It was a dull grey Wednesday afternoon, several months ago now, and most of my work colleagues were out of the office at committee meetings which probably mirrored the weather. Alone in my office, I was feeling exceedingly grey myself and so gave into the frustrations of the day as I indulged in a few moments of misery. Naturally, just at this point a fellow abandoned colleague bounced chirpily through the door and caught me red-handed (or perhaps that should be red-eyed), carefully dabbing my peepers with a tissue. Ironically, she’d come in to filch one of my tissues, as the campus shop had run out. I was so engrossed in the effort to avoid a full-on bawl that I wasn’t swift enough to trot out that classic but unimaginative excuse: “I’ve got something in my eye”. I braced myself for the inevitable question, “Are you okay?”. Fortunately, my very sensible colleague didn’t feel the need to ask what was already pretty darn obvious, enquiring instead, “Having a blip?”. I nodded, and the wave of relief as I realised I wasn’t being asked to explain myself had the effect of straightening out my crumpled features somewhat.
I should add at this point that I don’t actually indulge in tears very often at all these days. I think this goes back to the aftermath of my very first surgery when, during the post-op check-up, one of the surgeons scared the living daylights out of me by informing me bluntly in a strong Greek accent: “Your eye is an open wound. You must not get an infection. Do not get it wet.”. During the car journey home, in my post-anaesthetised and shocked state, I asked my mum, “Does that mean I can’t cry?”. “I don’t know”, she replied, with unhelpful truthfulness. So I didn’t. It was well over a year before I got around to asking another surgeon whether in fact it is okay to cry (there were always so many more important questions which needed answering), and fortunately he told me it’s fine. But I still try to avoid it if possible.
As I started to think about writing this particular blog post, I remembered having read something on the RNIB website in the early stages of my RD journey about sight loss and grief. As an aside, don’t be fooled into thinking that the RNIB deals only with blindness. Its website contains a wide range of useful information on just about every eye condition you can possibly think of and many more besides. Similarly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the term ‘sight loss’ equals ‘blindness’. There are many variations when it comes to impaired vision. (I think this should possibly be explored in a separate blog post at some point.) Anyway… I hunted out the information on the RNIB website again and read that “reactions to being diagnosed with sight loss tend to be similar to bereavement”. The article goes on to discuss some of the most common feelings, including shock and denial; anger and questioning; helplessness, fear, and anxiety; sadness and grief; and depression. The section on sadness and grief notes that although these may seem like obvious reactions, the strength or depth of emotion felt can be surprising and this can be especially difficult for more practical people to deal with.
As with grief, the emotions of extreme sadness can wash across in waves, often creeping up at the most inconvenient of times. One minute, things are relatively okay; the next minute I look up at the blue sky, marred by the innumerable black floaters and chase them around in fear as I try to figure out whether there are any new ones. A crushing sense of despair will then descend, as I wonder whether I will ever again be free to fully enjoy the beauty of the outdoors without the threatening sense of fear which always lurks in the background. At other times I’ll test* myself by closing my ‘good’ eye and attempting to read something or focus on something. [*for ‘test’ read ‘torture’] I’m always disappointed, of course. I can’t read with my bad eye and I can’t even see my own face when standing directly in front of a mirror if I close my ‘good’ eye. So again, a crippling feeling of loss and helplessness is swiftly delivered, like a kick to the stomach with steel-capped boots.
So what’s the best way to deal with this internal grief of vision impairment? I don’t really know, to be honest. I guess knowing that it’s a ‘normal’ and completely understandable reaction helps. Also being aware that emotions are transitory and I don’t have to deal with an unrelenting sense of misery all of the time. Having understanding people around also helps, and hence I was particularly grateful to my very sensible colleague, both for not asking awkward and unnecessary questions and also for quietly returning to my office a couple of hours later – not to filch another tissue, but just to check that the blip had passed.
Note: The article on the RNIB website is well worth a read, and can be found at: http://www.rnib.org.uk/recently-diagnosed/coming-terms-sight-loss