Navigating Life

Chronic illness and blindness often have diametrically opposed needs. The former necessitates coping strategies that minimize energy output while maximizing results whereas the latter requires methodical techniques with repetition or intense focus as crucial components. When contemplating a task, I must frequently navigate between conflicting needs of health versus accomplishing the endeavor. Oddly enough, literal navigation – getting from point a to point b – is the area in which I encounter this minefield most.
When you navigate with a cane, there are a multitude of things you attend to simultaneously: 1. your mental map of the route, 2. landmarks like street crossings relevant to your route, 3. stationary obstacles such as trees and poles, 4. moving obstacles like people and cars, and 5. sound cues that aid in walking a straight line. If you are me, add to that list an intense attention to obstructions at face level. Experience melds much of the above list into a sort of instinctive overall awareness of environment, but techniques can differ or conflict. For example, stationary obstacles are discovered by cane and sometimes sound while moving obstacles are only detected by ears. Awareness of face-level obstacles can take your attention away from those on lower levels. It’s complicated mental juggling that takes a great deal of energy in addition to the effort of actually walking.
Given that my chronic illness limits energy, I have a keen awareness of how much effort an activity requires and a tendency for frugal spending of the precious resource. Rides from friends are a staple in moving from one point to another. While I am eternally grateful to the people involved, I am continually frustrated by what I see as my dependency on others.
As my energy has grown, I have tried to increase my independent travel, like taking the bus. I admit freely that I am a wimp about it because I’m afraid. Afraid of getting lost. Afraid of strangers. Afraid of needing help. Afraid of looking like a fool. Afraid of, well, everything. I know these fears are ridiculous, but I can’t help it.
There is one thing I left off the above list – fear of getting too tired. I recently discovered that is not unfounded. Instinctively I believed that getting to a place might take so much energy that I would not be able to do the activity let alone deal with the return journey, so I avoided situations where I thought that was probable. Recently I had a doctor’s appointment and no ride. Since the office is 3 blocks from the bus route that runs past my house, I thought I should attempt getting there under my own steam.
To make certain I could handle the route, I walked it with my friend trailing behind. In fact, she had to trail far enough behind me that her sound would not give me any clues that might aid in following a straight line. Initially she reports having to bite her tongue so she wouldn’t blurt out information, but the urge slowly lessened. After we arrived at my destination, we retraced our steps my friend still shadowing me. A few minutes into the journey, we stopped and she said, “You are having trouble walking in a straight line.”
I replied, “Yeah, I’m tired.
Suddenly, I realized my instincts were totally right – I could get so exhausted that I might not be able to navigate successfully and avoid peril.
Guess it’s nice to know my assumptions weren’t keeping me from doing something otherwise possible, but damn. Before I had the possibility of doing things by myself and not doing it was somehow a choice. Now it is a fact and that somehow feels far more limiting and frustrating.
The up side of all this is that guide dogs exponentially reduce the energy necessary to navigate. While my name sits on the guide dog school’s waiting list I can contemplate my fabulous independence when my name reaches the top.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

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