My journey through the darkness: Richard Lane is 25. Two years ago he lost his sight. At first he coped; then despair overcame him. Now, at last, his spirits are lifting

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Two years ago I went blind. It didn't happen overnight, and I had had eye problems since childhood, but at 21 I could see clearly and at the age of 23 I could see nothing.

My last memory of sight was waking one bright October morning two years ago after months of clouded vision. There was shape, colour and contrast after three months of agonised waiting since the last operation to repair my one deteriorating retina. But it had been worthwhile. That evening, I challenged my father to a game of pool in the village pub. He accepted, although he didn't believe that I would be able to see the green baize table, let alone the multi-coloured balls. To his delight, my father lost the game.

The next day the cloudiness returned, this time for ever. I could no longer see. More operations followed as retinas, cataracts and corneas were worked on in turn to try to restore some sight.

It took six months after the pool game for me to begin to realise that I was truly blind. However extraordinary it may seem, the initial stages were not difficult. I had become the centre of attention because something dreadful had happened to me. Although I was frustrated by my loss of independence, I felt strong and I had not cried since my last operation. I remember thinking that it was my male, middle-class confidence that was seeing me through it all. I had a white stick and had gone back to work. I was through the worst.

Yet this turned out to be the start of the most difficult time of my life. I had now been blind for a year and was beginning to lose touch with the sighted world that I knew so well. I was meeting new people, making new friends, but I couldn't put a face to them. I tried feeling people's faces when I first met them, but a face is impossible to construct in the mind, particularly if you have seen before and know how unique a face is.

I was beginning to crave everyday activities that were now beyond me - driving, sport, all the things that an active man in his mid-twenties would miss. But there was more, a craving for colour and texture, beauty and shape. I could still picture my first glimpse of the French Riviera, of Florence and Venice, of the pretty girls that I had known. All that was visible now was a trickle of light coming through the window, or the flame from a match to light my cigarettes. I was becoming enclosed, imprisoned within a tunnel from which, I was just beginning to realise, there was no escape.

By the beginning of 1993 my overriding feeling was one of grief and utter dejection, of a sense of total loss. I wished that I had never been able to see at all. My brief contact with people who had been blind since birth reinforced this. They were the lucky ones, I thought. They were only used to one thing, their blind world. They had never had so much and then had to cope with so little. I thought how much easier it would be if I didn't have to cope at all, and the idea of not existing seemed rather attractive. But it was just self-indulgence and I knew I would never take any drastic action. I felt trapped.

Until now, I had covered up my rage and fought against my depression, exhausting myself and craving to be in bed. There at least I could not bump into anything and in my dreams, which were in colour, I could see my friends. In one recurring dream I was in hospital having the bandages removed. I would slowly open my eyes and the world would flash into view. But then I would wake up shaking and feeling sick, and somehow get out of bed, stumble into my clothes and go off to work.

Friends were aware of my descent into deep depression. With my doctor's help I went into counselling and for months I poured out my frustration to a woman I did not know and could not see. At least the burden of having to talk to my friends and family about my situation had been taken away. The counselling enabled me to talk about my condition and 'blind' became an ordinary word, rather than an arrow twisting in my heart. I was also taking medication to counteract the mood swings. I began to rediscover my self- confidence and to believe that there was still some life after blindness.

I have now been blind for two years. I am 25 years old. The desperation of a few months ago has passed, and a sense of calm has begun to emerge, perhaps the beginnings of acceptance. I am still nowhere near being competent with my blindness. I only know enough braille to label my CDs, but fortunately technology, in the form of synthesised speech on computers, watches, etc, is making braille less important.

Once, at a tube station, I unwittingly walked straight across to the other platform through one of those connecting passageways and felt the end of my white stick disappear over the edge. I was six inches from going over myself, and did not venture out much afterwards. Often people are at hand who are willing to offer help, though curiously they usually seem to be women. Perhaps men find it all too embarrassing.

Clothes shopping used to be a joy but it now fills me with apprehension. I would only trust a couple of close friends to advise me. Cooking is obviously much more of a hassle than it used to be; frying pans are definitely out, although making something like a casserole is actually easier than making a good cup of tea. People often ask me how I manage to shave, but like everything else you just have to be more careful. Shaving may take five minutes longer, but I can't remember the last time I cut

myself.

I thought that being blind would make it extremely difficult to meet a partner. It's all very well being told that you are attractive and have an interesting personality, but it is another matter to feel confident enough to believe that someone will want to become close to you. The main problem at the outset is that you have no body language to interpret, none of those little clues that give you a hint of what the other person may be thinking. You just have to listen to the personality behind the voice, and you soon realise that falling in love with someone is just the same, whether you can see or not. The main difference is that you cannot picture their face or keep a photo in your wallet, so you remember the voice and try to build up a picture of what the person may look like. In this way a personal relationship may thrive, as it is so crucial to talk and to listen. The most enlightening thing about being blind and in a relationship is that after a time you are not so aware of being without sight. Instead of being a great burden, blindness becomes a minor hazard that should not get in the way of a meaningful relationship.

A year ago I applied for a guide dog, and after a long wait I have just completed my training. Living and working in London can mean a long wait as a particularly robust animal will be required. A suitable match has appeared in the shape of Norton, a 19-month- old golden labrador. Our first walk together was an uplifting experience. I expected to be terrified, putting all my trust into the dog as we set off along the pavement. But it was easy. He knew what he was doing and I suddenly realised that I had discovered a form of sight again. We have been together for three weeks and it is impossible to imagine coping without him. Apart from the renaissance of independence, having a guide dog means that there is always a companion, so that when no one else is around there is a devoted friend who will be just as happy lying at your feet as he is taking off to the Tube for your next engagement. No more poking around Underground stations with a white stick

for me.

Nowadays my strength comes from my ability to write on a computer and, above all, through music. Having played the violin since I was five, but neglecting it when I could see to do other things, I now play every day. I learn works from memory and perform them in public four or five times a year. Music has a magnetic quality that draws you close to other like-minded individuals. I have some marvellous friends who encourage me to perform more challenging works - unaccompanied Bach, or Vivaldi's Four Seasons - who will take the time to hammer out the music on the piano at half speed so that I can memorise the notes. It is amazing how the brain can be disciplined to increase memory performance: I can now learn as much music in a week as I used to learn in a couple of months. It has preserved my sanity, and playing the violin is one of the few times when I am not conscious of being blind.

There still remains a ray of hope that one day I will see again. This is born not of wishful thinking, but as a result of consultations with eye specialists. It seems that within 10 or 15 years artificial sight may become a reality. It is not something that I can think about too often. On the other hand it is exciting to think that perhaps one day, when I am in my prime, I might see again.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments