A walk in the dark

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Have you ever been wheeled along with your eyes closed? Perhaps on a hospital trip, or have a childhood memory of this happening? Maybe you’re a wheelchair user and you’ve been pushed along with your eyes closed, so you will fully understand what I am about to say. For those who haven’t, prepare to exercise your imagination muscles.

I have occasional ‘collapses’ which I’ve written a lot about elsewhere, so I will just say, I stay conscious but lose the ability to move or open my eyes. If I get one while Mary or a carer is operating my wheelchair it is a very strange experience. Being powered along or even stationary when somewhere new in the dark is odd. Even familiar places become voids of darkness that my other senses reach out into, trying to explore.

As a writer I have a very good imagination. I can build up pictures in my mind with full colour, smell and even feel. But I find that what is lacking is scale, a sense of how big somewhere is. Roads seem shorter, rooms smaller, everything is compressed. In the words of estate agents, bijou. This is what I find most when being wheeled with my eyes closed. My mind fills in the colour and shapes around me, based on what I hear, smell and Mary’s description. But everything is much smaller than reality. How do I know? Because I come around from collapses when I am on route or arrived somewhere, I am always surprised by the real size of the place.

Today we headed to the Cleve Spa, there’s a surprise. Just as we were heading up the High Street, I had a ‘collapse’, they have become less often on my new medication, so this took me by surprise. The first thing I noticed as it’s been a few weeks since I have been travelling up the High Street in a collapse, was the noise and hubbub. Your senses become much more attuned to sound, smell and vibration when you can’t see. The cars seemed noisier and smellier, the people louder, no not smellier, the path bumper. I found myself trying to work out where we were. I failed, because just as I thought we were passing Boots, Mary said “OK I am just turning you to face the traffic lights.” Not far out I suppose, but a miss non the less. One of my carers was crossing the other way with her daughter. So, she got a welcome from Mary and a hello at I hope the right point from me. Although judging by how far away she sounded as she said hello back, I guess we met part way across the road.

The traffic light crossing at Wellington (Photo from Google Earth)

The next thing to negotiate and to confuse me, not a tricky job, was Greggs. No, I wasn’t confused by the cakes. We often pick up a snack there for tea. Apparently, there were several people, a dog and a mobility buggy outside the shop, but Mary got us inside so quickly I was amazed at how she achieved it. I am sure she either beamed us through or jumped over them. Maybe they just melted away because I didn’t hear any bumps or bruises, nor did I feel us jump. I know Greggs from when I am alert, so I was picturing the tight space as Mary negotiated the route inside. Mary told me there were a few people ahead of us. Not wanting to leave me outside unattended, after all you hear of baby snatchers, there are probably the equivalent who would take me away, I am very cute and cuddly. Seriously she needed to keep an eye on me, so I didn’t get up to mischief. We both queued, Mary is a wheelchair genius at manoeuvring. Then after we were served, snack in hand, Mary’s not mine, we left and continued en route to the Spa.

Greggs on Wellington High St (Photo Google Earth)

I concentrated on where we were next. Normally I can tell by the smell, which shop we are near, meat as we pass Tim Potters, the butcher etc. Once Mary said to me, as a way to pass the time as we walked while I was in a ‘collapse’, “what can you smell?” Expecting me to smell the flowers we were passing. I said, “creosote, dog mess, and petrol fumes.” Not the answer she expected. But this day my senses must have been on mute because the next I knew we were on the wheelchair tipping part of our route near the hairdressers Black Sheep. It’s very narrow and the camber is awful for wheelchairs. I became so aware that distance has no meaning in the blackness. There is also a kind of comfort that comes from being in the dark. You remember as a child when you shut your eyes to make bad thing go away? You feel safe even when you are in danger. That’s what it’s like for me at these times. When we are crossing a road or on uneven cambers, I don’t feel fear. Which brings me to the road we had to cross next.

Narrow path & uneven camber, not obvious in photo (Photo Google Earth)

To get to the Spa on foot in a wheelchair you must cross the road by Courtfields School and The Young Peoples Centre, right by the BP garage. Somerset roads dept have fiendishly put a slightly higher curb on the dropped pavement either side of the road here and a left a deep furrow in the middle of the road. This is a fast bit of the road and we really need to cross it fast. Mary can only see left after she starts to cross, due to parked cars. Add to this the fact cars are often leaving the garage, the school and the youth centre, oh yes and the Spa and any gaps in traffic on the main road get used fast. We need a big gap to cross and hope it is clear left. But we must be slow to enter the road because of the curb, then in the middle because of the furrow and at the other curb. With my eyes closed I know all this and yet I feel safe. It’s much scarier with your eyes open.  Maybe I should close my eyes every time. Maybe I should have closed my eyes every time I got into scary situations when I used to drive. Don’t worry I am joking.

The ‘collapses’ generally last 10-15 minutes and with this one I came around as we climbed the steep hill to the Spa. Another interesting walk in the dark. As usual it took me a while to get my bearings mentally. I must replace the mental image I have created with the reality I then see. Add to that the slightly strange effect the ‘collapses’ have on my brain anyway and it takes a while to fully focus.

I don’t begin to comprehend what it must be like to be blind. After all, I am only losing vision for minutes and even then, I am being wheeled around. So, I don’t have the added difficulty of trying to feel my way around. The only insight I gain into blindness is the increase in other senses and the disconnect between the mental image I create and reality. What it does do for me is to help me realise that when an able bodied person tries to gain an insight into disability by using a wheelchair or hoist, they can only get the merest glimpse, just as I do in these times of being unable to see. It’s a helpful glimpse and I strongly encourage it, but it must be recognised as only a glimpse.

I hope you’ve had a chance to exercise your imagination or been reminded of previous times. Darkness is something that can be comforting as well as holding an element of fear. It all depends on perspective and the situation.

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