Monday, August 13, 2012

The Evil Stick

Glacier has been officially retired for ten days now and although I wasn't working him much before his retirement, I had not been out with a white cane in nearly ten years. Up until now, I haven't had the need to go anywhere that would require me to venture out on my own, or perhaps more accurately, I avoided things that required me to venture out on my own, but Sunday morning I was scheduled to go for a run with a local running group and I didn't want to start missing practices just because I was terrified to leave my flat without a dog or sighted guide.
So, I mentally steeled myself as I left my flat, giving myself a pep talk and convincing myself that this was a necessary evil. I reminded myself that this was the first walk without a dog I'd done on my own in a very long time and that there was a lot of room for improvement. Knowing that I can always improve upon something is very encouraging to me and so I gritted my teeth and stepped out my front door; wanting very badly to turn around, go back inside and text my guide runner to say that I wasn't coming.
Two things kept my feet moving though: 1. Finding guide runners has been extremely difficult. If I start blowing them off, especially in this early stage, it is highly possible they will think I'm not serious/interested and will move on.
2. fear has never stopped me from doing anything before, why should it now?
For those people who are not optically challenged, I'm not sure how to explain the difference between working with a dog and a cane. For those of you who have used either one of the other or both, you may be able to relate. But for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, let me try to clarify a bit.
Guide dogs are impressive creatures who, at the end of the day, are still dogs. It is important to know that I do not say to my dog, "dog, go to the store" or "dog, take me to the gym." That is not how things work. If I am setting out, I need to know where I'm going in order to give the dog cues where to turn, which streets to cross and what doors to find. The dogs do the work of making sure I avoid obstacles, line up straight with curbs and get me across the street from one curb to another. In using a dog for the last ten years, I have lost some of the skill of walking directly from one curb to another without drifting one direction or another and this is where my mistake came from.
I set out at a slow pace, thinking that if I hurried I would be more likely to make mistakes. I also left with a lot of time to spare to account for any mistakes and for my much slower pace. As I walked along my street, my confidence began to rise and I started to relax a bit. I began to talk myself into the fact that I could definitely do this; I had to do this.
As I neared the end of my street, I quickly realised that something was wrong. The traffic noise was in the wrong spot and I could hear cars driving over cobble stones. Somehow, somewhere I had drifted down a side street. If I had gone where I should have, there would be no cobble stones and the cars' noise should have been coming from my right. I began to feel the first  flutters of panic begin to rise in my stomach. I took a few deep breaths and turned back around. If worst came to worst, I'd just have to back track. The problem was, at that particular moment, I didn't know where I had gone wrong. As I turned myself around, an older gentleman approached me and asked if I needed help. I must have looked completely freaked out because as I explained where I needed to go, he said he'd just walk me to that crossing. As he guided me along, we began to chat and I explained that this was my first walk without my guide dog. A sudden and surprising throat tightening made me stop as I felt the tears well up.
I missed Glacier. I missed working with a dog who wanted to work. I was more terrified than I had allowed myself to believe.
The gentleman got me to the crossing and I let him chat on, trying to calm my frayed nerves. I was closer to home than to the gym, maybe I should just go home?
My stubborn pride would not let me and the thought of potentially losing a guide runner. It was to be our first run together and I didn't want her thinking I was flakey.
He joked that his wife would think he had run off as he guided me across one more crossing. He teased me that I should have picked a route that was just a straight line and his good natured humour released some of the tension I was feeling. I thanked him and promised him that I would be fine from there on in. My voice sounded confident, but I didn't believe myself. At least he did and he went back the way he had come, ensuring that I was facing the right direction first.
I carried on, making one crossing easily, but completely freezing at the second. There are tactile bumps at the corners to indicate where to cross and for some reason, I had it in my head that they were shaped like a square and I was looking for the central spot in order to align myself with the curb across the street. I quickly found out that they are more cone shaped and until I figured that out, I felt the panic returning. I stood for what felt like an eternity on one corner debating if I was supposed to cross there or not. I even thought about going home, but there was just as much likelihood that I'd get lost on the way home as there was if I finished my journey. So, I went forward.
I crossed a few more streets, but because I was so frazzled I forgot to count the streets and ended up passing the entrance to the gym. I walked a bit past it and found a wide open area. It was possible that I had passed that open area with the dog and not known it, but my commonsense told me that it may be  the parking lot for the gym. So, back I went and was relieved to find I had made  the right decision as I walked down the sidewalk to the gym's entrance.
Eventually, I found the gym door and went in to find my guide waiting for me. I was just so relieved to have finally arrived that I could have just sat down and not gone on the run at all. I checked the time as we passed through the security gate and was shocked to discover that it had taken me a half an hour to walk to a place that should have taken less than fifteen minutes. Good thing I had given myself the extra time: at least I had made it in time to go for the run after all.
The physical activity of pushing myself over the 5 kilometre distance helped to unwind my nerves, but upon returning to the gym, I began to get worried about the trip home. I know I'm not helping myself at all and I'm sure things will get easier, but independent travel  with a cane is absolute torture for me: it is terrifying. I give props to those blind and low vision people out there who choose the cane over the dog. Of course each mode of transportation has its pros and cons, but for me personally, the cane is definitely not what I would choose.
Luckily for me, my guide runner offered to walk me home and to continue to do so until a dog can be found for me. I really appreciate her help and I will probably take her up on it, but at the same time, I also need to get used to using a cane and I also need to get better at it. Starting at the end of September I am going to have to navigate a university campus on my own with a cane and the quicker I get over my fears, the better off I will be when the time comes to go back to school. That said, my instinct is to light the cane on fire and throw it as far away from me as possible. Judging on how I did on Sunday, I might be better off without it. Then again, I'd then risk ploughing into obstacles, people and traffic.
So for now, I suppose I must accept my fate and somehow conquer the evil stick.


Molly The Wally said...

We salute you and we think you are very brave. Take care and have a great Monday.
Best wishes Molly

Finn said...

I also think you are very brave. Reading this - I feel as though I take my sight for granted sometimes. I am glad you didn't let your fear get the best of you and that you ventured out and onward to the gym!

Ashley S said...

Hey Jess. Your experience makes me think of my own lack of confidence with a cane, and it also makes me think that there is value in maintaining cane skills even while we have working guides. I've been using dogs for 9 years now and have maybe used my cane on a walk once in that time. I really think I should get in a bit of practice. :) I am sure the sense of panic will decrease soon, even if you always prefer to work a dog.

Mango said...

I am amazed reading that story. It is unimaginable to me. Out and about, crossing streets, counting, for the first time in ten years. I'm so relieved that you found that nice man to help you.

I can't believe you had the energy to go for your run. I think my nerves would have been too shot, but it sounds like completing the run and getting home safe and sound helped you at least a little.

Hopefully you will have time to acclimate to the campus before school starts. Oh Glacier. I know he had to retire, but what a difficult transition for you.

Mango Momma

Mango said...

P.S. I love your new header! All four of you look great.

Mango Momma

torie said...

Awwww Jess that must have been super hard. I always hated using the cane. I only used it when i had mobility! I never went anywhere with the cane at all. I would have just gone sighted guide. Take care. Oh by the way do you have to be treated as a new applicant since you moved? Or do you get priority?

Take care, xxx.

Shawn said...

You are very brave and hopefully, with time, your travels will become easier.
Take care,

L^2 said...

I can definitely relate to this. I felt a similar anxiety when using the cane after Willow retired. What helped my confidence immensely was using a GPS unit. I pretty much always knew where I wanted to go and the route I needed to take to get there, but I still found it very reassuring that I could check my current position with the GPS anytime I wanted, to make sure I was still on track.
I know handheld GPS devices can be pretty expensive, but if you have an iPhone there are several affordable GPS apps, which work with Voice Over, that might be of some use to you. Personally, I think the Ariadne app is pretty good - and yes, it is available for UK users. :-) It isn't nearly as advanced as using something like my Trekker Breeze GPS unit, but you can still use it to find out where you are at any given moment. So, you can either rest assured that you are where you should be, or you can identify more quickly that you have made a mistake and also use it to figure out how to get back to the correct location without quite so much panic. There is also the Navigon GPS app - it's much more expensive, but also a bit more advanced.