories and learn from their experiences. It inspired me develop new plans and reach for new goals. It was the beginning of learning everything I could about my disease and what to expect in the future. Knowledge was an effective therapy and it moved me forward.

Another turning point for me was when I reached out for rehabilitation services. Just the process of learning new skills like walking with a white cane and reading with a video magnifier gave me hope and restored my confidence. It was hard to accept the reality that I needed help. I hid my vision loss for so long and it was frightening to go public with it. But in the end, getting rehabilitation services has been liberating on many levels and the payoff has been well worth it. My adjustment to vision loss continues.

Highlights From Guide Dog School # 7

March 22, 2011 Let’s Go To the Mall!
Little did I know there was so much to learn at the mall with a guide dog! I usually avoid malls because they are so visually confusing, but Sophie handled the mall just fine! And she was a well-behaved shopper! First we went to Target- all 13 of us with our guide dogs. We were a sight to behold and every child in there was squealing about the “doggies” Mothers were trying to explain to their children about “no petting” while the dog is working. This is proper etiquette for the public and it is well known around here since the guide dogs are always out and about town. We are supposed to try to “teach” our local public how to respond to the dog. The dogs are so beautiful and irresistible and friendly. People always want to pet them…but petting is a no-no when the dog is in harness. There are a couple of reasons…one is it distracts them from their work and concentration which could put the person at risk. In Detroit while crossing a HUGE intersection, someone wanted to stop and pet Sophie! People are really bold and impulsive about it. All I wanted to do was get across that road safely! Another reason is that the dogs will learn to solicit attention while in harness-‘cuz what beautiful dog does not want attention? Then it encourages attention seeking behaviors… So we learned how to use a shopping cart while working a dog, how to put them in a sit at the counter when paying, and how to “follow” someone you may be shopping with. My instructor had me give the “follow” command and then zig-zagged all over the store. Sophie stayed right at his heels and enjoyed the game of it! This will be a helpful skill when Kev and I go out shopping or to a restaurant etc. Sophie will learn to follow Kevin. Then we went to the mall and practiced elevators, escalators, stairs, and the follow command. Sophie weaved in and out of the crowd with grace and ease. It is recommended that we avoid escalators whenever possible but they showed us how to use them if we have to in a way to protect their paws. The mall was very busy and over stimulating for the dogs, but Sophie remained focused.

I got my first email from the family that raised Sophie! it was a quick one and I will be getting more info, but this is what I know so far. She was raised in Sioux Falls S. D. The woman is a nurse and has four older kids. She said “they prayed for someone to love Sophie as much as they do”. I am very excited to talk more with her and learn more about Sophie. Oh and she said she will send photos of her puppyhood… Well, the other day we received our handmade, custom leather harnesses…they are really, really nice looking. In the next few days we will be doing exit interviews and signing our contracts for our dogs and receiving our diplomas. They do not do a ceremony here as some schools do…it is low-key. On Friday afternoon, I will arrive home with Sophie. Kevin has been busy getting her supplies ready at home. I feel ready and want to get home to show her around her new home and family. I am SO excited for you all to meet her…but they advise us to keep it quiet for a few days…to not introduce the dog to too many new things and people all at once. i will have a week off at home with her so that will help her adjustment. Time to close for now…hope you are all well Big Hugs from me and Wet Kisses from Sophie! Audrey/Mom
March 23, 2011 Sophie Goes to College
Today in the freezing rain, we went to a nearby college campus to work the dogs. More stairs, elevators and crowded hallways during class changes. We learned a technique called “patterning” which is to teach your dog a specific location or site or landmark that you may frequent. Basically it is to teach them a “find the…” command that is specific to your life. For instance I could pattern Sophie to “find the clinic” upon arrival to school and she would take me right there without any other commands needed. It only takes a few minutes and a few tasty doggie cookies to do it! Things are winding down and I do feel ready to come home. Tomorrow we will learn how to enter vehicles with your dog, do exit interviews and other paperwork. I have a date with several old classmates who i haven’t seen for over 30 years…they are taking me out to dinner and coming to meet Sophie. It should be a great time! Then it is up, up and away back to Georgia. So you may not hear any more from me until i am home. So take care and see you soon! Love, Sophie and Audrey

Highlights From Guide Dog School # 2

*** It was brought to my attention that I never posted  #2 post in this series! OOPS-it was left in the “draft” folder. It is the day I got Sophie and certainly a highlight! The moment she bounced into the room to meet me, my breath was taken away-quite literally and I was overcome with emotion….that moment is indelibly marked  in my memory  for it was the culmination of the long process of applying, waiting, imagining and preparing for this event. My tears were of joy and gratefulness that I was being given such a wonderful gift…

March 8, 2011 “Dogs Before the Dogs”

We are just a few hours now from getting our dogs…they have made many preparations for that special event. The dogs all were bathed and groomed for us so they will be looking and smelling their best. Today we had a special luncheon with the staff all serving us “dogs before the dogs” 🙂 Yes- I ate a hot dog! It was very cute… Our lessons today involved how to “correct” misbehavior. So our instructors pretended to be a dog and took us on a walk with the harness and misbehaved! Kevin said he wanted to see if i was going to be able to give strong enough corrections to the dog if necessary, and made me practice snapping the chain quickly and firmly. There is a certain way to administer corrections and they all thought I was going to be too “soft-hearted”- ha! I fooled them -I said “just ask my kids-I can be firm!” Well, I did fine and it was another good day. It was quite cold today and so we waited in the heated buses for our turn. Tonight at supper one of the students had an allergic reaction where his throat swelled and we had to call 911. He had a known peanut allergy and no Epipen. The ambulance took him to the hospital and we were all worried sick for him. We sat around the table and fretted and then it deteriorated into silly blind jokes and before we knew it we were all cracking each other up! Someone said “We could play a game…” and you know me…I piped up with “yeah-lets play “I spy” and everyone died laughing!!! It is a great group of folks and we are having fun 🙂 Our friend came back from the hospital just now and he is going to be fine. My back is much better tonight and I hope it will be even better tomorrow. Thank you for the prayers, emails, and love…I will be in touch soon after 9am. Hugs and kisses, me, mom, Audrey

March 9, 2011-It’s a Girl!
Hello everybody! My dog’s name is Sophie and she is a sweet and well-behaved Golden Retriever. I may already be partial but I think she is the most beautiful in the class! She is petite (just like her momma hahaha) and she has a very “sophisticated” air about her. Her features are delicate and her coat is wonderfully soft. She weighs 50lbs and is 16 mo. old-still a lot of puppy in her. We walked just briefly in harness today and she just glides along like she is walking on clouds. She already whines if I leave her sight…she has had a stressful day but is behaving impeccably. Right now, Sophie is lying at my feet and looking up at me with the “gaze” of affection. It rained all day today so we stayed in the dorm with the dogs. Tomorrow we will go for our maiden voyage outside-rain or shine or snow! I am having a blast and learning so much good stuff. My back is much better and I am able to walk at a jaunty pace with my head up and back straight…it feels great! Tomorrow the puppy raisers who live close enough will come to visit us to tell us about how the dogs were raised. If your puppy raiser is not able to come, they sometimes will write a letter and send photos. At that time we all get more info about our dogs-birthday, mother and father, health history etc. Well, Jake-let me know how you did on those tests. Hannah-I want to hear more about what you and Martin are up to…Kev, I hope you are able to fight off the cold, Ange and Ash-i would love to see photos of the new love nest! I hope everyone else is healthy and    “ happy soul and body”…Can’t wait until you all meet my beautiful girl!!! Take care for now. Love, Audrey/mom    

Sophie-the day I met her...It was love at first sight!

Sophie-the day I met her…It was love at first sight!

Highlights from Guide Dog School # 6

March 17, 2011-Sophie is Testing Me Now!
Phew…I feel like i have been wrestling crocodiles all day!! My arms are sore and I have blisters on my hands because Sophie was a real pill today! Her trainer left for a conference and I swear she knew. She acted totally different today…she did not want to walk and I could not get her to sit or follow commands. They told us we would have these days and would have to be patient and persevere. I know Sophie knows how to do everything…I just have to convince her she cannot get away with anything with me. One of the trainers who has been doing this for 30 years pulled me aside and had a “word ” with me. He told me I needed to make her obey immediately and that my voice is too sweet and “requesting” rather than ‘commanding”. I will be doing extra obedience exercises for a while. Richard pointed out that I have a busy job to go home to and will not have time to constantly be fussing with Sophie so she must learn her manners! i really appreciated the advice and will practice my “command tone” ( watch out Kev!) I am not discouraged as it seems everyone is dealing with similar issues. Sophie did a lot right today too! Oh yeah…I fell twice today …once was Sophie’s fault and the other was my own. I did not get hurt, only embarrassed! Sophie had a physical with the Vet today. She weighs 49lbs which is her target weight. She has not had ANY health issues since birth. Then we had our photo taken for our official ID badge. This is the ID I am supposed to carry to prove she is a guide dog and I am her handler. Other students talk about experiences when they have been asked to leave stores or restaurants because of their dog. It can get ugly sometimes and the ID can help. it is against the law to deny a blind person with their guide, access to a public place. I can’t believe in this day and age, it still happens but it does. We had a really nice corned beef and cabbage dinner for St. Patrick’s Day. We went to Main Street to work the dogs and the town started their Happy Hour early! The streets were packed and very loud…it was very overwhelming for me and Sophie to navigate through the crowds. I was totally blinded by the sun and truly relied on Sophie. it was a bit scary, but she knows her stuff and made the crossings beautifully. Well, luck of the Irish to y’all. Lots of love too…Audrey/Mom
March 19, 2011-All is Well!

Hi everybody! I am fine…the training has kicked up a few notches and we have had some very long days. I have also been busy helping to take the Spanish group (from Spain) shopping during free times. The weather has been wonderful but all that will change today with ice storms a’comin’. I believe Sophie has “turned over” to me. She stays so close as to always have contact with me in some small way. When she sits under the table at meals now she lays her head on my shoe…it’s so cute! And she is more obedient now that I have been really working on that. We have been doing so many things …let’s see if I can recap a bit… The dogs have learned the “find the…chair, door, elevator, escalator, bench, etc” command. Sophie does it like a pro-she leads me to it and then touches it ever so slightly with her nose to indicate it…so cute! We have been working an obstacle course where Sophie leads me around objects without bumping into them. She also alerts to gaps or holes, cracks, overhanging branches etc. She does it all so well. Yesterday we went to Detroit-very big, urban atmosphere. I think Sophie is a city girl because she really likes it. We worked escalators, stairs, elevators, turnstyles, a people mover train and very busy intersections. No problems at all-in fact Sophie knew what to do better than I did!
Last night we did night travel and it was a long day! We all had to walk a 3 block square route alone with our dog. When we were getting ready to go out, I grabbed my cane (instead of Sophie)…the instructor saw me in the hall and said…”Audrey-what are you forgetting??” Oh my gosh!!! I was tired I guess and not thinking…but we all laughed so hard and he said it was a “first” that a student forgot to bring their dog!!! The other students have NOT let me live it down!!! Anyway-the night walk was really interesting for me and I learned a lot. One, that I need to let Sophie do her job…she knows where the curbs are etc. I had trouble judging distances and passed a few curbs even though Sophie tried to alert me to them. I tried to turn and ended up in an alleyway and Sophie knew it wasn’t right…she turned me back around. I was quite disoriented because things were not where I thought they should be…Gotta go! Love to all, Audrey and Sophie!

Highlights From Guide Dog School # 5

March 15, 2011 Where the Sidewalk Ends

Hi y’all! Today we walked ALOT and Sophie and I are very tired. But it is a good tired that comes with a full day of work and accomplishment. Sophie was a STAR today! We were doing routes all on our own and walked in what is called “country setting”. That is anywhere there are no sidewalks -just a shoulder of the road. The commands are different since you have no curbs etc. Sophie and I had a great day of it and I was particularly pleased because we don’t have sidewalks in PTC. Toward the end of the afternoon, Sophie demonstrated the highest skill a guide dog can have-it is called “intelligent disobedience” and she did it for me…to keep me safe! We were at a corner and I gave her the command to cross the street. A truck was rolling up to a stop sign and I assumed it would stop, but it did not…it rolled through the stop sign and Sophie refused the “forward” command I gave. Wow!! It was a beautiful moment! My confidence in her grew in leaps and bounds….she is proving to be a talented guide. And this is unusual at such a young age still. Things are going very well…I am sleeping well and they are feeding us very healthy meals. Everyone is so attentive to our needs. It is an impressive program and facility. I am so happy with the whole experience and feel grateful that I could come to Leader Dogs. I hope you are all well…and I do miss you! I feel like I have been gone a long time and that I am on another planet! Everything revolves around Sophie! But she does not act like the center of the universe…she is very quiet and unassuming…You all will love her…hugs to my loved ones! Audrey

March 16, 2011 Pedigree is Everything!

It was a very full day! We learned about our dog’s puppy days, pedigree and puppy raisers. Sophie’s mother is named Risa and her father is Takota. Apparently this is a winning combination!! Sophie has FOUR sisters in my same class which is impressive that so many from the same litter would make it all the way in the program to become guides! Her sisters are Bonnie, June Bug, Zera, and Eppy. They were all born on Oct. 8th 2009. Sophie’s puppy raiser is in South Dakota and so I will not get to meet them…I am the only one who will not get to meet their raiser on Saturday…I’m really sad about that…they said I may get a letter and photos from them and I can write to them as well. Of course, I will do that.

We walked with partners today…we were sent out 2 by 2…my partner was a man from Spain and we spoke Spanish together. By the end of the route, i was giving commands to Sophie in Spanish and so now she is bilingual!! Ha ha ha. There are 5 students here from Spain…they are a lot of fun and very boisterous. After lunch, we went to a mid-sized town  to walk the main street and to train on railroad tracks. Some of us wanted to stay later and keep walking and so one of the instructors stayed with us. She took the Americans to an ice cream parlor and she took the Spaniards to a bar for Happy Hour!!!! We said hey-whats up with that??? and so we all ended up at the bar with the dogs in tow of course and she said she would “look the other way” so she didn’t see what we were all drinking!! ha-I don’t think LD would have approved….several drank a couple of beers and then it was like herding kittens back on the bus when it was time to go! Hilarious! The ride back to LD was wild and crazy with the radio cranked up, everyone singing Elton John songs at the top of their lungs and clapping and drumming-it was a lot of fun! The dogs were actually quite calm…nothing seems to rattle them. We were late to dinner tonight and everyone else wanted to know where we were…my lips are sealed! Tonight we learned how to give meds, treat fleas and brush our dogs teeth. Sophie will have a physical tomorrow with the vet and they will teach us about how to exam the dog for managing a proper weight, checking for injuries etc. These dogs have been examined and handled so much that they will let you do anything to them without a fuss-they are so compliant and easy going. That is all the news from Planet Leader Dogs-it was another great day! Love and miss you!! Mom/Audrey

Highlights From Guide Dog School # 4

 

March 13, 2011-Obstacles-No Problem!

Yesterday was a long day…it started out sunny and ~40 degrees-really nice. We did obstacle training. The instructors set up several objects in our path to see if the dogs would do as they were trained. Some things blocked our way totally and the dog had to find a way around it and then return to the original path and direction. Other objects just partially blocked our way and the dogs were to zig zag around them.  And some obstacles were overhead and they were supposed to stop us from running into them. Sophie did it perfectly the first time! She has learned her lessons well! And all inspite of her “handler” (me) cuz I am not doing everything right…for instance…yesterday I did not have her harness on correctly which must have felt really weird to her! Poor thing! Then in the afternoon, they took us to a huge park out in the open that had walking/biking trails. There were people, bikes, strange dogs and slushy mud…the weather instantly turned nasty on us and we were to walk 2 miles by ourselves with the dogs. It was VERY difficult. Sophie was distracted and full of energy. She essentially pulled me through the 2 miles at a trot and I had trouble keeping her focused. I was exhausted from wrestling with her and a little discouraged too. i guess I thought it would be this pleasant stroll out in the country but it turned out to be a mad dash  to the finish line! It worries me a little that she will not slow her pace down sometimes, but she is a puppy still and she has been in the kennel for 4 months. Kevin assures me she will fall into rhythm with me in time. It takes patience, effort and time. It is Sunday and we are off all day. Some of the students are getting sick…please pray I do not catch anything as the schedule is demanding. Next week we get to go out and about more-We will start going into public with the dogs-stores, restaurants etc. I did laundry last night and they had Bingo night for us 🙂 I won a box of Milk Bones for Sophie! woo hoo! Thats all for now…Love to all! Audrey/mom

March 14, 2011 On Our Own

It was a beautiful day here-really! Sunny and in the 50’s.Today we did routes with our dogs “solo”-no supervision of the instructors. Sophie did a wonderful job and i was so glad to get out and walk at a nice pace with her. She is like a little aerodynamic machine, the way she glides along the sidewalks. And she does everything correctly…it felt so good to walk with her.

 This week we will begin to go in public with our dogs…first stop: Petsmart which we can walk to and is right across the street from here. We also get to go to a coffee shop, restaurant, Target, etc. to start to learn proper store etiquette. We are supposed to groom the dogs everyday so they don’t leave hair around in the places they visit. Sophie LOVES to be brushed and she usually falls asleep while I do it. It is very relaxing for me too… Lets see-we will take our dogs to the vet on Thursday for a check-up and to learn a few things from them. And then at the end of the week, we may be meeting our puppy raiser and getting more info about our dog from the Puppy department.

 I can feel Sophie loosening her attachment to the trainer…they say it happens after about 8 days together. The way she looks up at me…oh it melts my heart! She is precious and all I can say is “poor Lucy…”  No, I will make every effort to give her needed attention and love….I have enough for both of the girls! Well- it is time to park the dogs and then put them to bed. Thanks for the emails…i really like hearing from you all. Take care, Love and hugs, Audrey/Mom

Highlights From Guide Dog School # 3

March 10, 2011 Maiden Voyage

Hello everyone, I thought I would give you an idea of what our days are like. We get up at 6:30am to take the dogs out and feed them. Sophie sleeps in my room with me and she did great last night-no whining. Breakfast is at 7:30 and then we load up in the vans to go to local areas to train with the dogs in harness. The locations will get increasingly more busy and active with traffic and obstacles. In between trips out in the community, we eat all our meals with the dogs, and attend classes with them-always on leash and they are all so well behaved! Our classes include obedience, grooming, and today we had one on “T-touch” which is how to give your dog a massage of sorts! It was amazing to see the affect it had on the dogs! They all turned into butter as we rubbed them in a certain way. They told us this was our way to calm them and thank them for their hard work. We are also trying to learn our GPS devices in class. Sophie is a “star pupil”. She is doing everything right and the trainer is very proud of her! So am I! It feels so fantastic to walk with her and when I feel her taking me around an obstacle or puddle I always say “Thank you Sophie!” She just glides me around things so gracefully. She is an aero-dynamic traveler 🙂 At meal time, she lies quietly at my feet and she is very good at our obedience lessons. Everyone comments on her! So today it was a bit rainy which melted some of the snow away. I am so focused on learning that I really don’t even notice the weather much while I am out in it. This was a great time to come because the class is small and we are getting lots of instruction. And I think that this has been an unusually talented group of dogs-so i have heard the staff say. Well, Sophie is asleep at my feet. I think I better go tuck her in for the night. I locked myself out of my room and will have to go get help at the desk….so good night to all…love you much, Mom, Audrey ps.-Sophie means “wise one”
March 11, 2011 She Saved My Life Today!
Today was blustery cold with new snow fall. We did an exercise called “traffic checking” and Sophie was amazing! Three times while out walking, they drove vans suddenly in our paths and she stopped dead in her tracks all three times. In fact, she sort of stepped in front of me to protect me further. Oh she is a great girl! When the test was over, i actually did have someone pull in front of us to turn into a parking lot and Sophie did her job on cue! it was so good to see this and I am so proud of her!!
Tonight we talked about “good play, bad play”. They avoid any kind of play that brings out bad habits or the retriever in them; no balls, no throwing anything for them to retrieve. No dog park visits because it is too unstructured and they pick up rough play and possible injuries. We can play with them of course, but it is intentional, safe and supervised. The only toys recommended are Nyla Bones and Kongs. But hey-she can’t complain cuz she is going to get doggie massages everyday, right??? Ha-the point is she is a “service dog” and so the rules are a bit different.Okay, gotta go for now…more later…Love, Audrey and Sophie