I used to be afraid of the dark.
Unless you know me particularly well, “the dark” isn’t probably what you think it means. I’m not afraid of the night, or things that might or might not go bump in it – hell, my paychecks are now based on the boogeyman and his merry band of asshole buddies. What I mean is blindness. Waking up one day with another detached retina, or the slow fade into total blindness through macular degeneration used to terrify me in some subtle ways.
It’s not an easily describable fear. It wasn’t like it kept me up at night – though it certainly did, sometimes, when I’d contemplate how little I could actually do if I went completely blind (which is a falsehood, by the way – the blind can do plenty). It was more like a creeping dread, a sense of inescapable quicksand into a continued loss of functions we take for granted each and every day since we’re born.
Most of all, I was afraid of being helpless. By the end of college, I’d already lost my ability to drive, leaving me hoping for a single room in dingy college dorms probably best torn down. It left me without a great many of the activities I liked to do – suddenly I couldn’t play games online with my mom because I genuinely thought the eye strain would screw up my good eye. It left me straining to read books because my good eye wasn’t my dominant one.
Fear and helplessness leave me an angry, bitter mess. I’d bet you ninety nine times out of a hundred, abusive husbands hit their wives out of impotent rage. They can’t hit the thing they truly want to hit, so they find someone they think they can lord over and go to town, verbally or physically. I wish I could say I was different, but I know that need. It’s been the passenger in the seat next to me my whole life and it’s something I still struggle with every day. I’ve hit my brother so much over our lifetimes that the guilt of it crushes my shoulders on a daily basis. I’ve been in a dozen stupid fights, ostensibly because I was standing up for something or someone, but really because I just really fucking love the feel of my fists hitting something fleshy.
I hate myself for that. And don’t try to tell me not to. That contempt I feel for my anger is what drives me to seek peace with myself every single day. What all the hippy-dippy types don’t tell you about trying to find yourself is that when you do, you have to live with looking in the mirror every day.
None of that seems relevant to blindness, except it all is. Blindness isn’t the only thing that makes me angry all the time, but it’s a large part of my continual disappointment in myself. Imagine wanting to live your life as your own man and then having to ask for help from people who are never going to say no because they love you and pity you. Imagine how much that grinds you down. It’s exhausting.
I say all that about the present because back in 2004, these feelings were all still new to me. Up until 2003 or so, I had my issues with my temper, but going blind added a mountain to my back. If I’d been focused on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t, I have no idea where I’d be right now. I’d have tried for an acting school on the east coast, almost certainly. Who knows where I would have gone? What I would have done?
But fear had me and I don’t really blame myself. Thankfully, though, that temper of mine can sometimes work as a positive every once in a great while. I was tired of being afraid. I didn’t want to live my life on Social Security (which would later become kind of ironic, since that’s what I’ve been doing for eight years). I wanted to figure my shit out.
So I did. I talked to my Blind and Low Vision rep here in Montana, and the individual pointed me towards a place called the Colorado Center for the Blind. A few months later, and I hopped on a plane with a small suitcase and no idea what I was headed into. None. All I knew was that I’d be staying in Littleton, Colorado – yes, that Littleton – and going to school near there.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is incredibly apt when it comes to Denver. No six months of my life has ever been so eventful, made me feel so damned alive or so miserable. There are people I love from that period of time more than I have the ability to express. Rebecca Myers. Matthew Palumbo. Tommy Needham. Thirteen years later I still tell people stories about them, still laugh, still kinda wish I’d never left, still kinda glad I did.
When I hopped off the plane, I was greeted by an old man in an outlandish Hawaiian shirt, who promptly dropped me off at a surprisingly nice apartment complex in the suburbs. I was told that someone would be by… well, eventually. Eventually turned into a couple of hours of disbelief that this was suddenly my life, spent waiting outside in the blistering June heat. I couldn’t even get into my apartment because there was some SNAFU with the apartment keys. So I waited.
Enter my new roommate. Completely blind and looking kinda like a wet rat, he whacked his cane up and down the sidewalks and… promptly walked right by our apartment building for the one next door. I didn’t realize he was my roommate at the time, and “Steve” as we’ll call him had absolutely no sense of direction whatsoever. So I waited more. And more. And when he came back down the street, I asked him if he knows a guy named “Steve.” His face lights up – and if you’ve never seen a completely blind person’s face light up, it is one of God’s great joys, and I’m not even being the slightest bit sarcastic about that – and we finally get our housing stuff sorted out.
The apartment was sparse – a few bits of furniture leftover from various tenants and bedroom accouterments were about it. No TV, no entertainment, nothing. I slung my suitcase on my bed and sat down to enjoy the air conditioning for a while until “Steve” barreled right through my bedroom door and stood – I kid you not – half a foot away from me to ask me a bevy of questions.
He then asked if I wanted dinner. Since I hadn’t eaten since before the flight that morning, I was all for it. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but “Steve’s” next words kinda took me by surprise. “Sorry,” he said, “I haven’t gone grocery shopping in a while. All that’s in the fridge is hot dogs and spinach leaves.” And come to find out, those spinach leaves were rotten.
My first dinner in Denver, Colorado was a boiled hot dog, followed by my new roommate following me around like a lost puppy.
As far as first days of anything important in my life, it’s by far the weirdest. And that night, when I laid down listening to “Steve” whack his cane up and down the street trying to find a neighbor I didn’t know in a different building, I wondered just what the everloving hell I was doing there and how long I’d make it. Privately, I gave myself three days.
Turns out I lasted six months. Six grueling, happy, miserable months where I learned more about myself than any other time of my life. But more on that in Part Two, coming soon.