Overcoming adversity with grace

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By Rachel Christian

Anyone who has faced true adversity must make a decision. You can harbor resentment against people with “all the breaks,” or you can move forward with your head up, knowing that you will receive neither accolades nor acknowledgement for the quiet, hard work you put forth each day just to survive.

It all comes down to overcoming adversity with grace. It’s about learning how to pull strength from the struggle instead of letting it scar you.

I’ve spoken about how I overcame financial adversity as a teenager. The second adversity I continue to face and must learn to work around is my eyesight.

At my most recent eye appointment in May, I learned that I am now officially legally blind. My left eye had already reached that checkpoint two years prior, but since then, my right eye had degenerated enough to keep it company.

In college, I was diagnosed with a rare degenerative retinal disorder known as Cone Dystrophy. It is incurable, and only effects about 1 out of every 30,000 people. It resides alongside a handful of other impairment like Stargardt disease and Leber’s congenital amaurosis. There are no glasses or contacts that will improve my sight.

In the retina, there are two typess of cells – rods and cones. Cone cells enable a person to read, see fine details and recognize faces. Cone cells also play a role in the perception of color and function best in bright light. Since my cone cells continue to deteriorate, these are the vision issues I struggle with.

I am 24 years old and am no longer able to read print books because of this random genetic disease. A sunny day is sheer blindness that is only manageable when I wear dark sunglasses. I have never been able to drive.

I first started noticing symptoms when I was about 14 years old, and through the years, I have quite literally watched the world in front of me disappear before my eyes.

I wasn’t diagnosed until college because at first, doctors didn’t know exactly what was wrong with me. Until the cone cells degenerate to a certain point, it is very difficult to detect any kind of abnormality. I lost my insurance when I was 18, and had to work through a rehabilitation program to finally get into an eye doctor when I was 22, the year I was diagnosed.

I have had help along the way, and have learned how to adjust through accessibility aids and devices.

But learning how to survive is not the same as thriving. It is not the same as accomplishing the many wonderful things I set out to do as an adult, and which are now out of the question due to something I can’t control.

There have been many tear-filled nights in the darkness as I actively participated in the “why me?” game. Just like the financial strife my mother and I faced when I was in high school, my vision loss is no one’s fault. It was a roll of the genetic dice and mine just happened to turn out as duds.

I learned to live and adapt. That’s literally all you can do - adjust and hope that the people around you show a measure of compassion and understanding along the way. They don’t always do that, and you have to learn to accept that, too.  

Learning to live with such a life alerting disability has been a massive struggle for a headstrong, formerly independent twentysomething like myself. I didn’t mind being a little different or weird when I was a kid, but not like this. Not when I can’t control when people look at me strangely and whisper comments under their breath after I walk by.

I wanted to be a journalist since I was 15 years old. Back then, I could still devour paperback books by the stack, ride my bicycle in the bright afternoon sun and use a computer without accessibility features enabled. If people were more than a foot away, I could still see their faces, and I could read the handwritten notes inside of birthday cards.

As my vision worsened over the years, I still clung to my dream of becoming a journalist. Who I am inside did not change just because my vision did. I wanted to make it work.  My mind and ambition were unscathed by this disease.

That dream Is what got me through poverty when I was in high school. It’s why I kept my grades high in college and worked so diligently to secure internships and form connections with my professors.

I knew I would have to work harder than the average person just to achieve average. If I wanted to be anything more, I knew I had to give it my all.

Now, a little more than a decade after I began experiencing symptoms, my future – much like my eyesight itself – is unclear.

I have loved my time interacting with this community at the Mount Vernon Democrat. Despite stress and office politics, my year here has quite literally made my dream come true. I would never trade the fascinating conversations I’ve had with incredible people in this county, as they opened up to share their own unique stories of challenges, struggles and triumphs. You trusted me to tell those stories, and I tried to provide that service to the best of my abilities each and every week.

But aspects of my private and professional life only continue to grow more difficult. Things that were once effortless and quick are now burdensome and time consuming.

The doctors tell say my vision should platoon soon, and that I will not go completely blind. But like so many aspects of this arbitrary disease, there is no guarantee or certainty of anything.

That is the challenge in overcoming adversity with grace. You have to accept your shortcomings, no matter how much it hurts.

I have had my share of embracing mishaps over the last year. There were people I didn’t recognize who I had spoken to just the day before, and Important signs I couldn’t read. There were friendly waves that went unnoticed and handwritten information someone else had to transcribe.

I never divulged the existence of my disability publically for fear of ridicule. How good of a journalist can she be if she’s blind? I would like to think that during my time here I was adequate, and I gave everything I could to be superior.

For those I have spoken with frequently in the community, thank you for your kindness and understanding, though you may not have known about my impairment. I’m sure I come across as strange, awkward, rude or anxious to those who don’t know that I’m legally blind (and maybe even those who do.) Just because someone shows no outward signs of a struggle does not mean they aren’t waging a daily war to be normal and happy. Judgment, rudeness and constant reminders of another’s inferiority do nothing but break one’s spirit and make the battle even harder to fight.

Everyone is blessed and cursed in certain ways. Some more than others. Each day, we open our eyes again because of the blessings. I have been blessed to live out my dream of being a journalist. I have been blessed to have a partner who looks after and takes care of me, and a mother who still frets when I forget to call her back at night. I have been blessed to meet kind, interesting people who taught me about this city’s present and past. I have been blessed to have a roof over my head, food in my belly and a surprisingly strong immune system.

Let’s help increase the number of blessings in each other’s lives instead of adding to the list of curses and hardship that pull at us each day.

I am still learning how to overcome this particular form of adversity with grace. It is a challenge, but I think I can do it. I have overcome challenges before.