I am going to try to break a long period of silence in my journal. I'm having difficulty writing, but I need to describe some things...
People at the seminary have seen Alexis travel with a cane when she has gone to seminary functions with me; but they have only seen me with my dog. I've been surprised that many of them did not assume that I would just go to using the cane like she does. In fact, they assume that she can see and I can't. I'm not sure what drives this dynamic--the dog and the cane are equivalent mobility tools. When I've tried asking a few people about it, they have been unable to put any words to it. They are not aware that they are doing this.
So when Meg's retirement became imminent, many people asked me with great concern how I would get around. I had begun carrying a telescoping cane with me; so I started whipping it out and demonstrating. Meg was visibly disturbed by it, but she got used to it and I considered this part of my adjustment to her pending retirement. I often made references to Alexis as a point of reference--people are accustomed to seeing her move around fairly freely, and I wanted them to get the idea in their minds that I would do the same. I had no reason to expect that I would do otherwise.
When Elli retired, I was quite comfortable returning to cane use and actually thought that I might not get another dog. The deciding factor came when I had a seizure in which I did not lose consciousness. I continued walking and fell face-first down a flight of stairs. I returned to working with a dog for the benefit of the stops at drop-offs and the traffic checks. I have retained permanent injuries from that fall which have aggravated my chronic pain disorder.
I don't remember much about the time period between Dori's retirement and my training with Meg. I was unemployed and rather inactive in general. It would not surprise me if I didn't do much going out and about; but I don't know. I remember using a cane a few times in Florida for the purpose of keeping up my skills; but I have lost a lot of hand function since moving back to Indiana in 2004. At this point in my life, I am unable to use a cane with any kind of dexterity because I cannot hold the weight and maintain the necessary movements for extended periods of time, especially on uneven terrain. In order to get the best use out of it, the recommended technique is to hold the cane in a pencil grip and swing it from one side to the other, moving only the wrist, so that when one foot is forward the cane is "clearing" the path in front of the opposite foot. There are days when I require two hands to hold a six-ounce cup of coffee, and the pencil grip is often quite painful for me.
The impact of this all hit me when I tried doing my route to campus with the O&M instructor recently. I thought that with Meg's retirement looming, I should do a trial run to make sure that I could handle the rounded curbs and one angled crossing safely. I normally walk this with a healthy dog in 35 minutes. I walked about halfway in 45 minutes and had panic attacks the whole way because I was veering into oncoming traffic and had to work so hard to correct this.
Could I "cane it" in a crisis situation? If it was absolutely required of me. But I'm not sure that it's worth that much stress over. I think that there has to be a point where it's ok for me to say that I need certain benefits that a dog can provide and that's why I am working with a dog, and the implication of this is that on days when there is no dog I have to either suck it up and go with the cane or else find alternate ways of meeting my needs. Whether I suck it up or not depends on how badly I need those benefits. I'm a person, not an automaton, and I am done trying to prove that my skills are good enough to make it possible for me to survive any situation. I'm not invincible, and I'm ok not being invincible. It hurts sometimes to be vulnerable, but fighting with my body isn't going to change my status. I've been a lot more at peace with myself since I decided to accept myself and give myself the freedom to be imperfect and accept assistance from time to time.
I've thought a lot about this stuff as I've been going through various things with Meg. Going back to cane use is bringing up a lot of feelings in me. A part of me wants to do everything myself--in fact, to try to do all the same things with the cane that I would do with Meg just because life should not be any different with the cane than it is with the dog. My motto this year has been that I must live things fully and gracefully, and that includes returning to cane use. But on my first day to class without Meg, I got out of my friend's car and promptly smacked my face on an overhead sign that was leaning at an odd angle. The lens popped out of my glasses, flew across the sidewalk, and my friend got out of her car to help me retrieve it. Life was not going to be the same without the dog: I couldn't even get in the building without incident! There is no avoiding things like this as a cane user. The fact is that working with a dog does provide certain advantages: avoidance of overhead objects, correction of veering tendency, and ability to pattern routes that might otherwise baffle me.
In time, I could have laughed off the sign incident; but not that day and probably not for a while. I thought about laughing because my glasses are supposedly unbreakable. They ended up breaking--three days later... The frame just fell apart in my hands as I took them off. I guess they had just a bit too much stress. Melanie told me she kicked the sign for me. Now that's funny!
The next day, I thought that I would run over during the 15-minute break at the half-way point in my history class and buy something to eat. It's not that far--I can usually walk it in two minutes each way. I set out with the cane, and four minutes later I was halfway there and my hand was killing me. Melanie happened to come up behind me and ask if I was heading over to buy coffee. I took her up on her offer to "play dog." There just was no point in proving I could do it myself if it made me late to class. I remember playing that game in undergrad: walking places by myself just to prove that I could do it. It's a very lonely life--one that I don't want to live again. It's a hard balance between accepting my limits and allowing myself to ask for and receive the help I need vs. being too dependent on dog or people; but I'd rather struggle to figure it out than keep beating myself up as I have done in the past. I can write this, but the truth is that I still experience twinges of guilt and wonder if I am taking advantage of people's kindness at certain times (e.g. when I initiate a request for someone to run over with me to buy a coffee during the break as opposed to simply hooking up with Melanie because we're going the same way).
In dealing with inability to use the cane, I do find that it is important to maintain autonomy in my travel... I think that a lot of people have never experienced autonomy in travel in any other form besides with the cane or dog, and it's a new concept to talk about sighted guide as a tool instead as a passive mode of travel. I am having to learn this very reluctantly: without being able to fall back on the cane in the absence of the dog, I don't have a lot of other options. Even the NFB's light carbon fiber canes are heavy for prolonged use. The tremendous advantage that my dogs have given me over the years--and one that I never anticipated--is greatly increased orientation skills and assertiveness. Those are the real skills that serve a blind person regardless of what mobility tool is in use. What I wrote above about requesting assistance is important. If it is too painful for me to "cane it" to buy myself a coffee, then I either go without or else make the request of someone because I need the autonomy to be able to buy myself a coffee if I want one. The problem occurs when people use my dependency to impose their opinions on me--and occasionally some do. "You don't need a coffee today," is a response that I have gotten at times instead of a simple "No," or "I don't feel like it." The person doesn't want to confront their own unwillingness to help so places ths "problem" upon me for having the desire for coffee. Yet if I went and bought my coffee of my own volition, I would have the right to buy myself a coffee whether I "needed" it or not. The same thing occurs in the realm of driving: I may want to go and pick up some fast food, and I may have the funding for the fast food but not the $10 or $15 required for cab fare to pick it up. So I either do without or make a request of someone who could pick it up for less than $2 in gas but who may well say that I don't need it simply because they don't have the time to do this. Most of the time, I go without because it's just not worth it and isn't important enough to ask someone to alter their schedule over. But how many mornings I'd love to have a McGriddle when it's been too cold to walk!