One of the scariest things about being blind, is getting lost. All it can take is the smallest of mistakes while navigating a route and if you can’t see what you’ve done wrong, or work out how to correct your mistake, before you know it you’re lost.
I’ve been lost more times in my life than I can count, both just metres from my front door and miles from home. And it’s not just myself I can rely on to screw things up, but the weather, road noise and people changing their front gates even, all contribute to the ability to navigate when you don’t have the luxury of sight. Here are just a few examples of the times I have gotten lost, including today.
1. Wrong House
I was living in the middle of a row of town houses, all with identical frontages, all with identical gate. So that I could identify which gate was mine, I fastened a (insert name) to the top of the gate so that I can run my hand along the line of gates and find my house. One day, it was snowing heavily and I was walking home from lectures ready to meet my dad who was visiting. But when I got to my row of houses and started running my hand along the gates, there was so much snow and ice that I couldn’t feel which one was mine. Back and forth, back and forth I went for ages, freezing cold and becoming more and more frustrated.
In the end I just stopped and stood there, helpless to think of what to do. I could have knocked on the door of one of the houses and asked what number they were so that I could orientate myself. I could have asked a passer-by for help. But I didn’t. Why? Embarrassment. That deadly, destructive, helplessness-creating human emotion paralysed me. The thought of saying to someone, “excuse me, I know I live in one of these houses but I can’t find it, can you help me?” was just too humiliating and so I waited until my dad arrived, which luckily wasn’t long.
“Why are you standing outside?” he said when he got there. “Don’t ask”, I said.
2. Wrong Street
A couple of years later, I was living in Sheffield with my girlfriend at the time, going through university. We lived in a lovely flat which was in a small block of new-builds, at the far end of a street of terraced houses, overlooking a large park. All the surrounding streets, including ours, lead on to a main road which was the main artery of the suburb in which we lived and on that road were things you expect to find – bus stops, grocery stores, pubs and so on. The only way which I could identify my street was to get off the bus at a particular stop and count the side roads – mine being the sixth one down (how I can still remember that I don’t know.”
One day, the driver of the bus I was on forgot to tell me when it was my stop (this was in the days before audio announcements on busses) and so I realised when the bus made a turn that I’d been on it for too long. “How we gone past the Co-up?” I asked the driver. “Oh yes sorry love,” he said, “I completely forgot. I’ll let you off at the next stop and you just need to go back to the corner and turn right.” At this point, dread filled my gut. Just going back to the corner and turning right might sound simple, but when you don’t know how far away that corner is, whether there are any side roads to cross before you get there, and the location of the stop and the bus stop I was supposed to get off at once around said corner, oh the anxiety!
So I got off the bus and tried to find the way home. I managed to get myself back on to the main road, but then it all went wrong. Countless times I was convinced I had found the turning on to my street, but when I’d walked a little way down each road, I realised due to the landmarks and distances between side roads that this wasn’t my road. I eventually made it home a couple of hours later, exhausted.
3. This is Willesden
Another bus adventure – oh how I hated buses before they started talking. One night after work, I took the tube from central London to Hammersmith and instead of changing tubes to go to Acton which is where I lived, I walked out of the station and headed to the nearby gym of which I was a member, to do a spinning class. The session went well and after I’d showered and dressed, I went back to the station, but instead of taking the tube (and then a bus), I decided to take the 266 which would take me straight to the end of my road.
By this time it had started to rain and I got on the bus, looking forward to being home and dry. But the bus was busy and for some reason the audio announcements were turned right down, so you literally could hardly hear them. Straining my ears, I listened out for my stop, but announcement after announcement case and I didn’t catch anything which sounded like the right one. Eventually, I decided I’d definitely been on the bus for too long and that I needed to get off.
By this time the rain was splashing down in huge droplets and it was dark. I took out my IPhone and tried to bring up a map, but it was raining so hard that my fingers just slide across the screen, not producing any results. In my mind I wasn’t too far from home, so I turned around a started walking in the direct from which the us had come. But after a while it was clear that I didn’t know where I was and the wind and rain were hampering my navigation skills considerably. So I ducked in to the nearest doorway which was open and asked for help.
“Sorry, “ I said, “but I’m lost – can you tell me where I am?”
“You’re in Willesden,” said the man behind the counter (it was a kebab shop – what luck!)
“I need to get to Acton” I said, water cascading off my hair and down my face. “Could you call me a cab?”
Thankfully he did and while I waited, I had something to eat. When I got back to my house share I ran straight upstairs desperate to get in to the shower and warm up. “If you’re thinking of having a shower, the boiler’s broken”, called one of my housemates. At that point, I stripped off, got in to bed and had a little cry. Just a little one.
4. And finally… the Wrong Side of the Road
If you’ve managed to read this far, well done! I didn’t intend on writing quite so much, but once I’d thought of one, all the memories came back to me. I’m sitting on a train on my way in to London. I have a meeting with my new boss as I’m starting a new role tomorrow. This morning I worked from home, thinking I would catch a quieter train in to town at around mid day and spend the afternoon in the office. It wakes about 15 minutes to walk from my house to the nearest train station and it’s quite a pleasant walk when the weather is nice. But I wanted to give myself plenty of time so that I wasn’t typically rushing around and racing to meet the train and so I left about 25 minutes before my train was due. It’s a good job I did.
As I locked my front door the sun was beating down and for some reason, instead of crossing the road and turning right to walk down to the main road, I thought I’d stay on my side of the street and walk down a bit before I crossed over. This was fine, except that once I crossed over, it felt like it was taking too long to get to the main road and I started to wonder if the dog had crossed at a funny angle and we’d taken a turning without me realising. So the next road we got to I thought must be the main road. It was quiet being the middle of the day, so it was hard to tell from the traffic, but I turned left anyway and kept going. Please let this be right, please let this be right, I think to myself as we motored along, and then I hit some tactile paving that signified a designating crossing. A crossing which, if I was on the right road, shouldn’t be there. Balls, balls, balls!!!
But never fear, Google Maps is here – thank goodness. Stopping, I dug in my bag for my IPhone and loaded up Google Maps. “Get directions to the nearest train station” I told it sternly and low and behold, my local station appeared as being an 8 minute walk away. Feeling relieved, I set off.
“Head South on No Name Road and turn right” said the friendly voice which was now my only hope of getting to the station on time. “Head south on No Name Road, then turn right”, it said again. “Head south on…” at this point I figured I must be walking north rather than south and so I turned around.
Two questions. Why does Google Maps tell you to head “north, south, east or west” when if you’re anything like me, you don’t have a clue which way is which? Why can’t they make it more intelligent so that it figures out which way your phone is pointing and tells you to turn around?
Anyway, my little human brain worked it out that I was heading the wrong way and on turning around I was relieved to hear it counting down the distance to my next right turn, which I took successfully. “Continue to Old Shoreham Road, then turn right” my guide helpfully advised. Yes! At this point my heart leapt because from there, I could figure out where I was.
Problem solved, you might think. Accept as I was getting close to the end of the road and getting ready to turn right, we seemed to hit a dead end with bushes and shrubbery directly in front. “Foxy,” find the way, “I said” and she dutifully turned around and started heading back the way we’d come. “No Foxy,” I said, “Find right.” Foxy obediently turned around again, but this time she tried to turn right just before the bushes and by doing so scraped the whole of my left arm and the left side of my head along a row of thorns. “Ouch, ouch, ouch!” I roared, bringing her to a stop and feeling the blood start to drip down my arm. Shit, shit, shit!
“Come on girl,” I said, taking a deep breath, “Let’s try again.” I could hear the main road in front of me and this time I guided Foxy left around the bushes and thankfully, on to the main road.
We reached the station with 1 minute to spare and believe me when I say that this is the only time I’ve been thankfully for Southern Rail’s crap service, the train was delayed by 3 minutes.
Standing on the platform, blood and sweat running down my face and my arm, I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself. I took out some wet wipes from my bag and cleaned myself up, hoping the blood wasn’t on my clothes or the jacket I was carrying. When I tell my wife this story later, she’ll immediately rebuke herself for not being able to drive me to the station today and then rebuke me for not walking the route as often as I used to and therefore not being as confident as I could have been. But it’s not her fault, nor is it mine. It’s just one of the things about not being able to see that you have to live with.
The other day I met up with a lady who I met about 5 years ago. She’s a fellow civil servant and at that time had just lost her sight. We met as we were going through the ticket barriers at the tube station closest to our offices and some ignorant person had tried to push their way through at the same time as her and they knocked her over. I was right behind her and immediately want over and helped her up. She was shaking and almost crying and told me that she had lost her sight recently and was waiting for a guide dog and that she kept being pushed over because she was still trying to find her natural balance without being able to see. My heart went out to her and I walked with her out on to the street, trying to calm her and telling her that things would get better. When we met up the other day, she was the picture of confidence. She has a guide dog now and she told me all about their travels together, to New York and Canada and other places. All of which she does by herself. We talked about resilience because it’s a word that gets bandied about a lot at work and there are workshops and courses on “how to be resilient.” But all they tend to teach you in the workplace form of resilience, which is to take on more and more stress without complaining or crumbling. But that’s not the true definition of resilience in my mind. Resilience is being pushed over in the middle of a tube station and getting back up and continuing on your journey. Resilience is getting completely lost and feeling scared and confused and alone and sometimes getting physically injured, but finding the strength to get yourself out of the situation and the courage to go out of the house again on your own, knowing it may well happen again. Resilience is being taken for an ideott because you have a disability and not becoming bitter or resentful, but to continue being polite and gracious and not letting that experience colour your future experiences. That’s resilience in its truest sense.
On a lighter topic, we’re off to go camping in Devon this weekend – enjoy the sunshine!