Friday, December 24, 2021

Reflecting on a Year of Blindness

 In November of 2020 I began to lose vision in my left eye. It was gradual, expanding outward from a general grayness. I went to one doctor, who sent me to a specialist, who told me that I either had something very scary and life-threatening, or something less severe. She sent me for a blood test to rule out the super scary disease, and it was determined I did not have that. Instead, I had NAAION--or Non arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy. It was fairly rare, no one knew what caused it exactly, and there was no cure. Oh, and the vision loss was permanent. I was also told there was a "slight chance" that within ten years it might happen in the companion eye.

In December of 2020, I began to lose vision in my right eye. This time a third doctor sent me straight to the emergency room, after which I was admitted to the hospital and stayed for the next four days. I was given intravenous steroids to try to arrest the vision loss, and perhaps return some of it. Alas, I think the treatment came too late. The vision did not return in either eye. I was told by a fourth docotr, a top Chicago neuro-opthamologist, that my central vision was gone, but that  I had "Pretty good" peripheral vision. "But you are legally blind," he told me cheerfully. I suppose he was used to delivering news like that. It was brand new for me.

For a year I've been adapting to legal blindness. I can no longer drive, which means no quick errands or trips to the store. I'm reluctant to walk alone, although I did just receive a walking cane from the Chicago Lighthouse that will help me to anticipate bumps and holes in the sidewalk. I bought an i-phone so that I could use the voice software which will read me my e-mail and messages. I bought dark markers and a giant pad so that I can make lists to organize my thoughts. Ironically, I can still write perfectly, but I can't read what I write. I can't read at all, and so I've discovered audiobooks. When I prepare to teach, I either have to listen to texts on audio or have someone read the material to me so that I can review it before class. This works well, but I do miss being able to make specific textual references, to point to a specific line that I've annotated for a particular reason. Worst of all, I cannot see faces. Not those of my family, my friends, my students. I cannot see my own reflection in the mirror.

There is a certain existential horror in being cut off from eye contact--perhaps our most essential way of connecting to other people. I miss that the most, I suppose. I also miss the autonomy that vision brings. I've sacrificed a fair amount of independence simply because I have to ask for help with so many things. Depending on others means I can't always set my own agenda, so my agency within situations is sometimes limited.

As a teacher and a writer, I find it almost unbelievable that this painless, silent condition would remove the very things I need most: the ability to read and connect. I have spent a year finding ways to adapt to my new situation, and, for the most part, I've been successful.

I should mention that there have been positives within this tough situation. I find that I listen more, and better, and that people appreciate that skill. The audiobooks I now listen to are a constant delight; I feel like a child again, listening to stories. I have been able, so far, to keep my teaching job with the aid of a T.A., (who happens to be my son, the perfect classroom companion)/; I find that I can still teach effectively and well, and I still find my job rewarding. Thanks to my high school typing teacher, I can type without being able to see the keyboard, so my writing career can continue. I am still surrounded by humor in the form of my husband and sons, and I laugh often. I worked with an occupational therapist who taught me many life hacks to help negotiate a blurry world: rubber band around the shampoo bottle, raised stickers on microwave and stove buttons, large lined pads and dark markers for writing. Neighbors and friends dropped off food, gifts, chocolates, gift cards, in a river of compassion that still warms my heart. People offered to read my work and help with editing, so I can still write with their help.

What I cannot do, unfortunately, is see the manuscript for editing myself . I have always prided myself on turning out clean documents and finding every little error with my eagle eye. Now I must ask others to edit for me, but I don't have the luxury of that final edit, where I can sign off on my own work. I regret this, and the fact that readers have already noticed some typos in my latest book.

The fact that other people are willing to help me, though, is most gratifying. I am finding some abilities that I did not know I possessed. For example, when I used to have to speak in public, I would compose a speech beforehand and read it at the podium. Now, without that possibility, I have to commit to a much more personal speech, memorizing the components in advance and then speaking extemporaneously. I have done this several times now, though I never would have done it before.

There is no denying that I would like to have my vision restored, but I am handling life just fine without it. Ultimately, in losing something, I find myself grateful for what I still have. Four others sense, some vision that can be enhanced with magnifying goggles so that I can type a post like this. It's like wearing the Hubble Telescope on my face, and it tires my eyes quickly, but hey--thank goodness for technology!

After a year of blindness, I am hopeful for new innovations, grateful for many blessings, and eager for a new year of writing and teaching. Life is good, my family and friends are healthy, I have three cat companions and a very loving Labrador, and sound software on my beloved laptop.  :)

So it's a happy holiday season, and I hope that you are happy as well, full of plans for a new year and full of ideas for books to read. 

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays to one and all! May your days be merry and bright.