Cosplay Canes Conquer Anxiety

Did you know cosplaying can be good for your mental health?

Half a dozen people in fantasy-style medieval costumes sit around a wooden table. Anneliese, in a long blue vest and faun antlers, is on the right, facing the camera.

As a fantasy writer I feel I finally have a legitimate excuse to spend time and money on grown-up dress-up. It’s a new hobby I’m just beginning to explore, but one that I’ve appreciated from afar for quite some time. This past summer I had the chance to meet up with a regular group of cosplayers for a themed tea party at my favorite café. It wasn’t just fun to stroll around in a jerkin and horns and make new friends, it unexpectedly provided me an unlooked-for opportunity to tackle some blindness-related insecurities.

Part of my experience as a blind person has been wondering how people perceive my physical shortcomings, like my inability to navigate around furniture without ping-ponging off the edges or my tendency to slam my shoulder into door frames on my way through. I run into people, have a hard time determining what is and isn’t a line waiting at a register, or determining if there’s space to go around a group of people in my way, or if I should just try to slip through them as subtly as anyone with a long white cane can.

I wonder if people’s frantic attempts to clear paths for me, constant apologizing when I’m the one who bumped into them, and inordinate praise for successfully performing daily tasks is compassion or condescension. Do we as a society perceive coordination as courtesy, unless provided with mitigating circumstances? What would these people think if I didn’t proclaim my excuse card by walking into every room with a reflective cane or a harnessed German shepherd?

I wasn’t thinking about any of that, though, when I decided that a leather-wrapped bamboo pole felt more period-appropriate for my costume than the graphite stick wrapped in reflective material I normally carried. I donned my jerkin, horns, leggings, and un-authentic flats (I’m on a budget), grabbed the bamboo, and headed out to the car. And literally ran into two problems right away.

#1        Wearing extra appendages such as horns, tails, or wings can render my finely tuned proprioception irrelevant. The doorframe of the car nearly took my horns off as I slid into the passenger seat.

#2        Bamboo doesn’t fold up as conveniently as my normal cane. The car was bigger than a shoebox, so we were able to fit the pole in the back seat just fine, but I began to realize this might be more complicated than I’d imagined. Would I be able to find somewhere to stow it at the coffee shop where it would be easy to grab but not trip anyone else moving around the table?

The Dragons Forge café is exactly what it sounds like, except when it comes to size. As cozy as the name might sound, it actually occupies a large, airy space in the Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment building, a historic factory converted into an arts community. I had no trouble finding somewhere to put my make-shift cane during the event. But before we even made it to the café’s 2nd-floor location I ran into another problem (figuratively his time).

As my co-author and best friend Galadriel (yes, that’s her real name, check out her book here) rode the old freight elevator and walked through the wide, high-ceilinged hallways I found myself growing more and more tense. I was listening harder than normal, trying to perceive quiet conversations around me over the noisy fans trying to keep the Alabama heat at bay..

Were people cursing at me for tripping over their feet? Was that guy offended that I grazed his shoulder turning that corner? Are those ladies wondering why I apparently can’t walk in a straight line without my friend grabbing my arm every few seconds/ I realized I was just holding the bamboo stick loosely in my hand like a staff, not using it like a cane. It didn’t feel like one, so my brain hadn’t automatically put it to use. I made a conscious effort, and had to keep doing that to maintain the rhythm and angle I’d learned so well more than fifteen years ago.

We reached the café, found our group, and settled in for a fun couple of hours. We spent most of the time in character, and I learned I wasn’t the only first-timer there.  I started to relax and have a good time. It was exactly how I’d wanted to spend the day, with people who shared my interests and enjoyed new experiences and new friends. The background music made its inevitable journey from atmospheric fantasy tracks to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and it was about time I got myself a White Dragon.

I retraced the by-now familiar path to the counter, performed my usual trick of asking the air in the cashier’s general direction if there was a line, and discovered there wasn’t. By the time I finished ordering my White Dragon, a vanilla latte with almond milk, and a bowl of tavern stew, though, several people had decided I had the right idea and were loosely clustered behind me, ready to witness and judge the dreaded cash-register Exchange.

This interaction has made me anxious since my mom first physically pushed me toward a counter, sometime in middle school. She’d already tried encouragement and firm words, but recognizing that my body was locked up in fear and not wanting me to let that limit my future, she gently shoved me forward until I stood at the register. I got through handing the cashier my cash with shaking hands and a voice barely above a whisper. Though the purchase of…whatever it was back then…went smoothly, the anxiety didn’t ease for years.

But I had a cane, people could recognize why it might take me longer to fumble my way through this every-day activity. Id’ be fine. So I ordered my stew and latte, pulled out my credit card, and felt along the counter for where I knew the little card reader usually rested. I got the card in the slot, it began its usual mysterious series of beeps, and I gave the cashier a chagrined smile. “Sorry, I’m blind. I’ll need help with the touch screen.”

“oh, yeah, I can’t see anything without my glasses, either,” the cashier said. Nothing happened.

“No, seriously, I’m blind, ‘ I finally realized she hadn’t understood. “I can’t see the screen.” I went to gesture with my cane, the top of which ought to be very visible over the counter – and suddenly realized why the cashier was confused. I didn’t have my cane. I had a leather-wrapped bamboo staff that went great with my medieval Tiefling costume.

The lovely cashier and I had a good laugh over the incident, and the people behind me chuckled a little, too. But you know what? I didn’t remember that detail of the story, our communal amusement, until I sat down to write this post.

I rewrote this post three, maybe four times, trying to appropriately capture the anxiety of not having my excuse for clumsiness recognized. Let’s ignore, for just a moment, how much that need for an excuse says about my inner perfectionism, though. Instead, I’d like to show you another aspect of anxiety, how it can actually change our long-term memories.

Studies have demonstrated for decades that engaging in visualizations and daydreams stimulate the sensory processing function of the brain in the same way that actually walking on a beach or going down an endless flight of stairs would. The brain can’t tell the difference between a good daydream and a real experience. This is one of the reasons that visualizing a positive outcome to a future stressful experience can make you feel more confident. The brain thinks it’s already succeeded, so what’s left to worry about?

But it also works the other way around. If you spend a lot of time meditating on what could go wrong, on your worst fears, your brain will consider that part of reality, process it like a real experience, and attach it to other relevant stored data. So when I combined the awkward credit-card exchange with my lack of cane and my fear of others not understanding why I couldn’t function the way they did, my brain inserted mutters and whispers behind my back that never actually happened!

Something felt off when drafting this post. That’s why I kept writing it. I’ve learned to trust that instinct; it’s what’s going to give you guys a fantastic character-driven nautical fantasy novel in a few weeks. When I feel that “wrongness” I know something in my writing needs work. So I took my hands off my keyboard, went upstairs to make a fresh cup of coffee, and meditated on the experience I was trying to describe.

I found I had two conflicting reflections on my experience. I could remember the tension, the stress, the embarrassment. And I could remember laughing at myself, enjoying a communal joke with people who had their own cosplay mishaps, and being vaguely surprised that things had gone as pleasantly as they had. Knowing that I had a history of assuming the worst I could pretty easily determine that the mutterings were the false memory.

But that meant that the moment of humorous fellowship was reality.

No one had muttered or cursed or shifted impatiently or let out long sighs of frustration while I navigated the mundane obstacle course of the cash register. Not a single condescending “oh bless your heart” came out of anyone’s mouth. Instead there was friendly laughter that I initiated because I had genuinely been amused by my own forgetfulness of the familiar symbol of my cane and how much I thoughtlessly depended on it. I’d learned something interesting about myself, and others, and we’d all appreciated the uniqueness of the experience.

A lot of freshly blind people struggle with the publicity of the cane. It declares your disability for all to see, plasters “I need help” on your front and back. It can feel humiliating, especially if you’ve lived forty years with the illusion of independence that being able-bodied provides. But if you never pick up that cane you’ll never give yourself the chance to disprove all of your dreaded assumptions, all the fears fermenting in the back of your mind and actively changing how you see the world.

I don’t want to imprint false memories of rude, patronizing people into my brain when reality has the potential to be so much more fun and interesting.

I also don’t want to spend my fun cosplay outings apologizing for bumping into people, so for the sheer practicality of recognition I probably won’t try costume canes again. And being able to fold my cane makes traveling with other inconveniences like broadswords and longbows a little less frustrating. But I am grateful for both the experience I had, and the way that writing this blog post allowed me to process it. It changed me, even four months after the fact.

If you enjoyed this post then there are a couple more you should look forward to. Next month I’ll be writing more about my experience as a blind fantasy author, and the month after that I’ll be officially announcing the publication of my book. But I also have a guest post planned about disability representation in tabletop roleplaying games. And sometime in the new year I’m going to tackle the topic of long reflective canes for the blind that come in more colors than just white and red.

But for now I’d like to leave you with one final thought. If you could choose to create pleasant, or unpleasant memories, I assume you’d choose the former. So take five minutes today, pick a low-stress experience you’re not looking forward to, and try to imagine every detail of the most positive outcome possible. Like I explained in last week’s post, you can survive disappointment if the best doesn’t happen. But how it changes your anxiety into anticipation, and your perception of the real event, will be worth the time you take now to prepare.

Until next time, I am your favorite blindfluencer reminding you to always look on the dark side.

The Right to Hope

We sat in chairs arranged in a circle in a room about the size of a high school classroom. A man presided over the ring of high school students, designating the “head” of the group, with other facilitators and staff ranged around the outside of the room. I was jet-lagged, hadn’t yet converted to the way of coffee, and underwhelmed by the hype surrounding this conference. It was about to get worse.

“I’m going to ask you all a question,” said the lead facilitator. “You’ll each get a chance to answer, we’ll go ahead and start on my left and go around the circle. Ready? Ok, here goes.”

“if you could take a pill today to have your sight fully restored, would you do it?”

I was a little surprised at the number of kids who enthusiastically said “no,” they loved their blindness, their lives were pretty awesome the way they were. But I was intrigued. I didn’t hate being disabled, and it was nice to be around people who didn’t see it as unusual or pitiable. But when we got around the circle I was the only one who said “yes, I’d take that pill.”

For the next ten minutes both staff and students alike proceeded to shame me for having a bitter, unaccepting attitude toward my disability. I didn’t recognize what they were doing at the time; I argued back, and was really annoyed and disappointed that all their arguments were based on emotion, not logic. Not one of them actually disproved my points, they just kept telling me I’d be bitter someday if I didn’t change my mind.

It took me years to recognize the bullying and peer pressure that went on in that room, and others like it over the next two years. It wasn’t until this past year that I finally learned the term “toxic positivity,” where parts of reality are suppressed because, instead of empathizing with troubles, people will encourage you to death thinking positivity is the cure for pain.

So is it really any surprise that, though I became a Christian in 1993, attended church my entire life, witnessed to unbelievers, went on mission trips, taught Sunday school, lead prayer and youth ministries, and memorized over 800 separate Scriptures before I graduated high school, it never occurred to me to pray to have my sight restored?

Never once did I ask God to heal my blindness, to open my eyes. Not until 2015. It took another 3 years for me to ask someone else to pray for my sight, too.

I was taught by well-intentioned leaders in the blind community that hope for a cure ruled out the possibility of accepting one’s disability. They were presented as mutually exclusive options. They were also presented as feelings. If one felt hope, one couldn’t feel peace, contentment, acceptance. And hope would inevitably lead to disappointment, and disappointment to despair, and despair bitterness.

No wonder I joined the Dark Side

I didn’t want to be bitter. It’s a passive-aggressive attitude that harms others until they learn to distance themselves. You can’t show God’s love to others like that, and that’s what I wanted to do. So I chose acceptance and buried hope. After all, the eye specialist I saw regularly at the Oregon Health Sciences University had been telling me “we’ll have a cure in 5-20 years” for…about 20 years. There wasn’t anything concrete to set my hopes on, so I didn’t.

But one evening in July of 2015 my husband and I found ourselves having dinner with a couple who were definitely on the more charismatic side of the Catholic spectrum than I’d had any idea existed. My husband and I are Protestant, more or less evangelical in nature, and so this led to a fascinating after-dinner conversation about the nature of the Holy Spirit, faith-healing, and modern miracles.

Then these lovely people told us that they’d received a vision claiming God would begin to heal my sight soon, and they wanted to be part of that process, so would I mind if they prayed over my eyes?

What could it hurt? I thought. I said yes.

They did the whole show, laying hands over my eyes (with my permission), speaking in an unknown language (without translation), for a solid 2 minutes of intensely focused prayer. It was moving to see people so committed, so unrestrained in their hope and absolutely dedicated to wanting me to see clearly, wanting to be part of that experience.

For the record, I am actually slightly more blind now than I was on that date. No miracle happened, my condition progresses normally. I’m vaguely disappointed, but not too much so. It would have been nice, but if they’d actually performed a miracle today you might not have ever learned the term “blindfluencer,” because I made it up to describe myself. So, you’re welcome?

My husband and I talked over the experience on the drive home. At one point we pulled over and I called my parents to ask them if anyone in our family history had ever prayed over my eyes, either like that or less dramatically. They said some people had offered, early on, but that nothing came of it.

When my husband suggested we try it I dismissed the suggestion and changed the subject. It was reflexive, so smooth and instinctive that I didn’t really think about it until the next day. And then the next, and the next. I started asking myself why I’d never prayed for my sight to be restored, and the answer I kept coming to was “if it doesn’t work I’ll just be disappointed.”

So, what was so bad about disappointment? I asked my journal.

Disappointment leads to despair, despair to bitterness.

Hope and Acceptance aren’t feelings. They’re lifestyles.

Acceptance happens when I choose not to let tripping on a coffee table or embarrassing myself playing keep-away with my credit card at a cash register ruin my day or change how I view my disability. Acceptance is acknowledging when my disability is inconvenient, painful or limiting, and then choosing daily, sometimes hourly to put it in its proper place, a fraction of my life that fits into an incredibly beautiful, powerful whole. I can be frustrated with needing friends to pick me up if we’re going to hang out but still not hate my life or see myself as a burden because I’m more than blind, and blindness is more than inconvenience.

And hope? Hope isn’t a feeling either. It can be felt, but the absence of that feeling does not constitute hopelessness. I realize that I have hoped for a cure my whole life, whether I thought about it or not. I go to regular eye screenings at OHSU, I keep abreast of scientific advances that might benefit me. And in 30 years that has included mild disappointment, but not despair, and certainly not bitterness.

The equation is wrong. The path from Disappointment to bitterness isn’t inevitable. It’s just one path of many. I can survive disappointment. I know because I’ve been doing it every day of my life. Disappointment is a normal part of life, and to avoid it diminishes our capacity to accept it when it comes along. So, I learned to pray for a cure.

The first time I did it, I did it silently in my head. My heart pounded, my body coursed with adrenaline. And then I went on with my day. It happened the same way the first time I wrote a prayer for my sight in my journal. Years of fearing what change might happen to me if I gave in, physically absorbed memories of dire warnings and brow-beatings shook through my hands let out in little trickles as I took baby steps toward fully realizing my right to hope.

I have the right to hope for a cure.

I want to see 20/20 someday.

I cried the first time I asked other people to pray that prayer for me. I was wired like I’d had three cups of coffee in one sitting for the rest of that day. Nothing terrible happened that day, or in the four years since then. I live with more joy now than I could have imagined four years ago.

I have daydreams of what my life might be like in a future – or even a present – where I can see. I have an Amazon Wishlist of journals, study Bibles, and telescopes, and I’ve even allowed myself to write down some of these sight-dreams (always to be instantly erased, because eradicating fear of being shamed takes years).

Three things I want to do if – when – my sight is restored.

  • 1. I want to create and organize photo albums that tell the interwoven narratives of my life.
  • 2. I want to take a solo road trip across the US
  • 3. I want to be able to sight-read from a hymnal so playing piano for church doesn’t required hours of practice and memorization.

I’ve got a list longer than that hidden in a complex file tree in Google Drive. I hope you can appreciate how hard it is for me to share this with you, even now. For as many advantages as it’s given me, the peculiar adulation and the unique introductions, getting to bring my dog with me everywhere, I wish I weren’t blind. But that wish doesn’t dominate more than a fraction of a percent of my thoughts in any given moment.

I don’t pray for healing every day, or even every week. I did for a while, partially as a ritual to cleanse myself of the fear of it. But now I only pray for it when it crosses my mind, which isn’t every day. How much of that is just because I have a lot going on, and how much is a lingering avoidance instinct I couldn’t venture to say. But if someone offered to pray over my eyes again I would say yes.

Three Reasons I wish I weren’t Blind

  • 1. I want to be able to set my own work schedule independently of others’ schedule.
  • I’d love to be able to run errands without taking up others’ time.
  • I want to be able to read my own mail, a hymnal, informed consent at a doctor’s office, a menu at a restaurant.

I’ve found work-arounds, solutions, and consolations for each of these, and thousands of other problems. But each work-around takes time, and not just mine. I have the right to wish, to pray, that I could function as independently as anyone else.

I live hope with acceptance.

I pray for a cure with unceasing gratitude.

I acknowledge my pain, because denying it exists would never allow me to heal.

Flashback Friday: The Scoop

Original Post Dates: May 28-29

I’ve combined a couple of posts that were rather short and scattered into one (hopefully) more coherent narrative. Today I’m going to cover more bonding with Prada, preparing for the Solo Run, and “the astronaut’s question.”

Prada continues to change her eating habits, but at least I’ve figured out her play-style. What do those things have to do with each other/ Well, she’s stills tressed, but she’s giving me the time of day. She’s trying to form a relationship, even though the world is unsatisfactory at the moment.

Prada likes to wrestle. My hands have tiny little marks over them because, as gentle as she is, she still has teeth. She’s never broken the skin, and she is absolutely adorable when she pounces at me or tries to hold my hand down with one of her paws. It’s a good way to spend a few minutes while we wait for kibble to arrive.

We’re having fewer Shannon-attacks, though she still gets excited whenever the head trainer is around. I feel like I’ve utterly failed to convince her that I’m a good person, then she asks for belly scratches and I begin to hope again. Every trainer I’ve talked toa assures me this is very typical and I’m not doing anything wrong and that everything’ll be much easier once we’re away from the distracting influence. I just need to focus on the fact that, as intensely as Prada bonded with Shannon, someday it’ll be me she can’t seem to live without.

We’re preparing for our Solo Run, which isn’t a run at all. It’s an evaluation that allows trainers to determine our strengths and weaknesses. Each dog and handler team picks up different concepts more quickly than others, so the training curricula have to be personalized, and the Solo Run is one of the tools by which that’s accomplished.

Prada and I, and another working team, will travel a route through downtown Morrison without the guidance of a trainer. There will be one within sight of us at all times to help with emergencies because safety always comes first. But we’ll receive no hints, or. Even directions. We’ll be responsible for memorizing the routes and directing, correcting, and encouraging the dogs just like we’ll have to once we graduate.

Today was like a practice-test. We worked our route with a trainer alongside, but the trainer provided no assistance – except running interference between the other working team and an overly-enthusiastic rottweiler cross on a leash. Handling encounters with other dogs is something service dogs need to be able to do, but it’s covered later in the training because it’s a real challenge for them.

Seeing Eye dogs come into handler-training knowing everything they’re supposed to know, but just like we students aren’t given full responsibilities while we get used to our dogs, their loads are lightened (i.e. not needing to handle dog distractions independently) at first because of the shocking amount of changes going on in their lives.

We completed this practice run with flying colors. Prada has routinely showed me a pizza shop along the way, which I take to be a good sign. She made one significant traffic error on our way home, though. As we turned a corner and prepared to cross the street Prada dove into the crosswalk without stopping at the curb like she’s supposed to.

Guide dogs are supposed to stop at street corners to indicate the proximity to a street. The handler then signals a turn, continue down the street, or determines when it’s safe to begin crossing and gives the “forward” command. If it truly is safe, the dog proceeds to lead across the street. If not, the dog refuses to obey (intelligent disobedience, remember this post).

Prada didn’t wait for that “forward” command. We were on the way home, it was the end of the day, and she decided we were going whether I told her or not. I corrected her, we worked back a few feet and approached the curb again, and she stopped this time, and got lots of praise.

Traffic errors are some of the most serious a dog can make. It warrants a full two-handed leash correction, along with a harsh verbal “pfui” to enforce how serious the mistake was. But when dogs make mistakes they’re almost always given the opportunity to re-work the situation and do better. It’s more important to re-enforce a successful maneuver than to emphasize the failure.

Confident dogs behave more consistently, live longer, and are happier in general. That’s why TSE, and any dog trainer worth their salt, focuses on positive reinforcement, with correction being an unfortunate and secondary necessity. Incidentally, this is true of people, too. Encouragement actually helps the human brain to store lessons in long-term memory

All right, “the astronaut’s question.”

“how do you go to the bathroom in space?”

Whenever they show a Q&A of an astronaut on tv someone always asks that question. Well, it’s also the most frequent question I’ve gotten about training with a Seeing Eye dog. Yes, I’ve covered this in a previous post, but it keeps coming up so here are some more details.

“What do blind people do when their service dogs have to go?”

First, a little history lesson.

The Seeing Eye used to be based out of a hotel in Nashville. There was a park across the street where students would go to relieve their dogs. This gave rise to the term “park time.” Spell it backwards and you get…you’ll figure it out.

So, from now on you’ll be hearing me refer to “park time,” if I haven’t been already. Now, how does park time work?

Seeing Eye dogs are kept on a pretty strict feeding and watering schedule. This allows us to predict, even to some degree control, when food and water comes back out. This makes it easier to ensure I’ll be near a convenient location when it’s park time. So when it’s time, I proceed to the designated location, remove the harness, and rearrange the leash so Prada’s got the most room.

Prada circles me, an action I facilitate by some simple footwork. Motion tends to encourage parking, so it speeds up the process. But it also ensures that I have a straight line (the leash) leading me directly to the pile I’ll need to clean up. When Prada stops, I lean forward and touch her back to see what shape she’s making. If it’s a slope (because she’s female) she’s going #1, no pile. If she’s hunched up, with a rounded back, it’s #2. Time to get out a bag.

I invert the bag over my hand like a glove, and point my foot along her body to give myself another landmark for when she inevitably finishes and moves again. Then, using my own body to orient me, I use the bag to pick up. Now, if I’m in a familiar place or have had time to scout in advance, I simply locate the nearest trashcan and dispose of the bag.

If I haven’t had time to scout, there are some basic logical assumptions I can use to locate a trash can. They tend to be near, but not right at, doors leading into buildings (a holdover from the old smoking days). If I’m at a park, I can guess there’ll be one near, but not next to, a bench (for picnic disposal). Worst case scenarios someone notices me looking super blind and lost and holding a tied-off bag of dog poop and points me in the right direction.

It’s a reasonable question, I suppose, given that it’s a significant part of the logistics of having dogs in public places like office buildings, civic locations, libraries, restaurants, et cetera. But, I mean, do people not have anything more interesting on their minds toa ask about service dogs? Of all the questions you COULD ask, that’s the one that comes out of your mouth?

Ah, well. I guess I became a counselor because I just really don’t understand people sometimes. Seriously, ask me something more interesting.

Guest Post: From First Pet to Last Snuggle

I’ve had the privilege of meeting and collaborating with some great bloggers recently, and today I have another guest post to share with you. This brilliant writer is a woman much like myself; she’s blind, works with a service dog, and has stories to tell. I’ve found a lot of my own experiences echoed in her words, which you should definitely check out here.

And if you just really miss my words, you can see what I posted on her blog here. It’s all part of my sneaky plan to lure you into reading more of Rhianna’s articles.

Today Rhianna has a sad story to tell, yet another one that will someday be my story, too. She’s had to retire her service dog. But when she went online in search of others who’d had this experience who could support her through this painful process, she found silence. People with disabilities are often isolated by sheer numbers; there just aren’t that many of us per capita in any given location. And when you narrow down the field to “blind with service dogs,” the available support pool shrinks to scattered raindrops.

But Rhianna’s a blogger, and responded in kind. Since she couldn’t find the support, she chose to create it for others. Here is her story.

P.S. Grab tissues.

Mid morning light was streaming in through the open living room windows and my 70-pound golden lab cross was curled up on my lap. Tears rolled down my cheeks and landed on his silky head. He didn’t seem to mind though.

He knew I needed him. We needed each other. We knew the moment had come.

John Green said: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep—slowly, then all at once.” This is how I fell in love with Cricket. I’d been falling for him for the six months before I met him, waiting for him to finish training and be matched with me—the dream team. And when he sauntered into my room, licked my hand and lay down at my feet, my heart was truly his.

In reflecting on our two-year relationship from first pet to last snuggle, I’ve realized that it’s the same way with grief. If you’ll allow me a moment, I’d like to share with you the story of Cricket’s retirement.

Rhianna McGreggor walks with her golden lab cross guide dog, Cricket, on a snowy path.

It was midsummer 2020, and Cricket and I were out for our usual half-hour walk around the neighbourhood. We were five minutes from home, just headed down the hill when, in the middle of the sidewalk, Cricket stopped.

And wouldn’t move.

“Cricket, forward,” I said, giving the leash an encouraging snap.

But he just stood there like a dog statue. “Cricket, forward,” I urged again. No response.

I ran through my mental checklist, trying to figure out what might be wrong. Is he distracted? What is he looking at? Does he need to relieve himself? Is he in pain? I checked the harness, inspected his paws, and found everything as it should be.

“Cricket, forward,” I said again. But there was still no response. Not wanting to frustrate either of us further, I turned around, picked up the harness handle and without a command, Cricket guided me flawlessly (and speedily) back home.

This was not normal, so I reached out to my trainer for help. His suggestions did helped… sometimes. It was hit and miss for the next nine months, and all the while, the question I was trying to keep down kept pushing itself to the forefront of my mind.

Did Cricket want to retire?

No, he couldn’t, I thought. He’s only three. Guide dogs are supposed to work for six to eight years, not two.

In the spring of 2021, the whispers of Cricket’s retirement were growing louder and louder. Cricket wouldn’t work two days in a row, preferring to take a luxurious nap rather than run errands with me. He avoided me when I brought down the harness from the hook by the door. On our walks, he would stop at the intersections and refuse to cross the street. He stalled at the top of staircases and deliberately took me off sidewalks into driveways and onto lawns. It was very unsafe.

And very obvious. Cricket was telling me every way he knew how:

“Mom, I don’t want to be a guide dog anymore.”

The final straw came on April 23. I got up that morning and said to God: “If Cricket wants to retire, I need you to make it clear to me today. I can’t keep doing this.”

Cricket guided me all 15 minutes to the coffee shop with only a couple hiccups. I was feeling optimistic. I drank my iced latte, picked up the harness handle, but rather than a quick 15 minute trip home, we stopped and started every 30 seconds. We made it home 45 minutes later, and I knew God had given me my answer.

Remember that moment in my living room? When we got home, I held Cricket tight and told him, “You don’t have to work anymore if you don’t want to, baby. I want you to be happy, and if retiring is what’ll make you happy, that’s okay.”

This is how it happened with me and Cricket. But every service dog handler’s story is different. In retirement, some handlers choose to have their dogs remain with them at home. Some choose to rehome them to close friends or family, and still others send their dogs back to their training school and have the staff find them loving homes. I knew that in making Cricket’s retirement official, the next question was where he would live.

He couldn’t live with me. I didn’t have the physical space or the financial means to care for him, particularly as I would be applying for a successor guide. After much deliberation and prayer, it was decided that Cricket would return to his puppy raiser, back in his native Michigan.

It’s been almost two months now since I said goodbye to my baby boy. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful and close relationship with his puppy raiser (now mom), and receive frequent updates. Cricket is living the life out in the country, with his doggy sister, Willow and fields to run in.

But me? I’m still waking up every morning, thinking that he’ll be in the bed next to mine. I still do the hand gestures for “forward,” “right” and “left” as I walk with friends. And when my partner guided me to the curb and stopped, I said “good boy” instead of “thank you.” Thankfully, he and I both laughed.

But the grief is still very raw. It will be for a long time.

The grief of retiring a service dog begins on that very first day. You’re overwhelmed with joy and hope and love for this dog that has already changed your life, but you know deep down that eventually, it will end. And when it does, I need you to know a few things.

I know you’re hurting right now. Your heart is broken and you don’t know how or when it will be put back together. After all, the only thing that could heal it has just been taken from you.

I know you’re angry. Why does it have to end this way? Why does it have to end at all? It’s not fair—to love someone so much and have to let go.

I know you wonder if you did enough to make it work. Countless pieces of advice have come your way, from trainers, fellow handlers and complete strangers, and yet, the only thing you want to hear is that yes, you did enough, and you are good enough.

I know you miss him. You think you hear him snoring in his bed but when you reach down to check, the bed is empty. You add dog food to the grocery list, realize you don’t have to buy it, but you do anyway. You cry yourself to sleep because the blankets still smell like her, and you laugh through your tears, remembering how she took up the whole bed.

I know you wonder if you could ever love another dog the way you loved him.

I know you’re not okay right now.

Neither am I.

And we won’t be for a long time. And that’s okay, too.


Writing this post broke my heart all over again. I cried my way through draft after draft, trying to find a way to express the depth of my grief and the grief for the handlers going through it that would do justice to the bond we share with our dogs. Whether I’ve accomplished that, I’ll leave up to you.

But let me leave you with one final thought: During my therapy sessions during and after Cricket’s retirement, I so often tried to minimize my pain, saying that every handler goes through it, that we all know it’s coming someday, and it’s already been two months since he moved.

But my therapist is helping me to reframe that. Rather than set a timeline for healing my broken heart and invalidating my emotions, just feel it. It’s okay to hurt. It’s good to grieve. It’s okay to not be okay. The loss is as real as any other despite what we may think or be told. And there’s no one-size-fits-all for grief. It’s a journey.

So feel every emotion, hug his favourite toy, curl up in his bed, and remember every day what he did for you. He still loves you, just as you will always love him.

Dear Cricket, thank you for everything. You are forever in my heart.

Love, Mom

The Most Inclusive Coffee In Town

I’ve got something special for you today! Pour yourself a cup of coffee, then sit down and read all about why you should get your next cup at Charlie Foster’s.

Charlie Foster’s is a locally-owned coffee shop located in Huntsville’s exciting new Stovehouse complex. The atmosphere is hip and modern, with creative use of lighting and dozens of outlets to promote a comfortable yet stimulating work environment so you can freelance, study, or pound out projects all while enjoying one of their signature beverages.

It’s become a favorite destination for me, and I’m so thrilled that co-owner Austin Jenkins agreed to be my first interviewee here at Look on the Dark Side. What inspired me to seek out this interview was learning about how Charlie Foster’s models disability-inclusive hiring practices. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment rates for Americans with disabilities has NEVER topped 20% in the history of the BLS’s records. I know I’m very privileged to have been part of that shockingly low percentage that has held meaningful work for most of my adult life. In 2019 19.3% of Americans with disabilities were employed. In 2020 that figure dropped to 17.4%. While that’s not the same precipitous drop that many demographics experienced, it wasn’t much of a height to fall from in the first place. Non-disabled Americans enjoyed an employment rate of 66.3% in 2019, dropping to 61.8% in 2020.

But I like happy endings, so instead of leaving you with those grim statistics here’s an interview with a wonderful community-minded business owner who’s taken on the challenge of addressing this disparity.

Charlie Foster
A red circle outline surrounds the words “Charlie Foster,” with the image of a person wearing a bucket hat and sipping from a coffee cup between the two words. The Charlie Foster logo.

Anneliese: Tell me about the road to Charlie Foster’s. Have you always wanted to open a coffee shop, or did you take a longer journey toward opening this business?

Austin: I fell in love with coffee a little under 5 years ago. I was in Opelika, Alabama at a shop called Sidetrack Coffee. They had an interesting business model. You could pay whatever you wanted. What I noticed was people were very intrigued with the business model and he had created a community of people that were at the shop every day. They also had amazing coffee and when I bought retail coffee bags of the same coffee they were brewing and tried to make it at home it never tasted the same. I became obsessed with making coffee like they did at Sidetrack.

I moved back to Huntsville 4 years ago and missed the community and started my own journey of creating my own coffee shop. My parents founded Merrimack Hall which is a nonprofit where they teach people with special needs the performing arts so that’s where my idea came from to employ people with special needs. I wanted to have a business with a purpose. Afterwards, I convinced my wife, Hollie, that it was a good idea to open a coffee shop by telling her the espresso machine could be pink and that’s how we started. 

Anneliese: As you and I both know from personal and professional experience, no two disabilities are alike. What are some of the most unique accommodations you’ve implemented in your business?

Austin: Every one we employ is a case by case situation. I do not think we have done anything unique. With each employee, we see what they are good at by working with them and when we see what they are good at we focus on that task. It is the same thing we do with our typical employees. 

Anneliese: Meaningful employment is something a lot of differently abled people struggle to acquire and maintain. Did you experience any community or financial resistance when starting your business and promoting your inclusive hiring practices? Did you receive any noteworthy support?

Austin: The support has been amazing. It’s great to see our customers build relationships with our team at Charlie Fosters. I am learning more from them than I will ever be able to  teach them. I have not run into any resistance yet. 

Anneliese: Have any interesting innovations come from combining differently abled perspectives in Charlie Foster’s working environment? If so, what are they? How has your business benefited from your inclusive hiring practices?

Austin: What it has done is created the most positive work environment I have ever had the pleasure of working in. We are a family here. We all feed off each other’s energy and because of all the positive energy we are able to work more efficiently. 

Anneliese Who has been most inspirational to you throughout the process of planning and starting Charlie Foster’s? How has this person impacted you personally and professionally?

Austin: I had a lot of inspirations and role models in the beginning from sidetrack to christy graves at honest coffee. People helped us a lot to accomplish our goal. My inspiration today comes from our team at Charlie Fosters. We are doing something special here and having a purpose to come to work makes every day worth it.

The Zen Pack Leader

Greta’s trot is even, but the nails on her left forepaw are longer than the rest of her nails. I can hear them clicking on the pavement.

Her gait is really even. I can’t feel any limp at all. Her shoulder is so much stronger than it was a year ago.What if she trips on those longer nails/ What if she puts her shoulder out again? Our next chiropractic appointment isn’t until October!

Ah, I’m distracted. Back to Greta.

I can feel her looking to the left because the motion of her neck translates into her shoulder, into the back strap of the harness, and up the handle into my hand. She’s looking straight again. I’ll reward her.

Her saliva is thin, she’s not stressed. I’ll wipe my hand off on her head so she gets a pet and I get a fuzzy towel.

She’s slowing down but I don’t sense an obstacle ahead. Ah, she’s pushing me gently away from the curb. There must be an obstacle I can’t sense. Maybe a low pile of brush. This house always has brush in front of it. Oh, I should call the city and find out what their yard debris removal schedule for my neighborhood is. I’ll do that after I get back. No, I need to feed Greta, then start laundry, then do dishes and make a smoothie, then call the city…

I’m distracted again. I’ll just let all that go and focus on Greta.

She’s slowing down again. We’re near the street corner. I need to decide which route to take. She feels perky today. We can use a longer walk. I’ll go left, and maybe we’ll get to practice walking by that house with the dogs that run up to the fence and bark. I need to have a treat ready to praise her. What if she doesn’t handle it well? It’ll be chaotic and loud and I’ll have to try to redirect her focus and if I can’t get her to redirect I might have to force her away. That means we haven’t made as much progress as I’d thought, and the trainer’s coming next week. Is it really worth it? Are we making progress/ Am I wasting time and money?

I’m distracted again. I’ll focus on Greta.

She’s slower on this street. I can feel the uneven-ness of the slope of the street into the gutter. She’s picking her paws up higher. I’m not sure how I can sense that but I’m aware of it. She’s picking her paws up over grass growing through cracks in the pavement. She’s nudging me right to circle around a car parked along the side of the street so I’ll turn with her. She makes very smooth, tight turns.

This is what successfully applying mindful awareness looks like when walking a dog.

“But your mind is all over the place!” you protest. “That doesn’t look like mindfulness to me…”

The lecturer hosting The Great Courses; Practicing Mindfulness uses training a puppy as a metaphor to explain mindfulness. It’s an example I really relate to! When training a puppy to sit, you place the puppy in the “sit’ posture, then reward it. When it inevitably gets up you don’t yell at the puppy, you don’t get mad, you just put the puppy back into “sit” and reward it again.

No matter how old you are, your brain is still a puppy. It responds far better to encouragement and boundaries than self-criticism. Training it to return to a particular thought or mental posture takes just as much time, and patience, as teaching basic obedience skills to a dog.

The point isn’t to keep my mind on Greta 100% of the time. In fact, I’m fairly certain that would be very dangerous. Our attention is meant to wander, just a little. The point is that I return to her every time I get distracted. I notice my thoughts, and then go back to thinking about Greta without judging myself for distraction or scolding myself for imperfection.

I’ve begun practicing this meditation technique to help me control my concerns about Greta’s Post High-School Stress Disorder, and to help me be patient with the slow, yet thorough route we’re on to total pack wellness.

Rehabilitating Greta isn’t just about re-affirming her skills and training her to ignore distractions. It involves teaching her to redirect her distracted puppy-brain to me, and training me to redirect my distracted puppy-brain to her. With an inward, ongoing, nonjudgmental focus on our function as a pack Greta and I will be able to cruise through the most chaotic, triggering environments imaginable.

A note of caution regarding mindful awareness.

As I mentioned above, our minds are designed to wander a little. It’s part of situational awareness, a necessary survival skill. My brain flits to the sound of a big truck turning onto the street behind me. The street has no sidewalk, so Greta and I step into a nearby driveway to let the big metal beast rumble past at a safe distance. My brain picks up on locational cues and reminds me that a dog has been loose in the yard of a house on the next street and I need to remember to take a different route home.

If I’d simply noticed the sounds and smells and other cues that alerted me to changes in my environment, discarded them, and refocused on Greta we might’ve wound up in trouble. Safety trumps mindfulness, every time.

But brains aren’t infallible. They can pick up on cues and determine that those cues are, in fact serious threats when they’re really not. My brain is absolutely 100% convinced that an enormous lilac bush leaning slightly over the curb and swarming with honeybees is the most dangerous thing in the universe. It once prompted me to drag Greta across the street to circle it at a distance no closer than 30 feet! I think 5 would’ve been sufficient for the bees and me to co-exist without bothering each other, but my brain says otherwise.

Mindful awareness, however, would allow me to make a more accurate distinction between “big truck behind me” and “disinterested honeybees” threat levels. I expect I’ll do better next time we encounter that ominous lilac bush.

Mindful awareness can be applied to almost every activity imaginable, from cooking to coding, sight-seeing to sex, and so much more. It’s a gateway into that coveted “flow state” that breeds creativity and accomplishment and satisfaction so easily. Greta and I haven’t flowed together in over 2 years, and I miss that feeling of contented oneness as we travel expertly through our chaotic environment together. I got a glimpse of it, though, on a recent walk, and I can paw-sitively say our hard work is paying off.

Lessons I Learned From A Chicken

Lesson #1.  I am married to a remarkable man.

Now for the story…

Greta is pretty good about not trying to scavenge “people food.” She respects tables and countertops, doesn’t beg, and even asks permission to enter the kitchen most of the time. But one day, toward the end of her lengthy recovery from her food allergies and infection, I heard the distinctive sounds of crunching and clattering that alerted me to a counter violation.

Greta had snagged the carcass of a rotisserie chicken off the counter and begun pulling it apart, dragging the bones into a dark corner of the front hall. Of course she got a scolding and my husband and I set about cleaning up the mess.

Then my husband asked a very interesting question, a question I think a lot of puppy parents, and people parents, ought to ask.

“I wonder what kind of nutrients she’s deficient in that made her go after the chicken?”

Lesson #2. Good behavior doesn’t suddenly turn into misbehavior without reason.

As a therapist I’ve come to recognize that most aberrant behavior comes from people trying to meet needs in maladaptive ways. It’s rare that someone does something wrong, harmful, or unhealthy simply for the sake of doing it that way. That doesn’t make us any less responsible for our choices, or their consequences, but it does make it easier to change our behavior. If we can understand the unmet need, then we can develop healthier, more effective methods of meeting it.

Dogs don’t have a sense of right or wrong. They understand what is good or bad for them, what is good or bad for the pack, and that’s about it. That doesn’t mean your dog is starving whenever she scrounges out of your trash can; it means she’s a natural scavenger who hasn’t been convinced that the trash can isn’t a good source of food.

So, when Greta committed the rare sin of counter-surfing and targeted the chicken, my husband’s question was an inspired response. Much more helpful to the entire pack than getting frustrated or angry. Greta’s behavior had to be discouraged, of course, but then he asked the question. “What did she need/“

It wasn’t hard to figure out. Her infection had caused skin lesions. Healing skin might need extra collagen, and bones are a good source of collagen. So I started dispensing small amounts of my home-made bone broth every couple of days to aid in her recovery process.

To preserve the line between “your food” and “my food,” I put the broth directly into one of Greta’s bowls and make her ask permission to drink it.  She licks the bowl so clean when I give her broth that I don’t usually have to wash it afterwards. It’s a nice compliment to my cooking.

So, when you find yourself doing something you know won’t help, like snapping back at someone in conversation, reaching for the chocolate chip cookies when you’re in a bad mood, skipping a gym workout or sending that angry email, give yourself a little grace. Then ask the question, “what do I really need?” Do you need to feel safe? Are you burned out and need a day off?  You’re not as lazy, impulsive, or short-fused as you think you are, and once you start asking yourself this question your creative brain gets involved, generating other options for meeting that need. There’s a lot of wisdom buried in our behavior, just waiting to be unlocked.

This mindset can help cultivate compassion for others, too. When I find Greta has misbehaved I can get angry, I can worry about the problem persisting and getting worse. Or I can ask “what does she need/” She can’t tell me, of course, but a little creative thinking can solve that problem, like with the bone broth. This applies to my husband, my friends, family, and clients. Compassion is much more comfortable than frustration.

So, my friends, what do you need? What kind of content would you find most interesting, entertaining, and useful? Share your ideas and creative problem solving techniques below.

Tech Trials: Part 2

Advances in technology usually come about because someone wants to solve a problem. Most of the time, inventors, designers, programmers, and entrepreneurs are inspired by every-day problems faced by their communities, but every so often a new idea comes about through a compassionate dreamer looking to give the disadvantaged a leg up. For example, the telephone was famously inspired by a man who wanted to improve communication for the deaf community.

But generally, advances in technology are seen as helpful to the community at large – unless you’re of the dystopian persuasion. Which I’m not.

It makes sense that advances in technology would largely be driven by the needs of the majority. But I still wish creators and inventors would keep us minorities in mind at least a little during the design phase. Here are two examples of every-day technologies that aren’t accessible to the blind community, but very easily could be.

Tipping at Registers

It’s finally your turn in line. You order your mocha with almond milk, grope across the counter until you find the card reader and insert your credit card. This takes you a minute, and things get a little awkward because despite your cane clearly visible over the counter, the barista doesn’t seem to realize what you’re doing until you actually find the register. And those chips on the backs of credit cards now? What a pain to identify tactilely! But you do it, you pay for your drink.

Or so you thought. The reader doesn’t beep, there’s another awkward silence, then the barista says “it’s showing you a screen asking if you want to tip. Want me to punch it in for you?”

Now it’s really awkward. Everyone behind you has realized that your order is taking longer and is looking to figure out why, and thus suddenly paying attention to this conversation. Do you tell the barista you don’t want to tip her, or that you only want to tip her a little? Everyone’s going to know…

What if it went differently?

You slip your card into the reader, and a mechanical voice says “enter tip on keypad.” You shift your hand slightly, fingers finding the familiar dot on the 5 key, center of the pad. You enter 15, reach with a finger for the raised %, then slide that finger down for the “enter” button. The card reader beeps in satisfaction and you take your card and cane-tap your way down the counter to wait for that delectable mocha.

This would be so easy to fix because the technology already exists – and was in use for at least a decade! By removing tactile computing options at registers companies have add inconvenience, and even humiliation, to the lives of the blind and visually impaired. We don’t needs this; we have enough trouble navigating lines and pushed-out chairs to even get to the register in the first place.

Voting

You reach your polling station by bus and use your cane to find your way to the building entrance. A helpful staffer guides you into line and you allow the gentle flow of other patient voters to propel you forward until you reach the sign in table. You fish out your ide and hold it forward. Someone takes it, then says “please use the tablet to sign in.”

There’s an awkward pause, then you say “I’m blind, I can’t see the tablet.” Setting aside that it should be obvious you’re blind – c’mon, people, you’ve got a cane! – now what happens?

“Oh, of course,” the EVID Operator says sheepishly. “Do I have your permission to enter your name for you?”

“yes.” What choice do you have?

There’s an awkward silence punctuated by the EVID Operator’s nails clicking against the tablet screen. Then, “You’re all set. Here’s your registration receipt. Take it to the ballot table over…oh, hang on, let me get someone to guide you.” You’re escorted to the next table, where you stand in line again, and are issued your ballot in a privacy folder. Another technician guides you to the accessible voting machine and assists you in sliding it into the slot. You put on the headphones, and your sense of agency returns.

The voting machine’s mechanical voice isn’t Morgan Freeman, but it’s comprehensible. The buttons have raised symbols on them, and the navigation is simple and intuitive. You breeze through marking your ballot, print it, and the technician escorts you to the ballot counting machine, helping you slide it in the right way, and gives you a sticker. Congratulations, you voted – at the pleasure of the admittedly very discreet and professional technicians.

Nonetheless, you couldn’t do it alone.

Here’s a slightly scarier version of that story.

“…do I have your permission to sign in for you?” the EVID Operator asks.

“yes.”

They turn the tablet toward them and tap on the screen. “Hm, that didn’t work. It says you’re not registered here. Let me try again.” The pause stretches interminably as your stomach clenches hot around the question “how is this possible/ I voted here 2 years ago!”

“Yeah, it’s still not showing you as registered here, I’m sorry” the EVID Operator says. Please step out of line and someone will assist you.”

Did the Operator make typos? Or, you wonder, have you just been slyly denied your voice in American politics? You’re at the mercy of whoever has time to check into this anomaly. And if you have any reason to mistrust one polling officer, can you trust any of them?

So how do we solve this problem?

Once again, the technology already exists, and it’s not too costly, either.

Providing a single QWERTY keyboard per polling station is all it would take to eliminate this singly terrifying gap in accessible voting. An automated voice announces each field (is there more than one? I have no way of knowing…), you type your answers using the familiar orientation dogs of the F and J keys, hit “enter,” and you’re all set. And if you’re self-conscious about the voice in the library-hush of a polling station, just use a pair of headphones like at the voting machine.

Voting should not depend on vision.

Can you, after considering these, come up with your own technology gaps? Comment below and let’s brainstorm some easy solutions to make our world just a little darker.

Tech Trials: Part 1

You know that person who has to have the latest phone or tablet, or who’s always looking to upgrade their laptop?

Yeah — that’s NOT me.

In fact, until about a year or so ago, I was afraid of new technology. I hated, HATED the prospect of getting a new phone or computer. I was absolutely sure that whatever I’d get wouldn’t be as accessible as what I’d been using. No matter how slow the laptop, how buggy the software, I’d use it until it burned itself out. I didn’t give up my flip-phone for a smart phone until 2017!

Here’s how this kind of fear develops:

I get a laptop or phone and learn how to use it. I learn how to overcome the gaping holes in the built-in accessibility features by cobbling together 3rd-party screen-readers and obscure open-source software. Once I had 3 different calculator programs on my computer to try to compensate for the inaccessibility of the graphing calculator I needed for school. Three different programs – and there were still functions I couldn’t perform! When I say “life just takes longer when you’re disabled, “this is what I’m talking about But it did enough that I passed my classes. It was functional, if time-consuming and headache-inducing. It worked, and that’s what mattered.

Then something gets updated. An OS, a program, my hardware …something gets changed. “Improved.” “Look how much faster it boots up!” the enthusiastic tech overseeing my change-over says. “See how the windows don’t hang anymore/” No, I don’t see. Because what has my attention is the fact that now whatever text-to-speech program I’m using can no longer interpret 30% of the functions I needed. Menus, icon locations, blocks of text, links…something gets lost. Something important. Some piece of code vital to screen readers got streamlined out, and now my shiny new machine has become not only a disappointment, but a barrier to my success.

And this seemed to happen every single time I was forced to change my tools.

I’m a patient person; I can go do the dishes while waiting for a slow laptop to boot up. I don’t mind if a window hangs; I’ll just reboot the computer. I would much rather use familiar, reliable solutions for known problems than spend a month losing opportunities, failing to meet expectations, and getting headaches because of a new machine that doesn’t work as well – for me – as the previous one.

This problem was compounded by people. Well-meaning, good-intentioned people who wanted to provide for me would push me toward new technology, insisting that newer was obviously better. They believed they knew how to improve my way of life – but had very little understanding of what they wanted to change. They often treated my fear of new technology as an ideological Luddite response rather than a practical, and well-founded, fear. And, of course, software companies arbitrarily updated without warning or permission, so I felt entirely at their mercy. Caught between routinely demoralizing updates and allies who blamed me for my fear, I felt abandoned. My agency didn’t matter so long as people and companies thought they were improving my world.

It’s hard to be gracious when your entire body vibrates with a decade’s pent-up fear and frustration. When I needed technical support, I often lashed out or teared up because I felt my technical supporter was as much part of the problem as the computer itself. I don’t say this to justify my sharp tongue or panicky responses, simply to explain them.

But this story has a happy ending, I promise.

I promise this isn’t going to be an Ode to Apple, but this company did feature prominently in my healing journey. They are in part responsible for my current outlook of optimism and curiosity.

When I began studying counseling at the graduate level I discovered I needed a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5. It’s often called the counselor’s Bible, their version of the physician’s desk reference. So I called up the American Psychiatric Association, who publishes this tome, and asked them if an electronic version of the book existed. It did, but it was only available on Apple Books. And in order to read that, I needed….a new tech toy.

My husband was excited. I was terrified.

My husband works in IT, and loves it enough that he’s been my private IT department since we met. He’s supported my accessibility needs at new jobs, advocated for me to tech sales reps, and graciously put up with a lot of undeserved tongue-lashings when I ran into problems and went to war against technology and all who loved it.

He’d been telling me for years that Apple’s accessibility technology would make even the dreaded touch-screen available to me. But after years of promises broken by dozens of techies I just didn’t believe it. I couldn’t; it wasn’t worth the risk. But my career field finally forced me to take the plunge. I can imagine him daydreaming about how empowered I’d feel, zipping around the screen of an iPad, but all I could think of was asking my doctor about migraine meds, or the worst-case scenario, having to drop out of school because I just couldn’t use the tools required.

I clutched my flip-phone and cried.

I’ll be honest with you – I don’t like the iBook’s app. It’s probably the least functional one on my iPad. I go out of my way to avoid using it.

But the first time my husband handed me an iPad with Voiceover and reversed-contrast enabled, showed me how to tap in and out of apps I was absolutely amazed. He was right; it changed my life for the better in ways I’m still calculating. For the first time I could consistently, easily, and quickly communicate, access and record information, and organize productivity without having to construct convoluted pathways to avoid gaps in service. I could carry an entire library in my purse, collaborate with classmates and my co-author, conduct research and manipulate data without even a single dose of ibuprofen to get me through! Studying became a treat instead of a trial – well, except for the DSM. It’s still a huge, clunky piece of work. That’s an update I can’t wait to receive!

It’s taken 4 years, 2 iPads, 2 iPhones, and 2 Macs to slowly convert my trepidation into anticipation. But now when I hear about updates I start asking questions beyond “will it do everything my current gadget does/”

It can take time to overcome years of fear and frustration. And it’s ok to take that time, to slowly let down your guard in safe spaces, receiving just a little healing at a time. Anyone who asks you to suddenly embrace safety simply on their word that it is, in fact, safe, is taking your emotional journey far too personally. 

It’s your fear, your journey, and your healing. While this doesn’t give you leave to bite the hand trying to feed you, it does mean you have the right and responsibility to determine how much healing you’re ready for at any given time.

To be continued…

Welcome to the Dark Side

“I’m like Daredevil, only prettier.”

Anneliese and Greta work down a neighborhood street without sidewalk.
Anneliese works Greta along a neighborhood street without sidewalk.

I like introducing myself this way because it instantly breaks the awkward ice that forms over conversations when people suddenly realize I’m blind. You’d be surprised how long it takes some people sometimes. Even with a harnessed German shepherd, dark sunglasses, and sometimes my white cane, I have to convince people I’m not just training the dog. I really am blind.

Blind and visually impaired adults make up more than 10% of the United States population. It’s not unthinkable that you’ve never met someone who can’t see. But as the rate of disability diagnosis outstrips the rate of newly pioneered vision-restoring medical procedures, as we continue to find more and more uses for service dogs, I think it very important we stretch our common knowledge to encompass the experience and perspectives of these demographics.

So, I invite you, through this blog, to come take a look on the dark side. See what it’s like to live and work, struggle and play, love and learn with a service dog. Look through my eyes as best you can, and I’ll show your life without sight, but with lots of vision. In this blog I will:

  • Discuss service dog user rights and restrictions
  • Describe daily life experiences with a four-footed companion
  • Share my adventures as a blind American woman tackling the 21st century
  • Drift into mental health topics, because I’m a therapist and can’t help myself
  • Challenge perceptions and perspectives on the concept of “disability.”
  • Obsessively update you on the fantasy novels I’m writing

First, disclaimers.

1.        Yes, I’m a therapist. No, I do not offer consultations. This site IS NOT HIPAA compliant, so please do not send me personal medical or mental health information. Also, if you’re in crisis, please contact 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency room.

2.        This is the 2nd time I’ve attempted to re-launch this blog. There will be annotations and crazy verb tense disagreements. Grammar Nazis, I offer you a chance to practice the fine art of letting go.

Now a little history

I was born about 75% blind, from a rare genetic disorder. I’ve steadily lost about 20% of the vision I started with, and gained a n ever-sharpening perspective on who I am, and who I want to be. I hope the optimism comes through in my writing. I began this blog as a sort of newsletter for family and friends interested in my journey to get a service dog, but today it’s become part of how I enter the world as a disabled woman in America.

I’ve got lots of ideas for new content, interesting questions, and some amazing opportunities to learn that I want to share with you. I’ll be posting new content every Wednesday. On Flashback Fridays you can expect annotated and updated re-posts of the original content from the old blog, From Four Eyes to Four Legs. I don’t know if I can keep up this twice-weekly pace, but I like a challenge now that I no longer fear imperfection.

This re-launch announcement will count as this week’s new content. You can expect a re-posting of my very first blog post this Friday. Annotations will be in bold so you can distinguish the voice of 19-year-old Anneliese from that of 30-year-old Anneliese.

My current service dog, a lovely little German Shepherd named Greta, is having some mental health issues. Our working relationship is a little rocky, and I’ve been discouraged about this for a while. When the idea hit to re-launch this blog and turn it into a full website I went back to look at the original blog to see if there was salvageable content. I found that revisiting my unstained eagerness from that very first post forward extremely uplifting, and empowering. I could physically feel that joy and anticipation The writing wasn’t as terrible as I’d feared, too. This, I feel, is akin to re-reading old journal entries, a method of reliving powerfully positive and inspirational experiences that have a measurable impact on our mental health. It’s one of the many reasons that journaling is the #1 therapist-recommended intervention.

So, take my hand and let the blind guide you through the past and into the hazy future. If you can’t see what’s ahead, than it can hold whatever you imagine. Welcome to the dark side.