real life

'When I was 11, I tripped and fell. It was the first sign I was going blind.'

I crashed into a wooden model of a building at school when I was 11. One moment, I was walking and chatting with my friends, the next, I was sprawled on the floor with splinters all over. I had smashed the model like a tornado tearing through the Oklahoma plains.

I went home in a state of panic, saying, “I didn’t see it! I don’t know what happened!”

My mother told me why I hadn’t seen it.

The model had been in the peripheries of my vision, which was full of blind spots. Blind spots that were growing larger with each passing day. “Your peripheral vision will get worse and start to close in” – my mother brought her hands together, imitating a circle constricting into a single point – “and then you won’t see much.”

That was how I found out I would one day go blind.

This news would gut anyone, but it was an especially devastating blow for me. I had been born Deaf. Although I had received a cochlear implant at age six, I remained absorbed in all things visual. Everything I loved from books to Sign to art all were things you see. Now my mother was telling me that all these things would fade away, a retinal cell at a time. “By middle age” was the only prognosis I got for when my sight would move from “impaired but manageable” to “blind.”

My mind has erased the conversation and the accident from my memory. My mother has recounted all of this to me, saying that I got up and retreated into my room without a word. I didn’t cry – at least not in front of her. I might not remember the events, but I remember what I felt. I felt as if I were a natural disaster, wreaking havoc on everything in my path. I also felt the light of my future dim. Not extinguished, but it lost its luster.

I might’ve been born Deaf, but I had been an irritatingly precocious child. I taught myself to read at 3. School came easily to me. I had lots of friends, both hearing and Deaf. People told me I was going places. Exactly where, they didn’t know, but the places were surely high up. How could I get to these places if I couldn’t even see them?

My prepubescent self came up with an answer. Even if my eyes and ears didn’t work as well as everyone else’s, my mind could.

I began investing in my mind full force. I stepped up my efforts to make use of my cochlear implant, a bionic ear that gave me limited perception of sound. (The cochlear implant had been more of a nuisance than useful until that point.) I threw myself into my studies, becoming a full-on nerd. My nerdery carried me through some pretty fancy schools: a prestigious boarding school with honest-to-God ivy-covered gates, an Ivy League undergrad, and top-tier law school. I became massively overeducated and possibly more worthless.

I devised a plan, one that would refute any nagging doubts and fears about my future. I would first prove my mettle professionally before my sight declined too severely. In my late thirties or early forties was my expected due date for blindness, ages I had fixed upon without any concrete data (because there wasn’t any). Then, I would do what I really wanted to do: be a writer. This plan dazzled me with its simplicity and effectiveness. I would prove my worth to a world that expected me to be either Helen Keller or useless. It all sounded perfect.

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Except that life has a way of screwing up your plans.

The economy tanked in the 2009 financial crisis, and my prime summer associate job at a white-shoe law firm didn’t translate into a full-time job. I graduated into one of the worst legal markets in decades. What had been a guaranteed payoff of a prestigious (and high-paying) position became a ticket to the unemployment line. I scraped by for the first year after graduation with some contract jobs. Hope remained, however, that I could continue with the plan … hope that faded with each ignored resumé.

Then life really screwed with my plans.

My sight suddenly tanked at the age of 26. Blindness descended upon me about 10 or 15 years earlier than planned.

What had been a vague fear during my early adulthood became a reality. I became dependent on Social Security to live and eat as my peers worked, married, had children.

I had to put my life on pause. I relearned things that I had once been so expert at. One a speed-reader, my reading speed slowed to a crawl as I learned Braille. Once someone who could navigate any metro system after a quick study of the map, I now could barely tap my way around the block with my white cane. Once a cheerful girl who joined a sorority and made quick friends, I struggled to make sense of people whom I could barely see or hear. Nobody would – or should, really – hire me as I reconfigured my life, especially not as a lawyer.

My legal career got aborted before it really started. “Well,” I thought, “I have to do something. I’m still young. Maybe … I’ll just move onto the second part of the plan. The part I really wanted to do, anyway.” I would make it as a writer. I hoped.

That was about six years ago.

I threw myself into writing – with more enthusiasm than thought – and just wrote. I posted on Quora. I wrote short stories. I wrote a YA sci-fi novel about a dystopia with a society stratified based on ability and intelligence, which I self-published. I wrote a book about a nerd turned pick-up artist, which I shopped around to agents in hopes of getting it published. Perhaps it was the subject matter and protagonist – it deals with a young man’s confusion and uncertainty about the shifting dating scene and this demographic isn’t too popular within the publishing industry – or maybe it wasn’t good enough. Whatever it was, the few bites I got from agents didn’t parlay into representation. About two and half years of effort into that novel amounted to a polished draft collecting digital dust on my hard drive.

The self-doubt began here. The cheque labelled “SSA” that came each month went from a temporary liferaft to a mockery of my incompetence. It reminded me that I have failed to make myself more valuable to the world. It nudges me and says, “Everyone else your age is working, having families, doing more important things than you. What are you doing? You’re just writing things nobody wants to read.”

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So I took a different tack. I started a memoir. My personal stories had gotten some traction on the Internet, getting syndicated and read (which is more than I can say for any of my fiction). This should get me somewhere, I thought. Over the space of two years, I struggled through a single stinking’ lousy draft. Each page got written and rewritten about 10 times before I deleted it all and gave up for the day.

The thought of the disappointment of all these taxpayers forced into supporting me plagued me. “You’re lucky,” I told myself. “You’re getting Social Security. So you should be writing like a maniac. You need to make good on this chance.” The pep talk didn’t work. My self-doubt and neuroses brought my writing to a near standstill.

What I did every day during that phase amounted to intellectual self-flagellation. I wrote, rewrote, and agonised.

About two months ago, I took a step back and suspended all writing. I evaluated everything. I decided to return to basics and reteach myself how to write. Too much of my writing came from instinct, and that was no longer going to cut it. I’m building my skills back up so I can be a more consistent and prolific writer.

My daily schedule now looks like this. I get up between 6 and 6:30 a.m., get dressed and feed the cats. By 6:45, I’m on my computer and my writing day has started. I write in my journal before I move onto whatever project I’m working on at the moment (usually an article or a short story). I take a break for lunch around 1 or 2, which I make for my boyfriend and myself. (My boyfriend is in the process of getting back into programming after many years as a software designer, so he works from home now.) After lunch, I read some books on writing or try out some writing technique. I’m done by 4 p.m. and then exercise if it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. The rest of my evening goes to various activities of practicality or pleasure: cooking dinner, cleaning up, talking with my boyfriend, or reading. I’m usually in bed by 10:30.

Between my Social Security cheques and payouts from some investments, I contribute to roughly 50% of the house itself and its expenses. My boyfriend pays for the other half. It’s a comfortable life, as we live in a low-cost city, don’t go out too often to eat, manage our expenses. We do all right.

SheI feel gratitude for the taxpayers’ support. Without it, I would surely have to rely on family to the point of burden. Social Security lets me try to parlay my mind into something of value to others. As it supports me, however, it also makes me feel inadequate and a waste of space. It reminds me that I’m sucking off the taxpayer’s teat as people my age work industriously (allegedly). It makes me feel guilty about spending money on anything other than the bare necessities, possibly to the point of hindering my development as a writer. (I wonder if my reluctance to pay for a copyeditor is hindering my writing.)

So, that’s what I do every day as a Social Security recipient: I work on writing stories that change people’s minds while also entertaining them. I can only hope that I’ll succeed and make my mind worth something.

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