When I started using a cane, I got in all kinds of snafus because I didn’t know how to handle people helping me. And by “help,” I mean, people actually touching me by the arm, elbow or worse, holding my hand, to help me get from place to place. Unless I was dating someone, of course, and then it gave me a good excuse to hold his hand.
I probably knew people meant well but I must have had a thing about personal space or something. The something must have been pride or the need for independence.
Even when the topic came up in casual conversations, it made me uneasy.
In an email from a new guy friend, I read the following comment: “It’s funny how these things work out. We’re emailing back and forth, just getting to know each other and suddenly we’re discussing who is going to lead who into the restaurant!”
I looked up from the email and laughed nervously, trying to mask how his comment touched on a vulnerable nerve I hadn’t resolved yet inside myself.
The cane changed how people viewed me.
But it didn’t change how I viewed myself.
Or if I let someone take my hand and actually lead me, would it change how I viewed myself?
I didn’t know the answer and it scared me.
Six months earlier I went through an intensive life skills training program through the Cleveland Sight Center to make myself as independent as possible.
Shortly after that, I had a “new man” in my life who lived in Pittsburgh–about three hours from Erie where I lived. I was staying at the Marriott and had several hours to kill before my date arrived later that morning. So, I headed down to the breakfast buffet, with my cane, of course.
Immediately, a woman with a badge came over and picked up a plate from the stack of hot plates warming. “Let me help you, dear.”
Too polite to turn her down, I awkwardly trailed after her through the line like a little lost waif as she repeatedly asked me if I wanted this or that, how much, and on and on. It took forever. I suddenly felt very unsure of myself. Like, maybe I couldn’t operate my cane and get my food at the same time. Then I felt myself get angry because I’d sailed through the Cleveland training program with glowing comments. I was still flying high, in fact.
But this woman didn’t know any of that.
And I couldn’t tell her.
I just had to smile and let her hand me so much food I’d never eat it all. I felt like an impostor because I had no trouble seeing where I was going. I felt totally fake-blind, seated and waiting for another person to hand me juice, and the toast and everything else–all of which I could have managed myself.
But I did the next best thing.
I told my date on her. When he arrived to go sightseeing, I described the incident (I may have even embellished it!) and concluded in an aggrieved tone. “Imagine how I felt! I can do anything I…”
He turned to me and actually dropped my hand. His voice dripped sarcasm. “Yeah, heaven forbid, someone actually help you at the Marriott. You are the most ungrateful, self-centered woman I’ve ever met!”
Do you think he misunderstood?
I wiped my hand on my pants as if I couldn’t stand touching his hand any longer. Well, this was turning out nice… our lovely getting-to-know each other date was certainly eye-opening! I tried to keep my cool in the face of our differences. “What! Do you think vision-impaired people are helpless? How much do know about me? You don’t even know what I can and can’t see!”
How could he not understand my need for independence?
Yeah, that was a dealbreaker for us.
It might have had something to do with me just learning how to use my cane, too. I was a novice “fake-blind” girl unable to articulate the degree of my vision loss to strangers as to what I did and didn’t need. I knew that was the real problem. But I didn’t know him well enough to share my confusion. It just all came out in anger.
But as I moved forward in my relationships, I shared my feelings about this issue and one day was rewarded with another conversation.
I was speaking on the phone to yet another man I’d been dating for a few months–a guy who worked in road construction. He suddenly recalled something that happened to him that afternoon. “Get this! I saw a blind girl out with a cane and she was headed toward a roped-off area. I slowly walked over to her and said, “We’re working on some road construction here. Would you like me to guide you around it or can you find your way on your own?”
“Oh! I could kiss you!”
“I thought you’d say that.” He sounded so pleased with himself.
He gave her a choice. He didn’t automatically assume he had to step in and ‘save the day.’
“She was moving so quickly with her cane. She was an expert,” he added. “Before I met you, I would have just assumed she couldn’t handle it in spite of her skill. But not anymore. You set me straight on that.” He laughed.
My heart sang.
Finally a guy who listened.
“Of course, she took my help and seemed very grateful for it.”
“Well, okay, that’s good.”
More frequently, I accept help from friends when we go into unfamiliar restaurants or super-size stores. Sometimes I get disoriented. And besides, I don’t want to hurt their feelings. Now I never get indignant or offended. I look at their offer of help as simply a goodwill gesture. If they seem comfortable, I feel comfortable.
It took me nearly five years with my cane to realize that using a human guide and using my cane are not mutually exclusive. One doesn’t mean I’m dependent and the other, I’m independent. Each gives an advantage in certain situations. I’m learning the delicate balance of accepting an outstretched hand now and again, and stretching out my cane other times.
Heaven forbid you knew me when I was sorting myself out.
If you did, thanks for your patience.
What area of your life has your pride kicked in and held you back? Have you or are you moving past it? Consider leaving a comment!