How Coping with Vision Loss
is like Climbing Mount Fuji
In 1990, I climbed Mount Fuji (Fuji-san, the snow-topped mountain Japan is famous for). You may recognize it from this photograph. I’ve never forgotten it. When I think about the eleven-hour climb and descent, it reminds me of what it’s like to face progressive vision loss.
In the beginning, there are so many people milling around at the base of the mountain. Everyone can and does climb. There is no distinction. Most Japanese citizens (young and elderly) climb Fuji-san at least once in their lifetime. Also, the path is smooth and gentle, composed of volcanic ash with very few rocks to navigate. I didn’t feel like it was going to be a hard climb. My Japanese students had made such a big fuss about it that I even thought they were exaggerating its complexity because I was a gai-jin (foreigner) making the climb. Way back at the start, I thought anyone could do it. I had a mining light I wore on my forehead and even that seemed a little overcautious.
I think my early years through my mid-twenties were comparable to navigating the broad base of Mt Fuji. I was like anybody else, just going through life. Though I noticed I wasn’t seeing everything, it didn’t seem overly difficult. I did better in daylight but I still lived my life fully. Night was somewhat more difficult to manage but I didn’t realize that I was seeing less than others were. I still drove, traveled, and earned my college degree. Life was totally manageable. No one made any distinction or exceptions for me.
On Mt Fuji, there are several “stations,” starting from the 5th station, that mark the way along the climbing route and continue to the top of the mountain. They are spaced at intervals. You can purchase hot green tea and bottles of water to drink, steaming udon (thick buckwheat noodles simmering in broth), shrimp crackers and lemon slices to eat for energy. We had walking sticks engraved at each station to commemorate our progress. Popular purchases, they made great souvenirs.
Looking back, it’s interesting to see how similar these walking sticks are to mobility canes, though the engravings on mine do not originate from a hot fire; they are nicks and dents from hitting obstacles in my pathway.
I think of the food shared at the various stations, along with the comradery between climbers. We satisfy our thirst and hunger, and commemorate periods of our journey with others. We compare notes and gather strength in numbers. When someone else struggles with us, we are all on that mountain together.
After the 7th station, the rocks became bigger. Actually, they began to look like boulders, which were higher than the my legs were long. As I approached one in particular, I wanted to scream in frustration, “I CAN’T CLIMB YOU!” As if reading my mind (or maybe the impatience on my face!), another climber reached out a hand to me, and said, “Gambatte Kudasai!” (Do your best). A hand up gave me the encouragement I needed to continue climbing.
Likewise, when I was in my late twenties, I was diagnosed with an incurable progressive vision disorder. It often felt overwhelming. I thought to myself, I CAN’T COPE WITH THIS! But I met people who gave me a hand with the things I couldn’t do. Even a smile often helped get me over those “boulders,” that I had to overcome.
The climb continued. I became exhausted at having to constantly be alert, at having to compensate for my weaknesses as I went on to the 8th and slowly headed on the 9th station. I faced a number of problems. I was light-headed from the high altitude and tired from the long climb. My legs felt wobbly. My shoulders were tired from carrying my backpack. I felt cold from the lower temperatures. I couldn’t see well because of the fog and mist.
One careless step in the wrong direction could bring an avalanche of stones down on the climber. What would happen? Would the stones bury me? I saw signs saying, “Do not venture beyond this line.” or “DANGER! Keep to the path!” both in Japanese and English. I remember wondering, how can I be sure I’m not going beyond the line with my vision issues?When ojii-san (elderly people, usually very fit and spry) or others passed me by, I wanted to toss my stick aside in embarrassment. It wasn’t worth the effort, was it?
So much like my vision-impaired life! As my vision loss progressed, I experienced many more problems, some in the light and even more in the dark. Blurriness made me miss details. Exhaustion from being constantly on guard made me want to lay down and stop. Rest. I didn’t care for how long. I didn’t care so much about missing out on experiences. Would they even be worth the trouble anyway?
As the darkness descended, shadows seemed to chase me. I felt like I was moving in slo-mo but I knew the darkness would swallow me up eventually. Moving in the dark on Mt Fuji was frightening. Even with my mining light, I couldn’t see my next step. What didn’t seem to concern anyone else caused me to take stock where I placed each foot and hand. I felt my way amid prickles of fear.
Just as the sky was becoming lighter, I fell….into a crevasse between boulders. “Don’t let me fall again!” I shouted at God, shaking an imaginary fist. “You promised me I wouldn’t get hurt.” God must have smiled at my spoiled antics because soon, I found myself inching up the next part of the mountain. Except then, the climbers were sandwiched together like ants on a log for the following two hours. I guess that was the answer to my prayer.
God does give us a sense of humor.
The issues we have to overcome are gigantic, much larger than we feel we can safely take on. And they’re continuous. So we need a hand, and someone to say, “Do your best,” again and again. And we need to see how others pick themselves up when they fall.
I remember feeling rather cold and alone as I reached the summit and saw the sunrise. Except for some rather unremarkable sun rays, the sunrise was nothing like what I expected. I wanted to begin the journey down But there were four different paths and if I took the wrong one, I would get lost. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to continue by myself. But a Japanese man latched onto me and guided me down the mountain. He never left me alone, and he even made sure I met up with my traveling party, my work colleagues who had long gone ahead.
Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one going through this crazy hide-n-seek vision loss dilemma. It’s terrifying. But then I found a friend online who has the same thing I do. Together we make our way forward, laughing at our predicaments. We email and make sure we’re both okay, that we haven’t taken the wrong path. We’re never alone when we laugh with each other.
Friends, I’m once again reminded that all is not gloom and doom even if the darkness and blurriness makes me feel I’m going to fall, even when I’m missing the physical cues I once recognized or even if I wander down the wrong path. I still have that mining light my walking stick, and when I turn in different directions, that light shines and the stick helps me “see” what is around me.
That light is my faith and it shines forth optimism and resilience. The sunrise, no matter what it looks like or how much of it I see, provides a new day and new hope.
My life is pretty wonderful. I’ve become a seasoned mountain climber.