Darkness

A story in fifty words…no more…no less. The Daily Post Challenge: Fifty

eyes

 

Tensely gripping the armrests, she received the ophthalmologist’s proclamation. The weight of it slammed into her chest.

 
“You will lose your vision…nothing can be done…”

 
He placed the heavy mantle of loss over her shoulders and a darkness settled upon her.

 
“Go now and live your life…” he said dispassionately.

Sophie Goes to the Zoo!

Sophie Goes to the Zoo! 

To fight the winter doldrums, my husband and I decided to go to the zoo. The weather was a sunny 77 degrees in Atlanta and we were hoping the animals would be out soaking up the sunshine. We had not been to the zoo since our children were young! I was excited to go as it would be a good opportunity to expose Sophie, my guide dog, to a new environment. I think it is important to continually provide her with new experiences and chances to hone her skills as a guide. Not knowing how she would do, I had a bit of concern too about the outing. I decided to use her Gentle Leader to help her contain her excitement and stay focused, which turned out to be a good idea.

Let's Go To the Zoo!

Let’s Go To the Zoo!

We joined the sea of people who had the same idea at the Atlanta Zoo. When in public with Sophie, I often hear people say to their children “We can’t pet the dog, it is in training” or people ask me, “Are you training her?” The answer is “yes” and “no”. Yes, a guide dog handler is always training their dog as a way of keeping them focused and performing well. Just like us, they are always learning new things and tweaking the dance they do with their partner. And no; she is a graduated guide dog and I am using her as a visually impaired person. I like to believe people think she is still “in-training” because I appear to move with ease and grace and seem to be a good “trainer”! Ha! After-all, I don’t “look blind”. But maybe they ask that because sometimes Sophie pulls an occasional “naughty dog” trick which seems unbecoming of a professional guide dog! (She did sniff out a plate of discarded French fries under a bench, but I caught her just in time!). The truth is probably both. But don’t be too quick to judge please! There are a few basic things about blind people and their guide dogs to understand:

1. Guide dogs are dogs, not machines. They have good days and bad days just like all of us.
2. They have already proven themselves to be up for the job by surviving a rigorous program of professional preparation. Have respect for their training.
3. Sometimes, a guide dog’s behavior is about being in a totally new situation or environment and they need instruction from their handler, who also may be in a new environment, having their own difficulties.
4. It is not always easy to “handle” a guide dog. It takes a lot of time, practice and patience to become a smooth working team. You may not realize the team is new and still getting used to each other.
5. Guide dogs are amazing creatures and learn to follow a series of commands. The handler is responsible for giving the commands clearly and the dog is responsible for carrying them out safely.
6. Many people who use guide dogs have some vision. There are “degrees” of blindness; we fall on a spectrum somewhere between 20/200 or “legal blindness” and “no light perception” at all. Many of us are going blind gradually. We may not “look blind” but we are not “faking it”. Why would we??
7. Though we love our dogs and enjoy many benefits of having them, they are first and foremost a tool of mobility to us.
8. The working team deserves respect; treat us with dignity. Ask for permission to interact with the dog. Talk to the person, not the dog.
9. It is best that you fight the urge to pet and interact with our guide dogs when they are in harness. Don’t pet and then excuse yourself by saying “Oh I just couldn’t help myself, she is so beautiful!”
10. Guide dogs do not do tricks. Sophie is a professional guide dog, not a circus animal. Her greatest “trick” is always evident – guiding me safely in a world full of obstacles and dangers.

Our day at the zoo was delightful! In spite of the crowd, Sophie was on her game. She weaved me through people gracefully and “followed” when I asked her to. She pulled at an eager pace and seemed intrigued by the animals. The tiger was especially interested in her and paced frantically at the fence. It made me nervous so we moved on. All the monkeys gathered on their platform to come see the “pretty dog”, squealing with delight. I enjoyed the sun on my face, the variety of smells and exotic sounds, and the occasional glimpses of the animals I was able to squeeze out of my vision. My husband patiently narrated scenes like the playful antics of the baby gorillas. Despite the many distractions, Sophie handled the challenge and excitement of our adventure like a pro. A good time was had by all! So get out of the house and do something new. It is good for the soul!

Sophie and Po the Panda

Sophie and Po the Panda

Sophie the lioness

Sophie the Lioness

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.

Lower the Standard???

My husband is a wise, clever and loving man. He once told me to “lower the standard” and it was one of the most loving things he has ever said to me! Over the years, this loving suggestion has freed me from the tyranny of perfection and saved me from my over-achieving, over-striving self, time and time again.

One of the hardest things to accept as you lose your vision is the reality of new limitations. Vision loss slows you down and it is impossible to be as efficient and productive as you were when fully sighted. In the early years of learning to live with low vision, my days were filled with frustration, set-backs, and mishaps. One no-good terrible day, I decided to clean the refrigerator. I knocked a carton of milk off the shelf. As a white river began to flow across the floor, I leaned down to clean it and bumped into another shelf which sent a jar of bright, red maraschino cherries and dill pickles crashing to the floor. The dogs sidled up to lick at the colorful, sticky mess. Hurriedly, I shooed them away and felt around for  the broken jars and shards, cutting my finger. Angry now, I threw the pieces in the sink and broke a glass pie dish. One step forward, five steps back…not an atypical day! Many days were punctuated by a succession of searches for lost items-glasses, magnifier, dropped earrings or ice cubes that skitter just beyond my vision but in clear view! I rarely seemed to be able to get everything done on my ambitious to-do list and would end the day tired, defeated, and feeling guilty. During this time, I was juggling the demands of work and meeting the needs of my family. I struggled to figure out which things were most important and what things I had to let go. True to my nature, I wanted to get everything done and do it well.

One day, upon arriving home from work, my husband found me haggard and the house in chaos. Tearful, I apologized that I did not do a better job of “holding down the fort” and he quietly said “Lower the standard honey…it won’t kill us to eat on paper plates tonight.” This was revolutionary to me! I do not mean to suggest that blind or visually impaired people cannot be efficient, productive and organized. Nor do I suggest that there should be a lesser standard for the blind. That would be offensive. Through the process of vision rehabilitation, we become quite skilled, resourceful and competent in managing our lives. We learn to adapt and adjust the pace of life to match our skills, goals and priorities. Some become the “super-blind” and the “uber independent”. I myself have had to fight this temptation because it is often accomplished at great personal cost. Most of us just want to live normal lives and keep up with the demands and responsibilities of the lives we have carved out for ourselves.

Now in my fifth decade, I better understand what is most important in this life: relationships. That is where I choose to invest my time and efforts. It matters not that the house is spotless or that I am caught up with the laundry. There are many things that can wait until tomorrow. What is important to me is that I make the time to nurture family, friends and myself.

Maybe “live by your own standard” more clearly states the concept. What is important to you? Be realistic about what can be accomplished in a day and stick to the important stuff. Give yourself a break, lighten up, have some fun, learn to relax, recreate and give these gifts to others as well. Keep it simple, remember to breathe, and eat off paper plates once in a while.

What Do You See?

I am asked this question many times and it is difficult to answer. Often, I do not know what I see…for what I am looking at does not declare itself readily. The world through my eyes is a shadowy, ill-defined place with uncertain shapes and colors. I am losing the ability to detect light and color in increments as if the world around me is a watercolor scene fading into the canvas. At times, I see nothing, only darkness and danger; other times the world is brilliantly washed in diffuse light and a soft blurriness which is almost beautiful… like a Monet… Almost…

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