In the months that followed, I felt my life was over. I’d lost not only my sight, but also my independence and identity – after spending half my life travelling the world doing a job I loved, I was now trapped in my house in Southampton with no income. I was determined to keep my home, but even this had become unfamiliar to me: at first I found it difficult to make my way from one room to another, and the thought of going outside filled me with anxiety. My sister came from Scotland to help as often as she could, but I was unable to accept this bewildering new reality and started to drink heavily in an attempt to blot it out.
The turning point came when I went on a camping holiday with other visually impaired people – it made such a difference to be able to talk to people who understood my situation. In 1989, I had started a two-year course at a Royal National Institute of Blind People college in Loughborough, learning new skills. Halfway through the course I got my first guide dog, Otis, which changed everything. Travelling through town with my cane, I’d often found it difficult to judge where kerbs were and sometimes got into a tangle with passing bikes. Now I had a friend who chaperoned me safely and at speed – it was as if all the obstacles had disappeared and the sense of regained freedom was exhilarating.
Since then, I’ve had four dogs, each with a personality that seemed to reflect the stage of development I was at: serious Otis; Lloyd, who was a little more laid-back; cheeky Brunel; and my current dog, Toby, who exudes joie de vivre. I’d like to think that’s where I’m at, too. Shortly after leaving Loughborough, I started working again, and have enjoyed a rewarding career since with organisations that help visually impaired people.
I’ve taken part in fundraising challenges such as climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge and Australia’s highest mountain, and carried the Paralympic torch alongside Brunel. Around the time of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, I met a man called Paul online – we clicked immediately. I proposed during a trip to Florida, where we swam with dolphins, and we finally got to marry during the platinum jubilee. Many of the wedding guests were friends I’d made in my merchant navy years.
In the early months after losing my sight, I questioned whether I really wanted to go on living, but I’m so glad I did. I wouldn’t have missed the last 40 years for anything.
As told to Chris Broughton
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