Legally Blind #12 – The Hunchback of White Sulphur

I’m not staring at your boobs.

Well… yeah, okay, I kind of am, but it’s not on purpose. Please don’t slap me. It’s a disease, and not some sexually perverse one. It’s called ankylosing spondylitis.

Before you ask, no, it’s not really tied to my eyes at all, but my diagnosis did actually come about as a result to a visit with my amazing eye specialist Dr. Patricia Cosgrove (who will warrant an entire blog dedicated to her and the fine folks at Medical Eye Specialists in Bozeman, MT, with whom I’ve been a client for about two decades).

About eight years ago, I started to develop chronic pain in my left shoulder, which was initially diagnosed as complications from a torn muscle thanks to a sedentary lifestyle. I lost most of the range of motion in that arm, and despite working out and trying to rehab it through the years, it’s still only at about 80% of its normal range of motion. Not great, but initially just irritating.

About three or four years ago, I started to develop an irritating constant crick in my upper back and neck, which developed slowly into constantly tensed shoulder muscles and a slight stoop to the angle of my neck. I literally could not relax my back muscles – still can’t, by and large. If you want to try to emulate this, do a sit up, hands reaching for your toes as far as they can go. Feel that stretch in your muscle when you hit about the three-quarters mark? That’s the way I feel on a minute-to-minute basis. Not fun.

But that wasn’t the end of it. About two years ago, when I laid down at night, my back would remain tense until I felt an odd little shuffle in my spine, a sort of forced relaxation of the bones there that would leave me gritting my teeth and practically shouting from the sudden jab of pain. If you’ve ever fallen and felt your spine accordion, that’s what it felt like every night when I went to bed, along with a distinct pop of some of my vertebrae. Now that was worrying.

And here’s something I didn’t realize was wrong with me until I was treated – I was tired. Not your average, every-day fatigue, but bone tired. I slept at least ten hours a day, something I’d done since my sophomore year of college, and I still felt sleepy almost every day. More on this in a second.

Me being an idiot, though, I figured it was just a posture thing. After all, I’m a fat man with a sedentary lifestyle, so hey, of course I’m going to suffer a bit of back pain, right? No need to get it seriously looked at. I had a couple of x-rays here locally, got a prescription for some mild painkillers and a muscle relaxant, and figured the problem would work itself out.

A few weeks or months on, and I go to visit Dr. Cosgrove for a regular eye appointment (well, regular for me – I’m guessing most of you don’t have to endure the dilation and half-an-hour of lights shining in your eyes to make sure your lattice structure isn’t shredding like toilet paper after a Taco Tuesday). Dr. Cosgrove read over my recent updates to my case history, and saw the discomfort when I had to put my chin in the Mickey Mouse contraption she uses to shine her eyeball cooker of a flashlight into my retinas.

We went over the history of my back pain, and I expected her to say what me and every other medically trained individual thought – live a healthier lifestyle. Instead, she asked if I’d been to see a rheumatologist, which aside from sounding like something only an elderly person would need to see, is extremely hard to spell. It’s the “a” instead of the “o” that gets me. Anyways, I kind of laughed her off and told her I’d just lose some weight and it wouldn’t be a problem anymore, but she told me if I had what she thought I might be diagnosed with, that it could severely affect my eyes somewhere down the line, either through infection or inflammation (or something similar – I’m not great at the medical science part of this).

I wasn’t laughing so much anymore. We scheduled something with Dr. John McCahan out of Bozeman Health, who took a long look at my back, my posture, and my case history, and agreed it was worth testing for.

I’d been in some pain for a while, but getting those tests done by the lab in Bozeman is maybe only third in terms of pain to some of the worst of my migraines and my infrequent fights with bursitis in my hips (which may have been related to an unnamed hip disease I found out I had at the same time as ankylosing spondylitis was diagnosed).

Getting my blood drawn wasn’t really the problem, but if you’re an aspiring lab tech and your future patients tell you it’s going to be easier to draw blood from their hand instead of the crook of their elbow, please do them a favor and listen. Don’t look at it as some personal challenge. The guy must have jabbed me eight times in the arm before deciding I knew what the hell I was talking about.

The real pain came from the X-rays I had to take – and I had to take a bunch of them. Holy shit, even the memory is making me want to break out sweating. There were a few that could be taken standing, which was fine, except the x-ray tech kept telling me to stand up straighter, which – spoilers! – isn’t possible for me anymore. I kept trying to tell her I can’t, but she was new and, more dangerously, obstinate, mostly because she’d never had to deal with a case like mine. Story of my fucking life when it comes to doctors.

The real, unsweetened pain came when she told me to lie down on the x-ray table. I treid to tell her I needed something to prop up my head, but she said that would taint the x-rays. Couldn’t be done, she said. I tried. I laid there shaking like a leaf, sweat from the muscle spasms rocking my body forming little lakes under my head and rolling down to my bare ass hanging out of the two-sizes too small “one size fits all” hospital gown.

Also, screw hospital gowns. Give your big patients sheets, or big beach towels, or something less humiliating than that crap.

Anyways, there I was, trying to bite back a scream when spasm after spasm was hitting me like ocean waves, and all the while this baby-fresh x-ray tech is telling me, N”no, no, you have to lay down straighter, you have to try harder to hold still.” I’m biting my tongue, because not only am I in just miserable amounts of pain, but Creed comes on the goddamn radio. Creed. As if my misery wasn’t complete enough.

Finally, the x-ray tech sighs in annoyance and calls down her supervisor from an extended lunch I’m guessing took place in Vietnam, considering how frigging long it took her to show up. She sees the distress I’m in, calmly tells me to try it one more time (which turned into another three or four times), and then they finally realize, oh, hey! This guy in pain might know that he’s actually in pain and needs a pillow to brace his head if they want to get an x-ray. Shocker!

I came out of there something like two hours after I went in, white as a ghost and having sweat so badly I could have drank a gallon of water. And probably did – I drink water like a camel even under the best of circumstances. But the tests were done, and I was called back by McCahan’s office to tell me a few weeks later I sure did have this funky disease called ankylosing spondylitis.

So… that aside, what is AS? It’s basically an inflammatory disease. My dumbass healthy cells got confused somewhere along the way and started attacking my spine’s healthy cells, confusing them for outside invaders. Sort of fitting – I’ve been playing video games my whole life, and now my white blood cells are playing their own game of Space Invaders inside my body as some sort of gross fit of karma coming back to bite me in the ass – or spine.

That’s a very basic definition, though, and the reality is a bit weirder than that. The AS has actually caused spinal growths on my vertebrae, leaving me with an upper spine as stiff as a board from the base of my shoulder blades to my neck. I have a limited range of vertical movement in my neck, which fluctuates a little, but not by much. It’s not something that will heal, at least not with modern medicine. Maybe someday they’ll implant me with some sort of Terminator spine, but I’m not counting my breath.

The treatment is basically a means of creating a holding pattern in my body – I can’t improve, but they’ve essentially halted the disease in its tracks through treatments. This treatment unfortunately has one big drawback – my immune system is now, effectively, as useless as a condom with a hole poked in it. Sure, it’s there, but it sure isn’t doing a whole lot.

That said, the effects have been astounding. As I mentioned before, I didn’t realize how tired I used to be until I was diagnosed and treated. Where I was sleeping ten to twelve hours a day, I’m now sleeping maybe six or seven, tops (with an occasional nap thrown in). I’m up every day by about eight o’clock at the latest, no matter how much I might want to sleep in. I’ve got a fire in me now that I just didn’t have before, and I feel the need to go, go, go.

Better sleep and more energy has put me in a better mood, too. Though I’ve slipped on losing weight, I still feel like I’m energized spiritually to do it, to get out on the track and push myself.

And in the most visible sign of improvement, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. From June of 2016 to May-ish of 2017, I produced five novels averaging about 110k words apiece. Counting rough drafts and synopses, in the last year and a half, I’ve produced well over 1.5 million words. I’m not bragging about this – I could and will do better, because I’ve been graced with all the free time a person could ask for and very few responsibilities except to myself and my dogs. Given that amount of free time, i should be producing a book nearly every other month, if not faster.

But it’s a hell of a start considering I spent the last six years prior to 2016 doing little more than shitting, eating, sleeping, and consuming media.

I write all this especially to those of you males in your late twenties who might be suffering from chronic back pain. Get yourself checked out. Don’t be satisfied until you have a solution for your problem, and I’m not just talking painkillers or muscle relaxants here. Find out if there’s real treatment before it leaves you staring at chest level the rest of your life – which, believe me, leaves you pretty wanting in the dating department.

And to those of you with boobs, boy, am I sorry.

Writing fight scenes

One of the best tips I can give you budding writers is that when you have to write a fight scene, blow it out in your first draft. Go nuts with everything and everything you possibly want out of it, then scale it back to what you actually need afterwards. It’s way easier to craft a fun, intense fight scene that way, whereas when you have to pad it out, it tends to read like that’s what you’ve done.
I’ve had some trouble writing gunfights as opposed to fist fights. The former just don’t come across as creative enough, in my mind at least, whereas with the two big fistfight scenes in my novels (Garrett and the shapeshifter in Shifting Furies and again with Garrett and Dash Pendleton in Band of Fallen Princes) I can get down and dirty with the characters in a way that’s a joy to write. There are also two big Brianna fight scenes I’m really fond of in similar ways in For All the Sins of Man and Bone Carvers. In all of these, it was fun not just thinking about how the characters would interact and move from moment to moment, but it was a lot easier to keep track of numbers and bystanders, when applicable. With my gunfight scenes, tracking bullets, bodies, and injuries tends to require a lot of flowcharting and planning, which dulls the speed at which I can write a scene and therefore the overall quality of the writing.
Got any favorite fight scenes from books or movies? I think my very particular favorites from novels have to be the Sharpe battle scenes, which are both excellently written and easy to follow. Joe Abercrombie also writes fantastic battle scenes in his fantasy novel The Heroes. In film, it’s Heat, Collateral (sensing a Michael Mann thread here), and the end of the first half of Kill Bill. Whaddya got?

Legally Blind #11 – Colorado Addendum

My friend and co-conspirator on the Rankin Flats novels Erik Wehler just reminded me in an offhanded fashion that I completely forgot to talk about my experiences with some of the more odd classes I took at the Colorado Center for the Blind.

I’m not good with tools. Never have been, never will be. I’m not going to excuse myself by saying “I’m just not wired that way” because, c’mon, everybody can grab a hammer and throw in a nail. Except… not really. I try it, and I guarantee you that nail’s going to wind up in someone’s pituitary gland, the hammer’s head will explode, and within minutes, Ron Swanson will show up to my place, gun in hand, ready to rectify the world of the worst carpenter there ever was.

Mechanical devices at large are foreign to me. Just Friday, I was struggling to understand how to knock the legs down on a folding table, something I’m pretty sure my four year old cousins could do, probably while building a brick outdoor barbecue and shoring up the windows on their trailer.

I have really weird cousins.

Anyways, one of the classes I had to at least dip my toes into at the Colorado Center for the Blind was a woodworking class. Me being the guy who was immensely proud of himself for building an unsanded, unpolished, infinitely ugly table in his college set-building class in college was expected to work power tools, not just with my low vision, but completely blinded by sleepshades.

I’m still giggling like a school girl meeting… who’s a famous celebrity these days? Tom Jones! I’m giggling like a school girl meeting Tom Jones! ¬†Wait, even I’m young enough that joke doesn’t play. Uh… giggling like a school girl meeting… Elvis? The Cookie Monster? Frodo Baggins? Just pretend I said something culturally relevant and let’s move on.


So here I was, expecting to be tossed out of that woodworking classroom in minutes, because I’m not just all thumbs when it comes to this stuff. I’m limbless. I don’t think I’ve ever so much as owned an electric screwdriver, unless you can attach the little screwhead thingies to a vibrating toothbrush. Is that a thing people can do? Yes? No?

The teacher was a cool guy. Chilled and relaxed, and unfortunately unmoving on the possibility of me getting out of the class. He was also either married or divorced from my supercool (shut up, I’m bringing back supercool) home life teacher there, which should come as no surprise.

I was piss-my-pants scared when he told me everything I’d be doing, which essentially amounted to me building a small shelf for home use. It had to fulfill several specifications, including nice, fancy edges, a good sanding job, and a stain.

I kid you not, I thought I was going to die in a bloody, horrible shop accident in five minutes.

The classes were about twice a week for… mmm.. two months? Something like that. During the first month, there were other students, all of whom were more qualified than I was to run machinery with sharp, pointy edges that could very easily slice my skull open like a watermelon on the 4th of July. And each of them was blind. Not a little blind, not behind sleepshades blind, but blind-blind.

They whipped through their woodworking projects like they were cutting up a sandwich for dinner. I… mostly walked around with some boards in hand, trying not to be noticed. Pro-tip? That doesn’t fly at the CCB.

My teacher cornered me and asked me what I was afraid of. Well, “cornered” is a strong word. More like he approached me all Zen-like and told me he wasn’t going to let me hurt myself if I wasn’t stupid about things, and he didn’t believe I was stupid about things. He started me off on a jigsaw. Or a bandsaw. Or some kind of a machine that would spell the end of my fingers and hands that also ended in “saw.” He showed me, by touch, that the power cord wasn’t plugged in, and guided me to every point of interest on the machine, showing me the safety guides, where the blade would come down, how I could measure with guides, and what I’d need to do with my hands when feeling for the power switch after every cut.

It was, and still is, the best training I ever received with power tools. He was patient. He didn’t talk down to me. He didn’t get frustrated or make me feel stupid in any way. And unlike one or two of the other teachers there, he took the time to make sure I understood what I was doing, that I was comfortable and ready to take the next step.

I wish I could detail for you the specifics of how I made my little shelf, but I don’t remember a damn thing about the process. All I do remember is taking it slow, learning each machine in turn. I burned the hell out of the edges on the edger thingie. I went through twice as many boards as I should have trying to make the right cuts. My sanding was rough. I didn’t end up screwing hooks into the back so it could be put on a wall. But by the end, I had… well, not a shelf, but something approximating shelf-like.

And I didn’t murder myself in the process.

Then there was art classes.

Art at the CCB was a funny thing, because I so very rarely had it. I think I came into the Center near the very tail end of one art cycle and didn’t get involved with another class, though I don’t recall the specifics of why. I think by the point they were starting up another art class, I knew my time there was drawing to a close and I was focused solely on learning as much Braille, computer tech, and home living stuff as possible, covering the essentials of what I’d need.

But those few weeks I dabbled with art classes there were really fun. Our big project was a clay landscape of sorts. We could define it however we liked, imagining the landscape as an extension of our personalities. Mine at the time was meant to be vaguely Taoist, representing the balance of anger and calmness I felt in equal measure at the time. It wound up being something like a mashup of divots and crude hills, but still!

The process itself was largely straightforward. If you took a class in high school molding clay, we did pretty much the same thing. Clean-up was the hardest part, because cleaning a mess of clay by feel is almost always a pointless endeavor. You’re always bound to miss huge swaths of dust crap on tables, no matter how many swipes you take at the thing.

Unfortunately that’s a problem that has persisted to this day for me – cleaning, even with limited sight, often means I miss easy-to-spot details and leads to great embarrassment for me. As much as I’d love to say I keep a clean bathroom – and I do try – it’s often led to horrific moments of shame when guests try to point out things that need to be touched up. That’s not to say they shouldn’t – it’s actually greatly appreciated, because who the hell wants a filthy bathroom? But even just writing about it makes me red in the face.

And let me tell you, that makes the dating thing oh so very much fun. “Need to pop in and freshen up? Oh, there’s a fungus growing on the wall by the toilet? Errrr…. yeah, no, I completely understand running out of my apartment at full steam.”

Don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that particular shame online before. Hey, I promised honesty. So… there you go.

Anyways. Art was fun. My favorite memory was of us trying to go to some artistic thing and us breaking down somewhere along the way. It sounds miserable but it actually gave me a chance to get to know a bunch of my soon-to-be friends. That’s a good memory, just one of a thousand I have of that place.

And it’s also a good place to leave this off. Thanks for reading, as always, and I’ll be back soon to maybe talk a bit about my other fun physical afflictions.

Life is Weird

Eight years ago to this day, I lost my job.

That’s nearly a decade of days spent staring at a computer screen. Watching television. Playing games. Saying stupid shit on the Internet. Walking my dog(s).

It’s also nearly a decade of self-loathing, of pity parties, of anger, of mild paranoia. It’s nearly a decade of trying to get over my newfound distrust of people. It’s a decade of a lake of loneliness, the life preserver of which has been twenty five pounds of fur and farts (and my family).

But. But.

But it’s also been a decade in which I’ve come to understand myself. In which I’ve figured out who I am and who I want to be. Of what’s important. Of the lines I’m willing to cross and the ones I won’t. I’ve learned what defines family – real family, not just blood. It’s been a decade of rebuilding. Of healing. Of trying to reconnect with a world I no longer feel I understand.

And recently, it has been a decade in which I’ve actively begun not just a reversal of my fortunes, but an attempt at throwing myself back out in the world again. In a business sense, that’s been going… well, slower than I’d like, but it’s going. In terms of my social life, I’m trying to push past being the weird guy in the corner of the bar at night drinking diet Pepsis and wishing there was a bookstore around, but I’m out there. It’s not easy rebuilding a list of friends I can call and hang out with, especially given my age.

I’ve done more healing in the last two years than the entire previous six. I’m taking gambles on my future and seeing small dividends that will someday blossom into larger ones if I just keep pushing forward. I will probably never be that twenty-seven year old man again, but I don’t think I want to be. This Cam, the one you’re mentally talking to right now, is maybe more broken, more jagged, but it’s also the only version of me that has looked at the mountain in front of him and just started climbing. I’ll get to the peak someday. If my friends, if my family want to come with me, then start climbing too and we’ll do this together.

It has been a very long, very odd eight years.



Legally Blind #10 – A Sea of Familiarity

I don’t recognize you.

I don’t know your face. I don’t know your clothes. I don’t know your vehicle. I don’t know the way you walk.

I’m sorry about that, I really am. And if you know me, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, Cam means someone else.” No. I’m sorry, but no. I’m not. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been best friends for decades. It doesn’t matter if you’re my parents. It doesn’t even matter if you’re my brother, the person I’m closest to in the universe.

I do not recognize you.

One of the questions I get asked frequently – and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this, but this blog can and will repeat itself as topics will frequently intersect, and because my memory is absolute shit – is just what is it I actually see. That’s not a question people want to know in numbers (which, as of this writing, is -27 and -30 diopters in each eye, and if you know what that means, send me the bill for cleaning your underwear). They want to know in a quantifiable, real-life situation what I could actually see.

Defining that is often difficult, but as I’m pondering this idea of not being able to recognize anyone, it makes for a good teachable moment. The best way to describe my vision is I don’t see details. I see vague ideas of things, sometimes a bit more solidly when I’m up close and personal, but often times even then it’s a crapshoot. I don’t really see fine print anymore. I don’t see what’s up and down grocery store aisles – nowadays, I usually rely on common sense and the items you’d find at the end of each particular aisle as my beacons, but someday I’ll lose that latter one too.

And in what might be the saddest way vision has affected me, I don’t see people. I see the idea of you – your rough shape, the color of the clothes you’re wearing (although even that’s an illusion to me – I’m partially color blind to boot), maybe a few generalities, especially if you’ve got big hair or a heavy beard or sit in a wheelchair. Sometimes, within context, that’s enough to say, “Oh, that’s enough visual information that I feel confident in saying that’s X.”

But when I don’t have that contextual information, like when I’m in an environment where a lot of people come through the door or say hello, I’m very much socially paralyzed by an inability to distinguish what makes you you. This is compounded by my aforementioned terrible memory, because this should be offset by a recognition of people’s voices. But unlike a few of my blind friends who have developed sharper memories for these things, my brain seems to leak like a sieve.

Sometimes, this is helped by the way someone will talk to me. “Hey boo!” my mom will shout across a store. In a sea of voices, I could probably pick hers out – but the way she says it, “hey boo,” it’s an audible signal that helps me out a ton.

And though the responsibility is most definitely not on you, if you see me out and about, one of the ways you can help me tremendously is to just say, “Hey, Cam, it’s X.” Not all my blind friends like or need this, so it’s definitely not universal. But my God, does it ever help me out. When people shout hello at me, I always feel terrible for giving a generic, “Hey!” and then ignoring them, but I really am rendered socially awkward because I don’t have any clue who they are, generally speaking.

So yeah. Usually when people say this, it’s placating, but for me, it’s one hundred percent the truth – it’s not you, it’s me.