We all have to adapt to lifes challenges. Following my stroke in March 2016 and the loss of vision in my left eye, I have really struggled with certain things which I took for granted before – accurately judging distance, reading in the evening when my ‘good’ eye is tired, moving safely in crowds of people (I can’t see objects or movement on my left-hand side), and driving at night.
I have compensated by changing my behaviour; audiobooks and podcasts have become my friend, I take public transport in preference to driving long distances and I use dictation software which allows me to talk to my computer rather than stare at the screen.
I was initially very scared that I would lose my ability to be the physically active person I want to be, and indeed, adding vision issues to my already compromised cardiovascular situation has thrown up many extra obstacles.
That said, I have always been someone who flat out refuses to be held back by the cards which I have drawn. We all have unwanted obstacles to face in life, and I have found that I cope best when I am determined to adapt and overcome, rather than allow my hopes and expectations to be completely derailed by what has happened.
Part of that for me is rebuilding my life as close as possible, but likely not the same, to how it was before. Some change is inevitable after we have faced a significant medical challenge, but I have certain ‘non-negotiables’ which I feel very much define who I am and the way I want to lead my life.
One of these is cycling. I always had bicycles as a child, but started riding more seriously in my early 20’s. In spite of my congenital heart history, I became a reasonably competitive time trialist and triathlete, racing with some success for many years. After my 2005 open heart surgery, I never quite regained my high-end ability, but I have continued to enjoy riding recreationally ever since.
Last years endocarditis and further surgery has unfortunately diminished my ability even more. Just last night I attempted to ride with some friends, and it was humiliating to say the least as they repeatedly cycled away from me. They were understanding enough to wait at regular intervals so I could catch up, and my emotions oscillated from frustration, to sadness, to despair.
I could have given up, but I didn’t.
The only thing really challenged was my ego. I hate being the weakest link (by a long way) but realistically I was doing my absolute best. To stop or turn around would have meant that I was giving in to my new situation, and I have vowed never to do that. My actions and not my ability define who I am.
Recently I have been thinking about getting a high-end electric bicycle so I can continue to enjoy the group rides which are an important part of my health and fitness routine. A few years ago, I might have been concerned that other people might judge me for this or think that I was cheating by having that assistance, but now it is more about me preserving my right to live life on my terms and not allow my deepening health issues to define me.
I have a choice. I can feel sorry for myself and bemoan the options which I have lost, or I can decide that no matter what I will find a way. I find it helpful to acknowledge that there may be a ceiling to my ability, but that only I know what it is and how close I can get to that potential.
My viewpoint changes radically when I start to believe that I can not only reach, but perhaps blow through that ceiling. Imagine if some of what you believe about yourself and the limits of what you can achieve, simply isn’t true.
How many of your beliefs about yourself are based on other peoples’ opinions, hearsay, early life experiences or parental influence? Only when we start to really question the validity of the limits which we place, do we gain the ability to see beyond them.
I am never going to allow somebody else to define what I am capable of.
I guarantee that we all have untapped potential, and very often we just have to believe in ourselves to see those horizons expand.
We all know the story of the late Roger Bannister. On the 6th May 1954 he ran a mile in the then unthinkable 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. It wasn’t unthinkable for him – he knew that he was going to break that arbitrary 4-minute ceiling which had been placed on the limits of human performance. As we all know, when he achieved it, it sparked a flurry of further records, and that number has been falling ever since and now stands at 3:43.13.
My strategy when obstacles appear in my path has always been to find a way to get around them.
Very often, science and technology helps me in my quest to lead a largely unfettered life. I can name a few simple things here, all of which have dramatically improved my ability to continue to do the things I enjoy.
Dragon Naturally Speaking – I started using this piece of software https://www.nuance.com/en-gb/dragon.html several years before I lost my eye as it helped me to overcome my appalling touch-typing skills, but these days it is in regular use. Instead of staring at the screen or keyboard, I simply put on my headset and talk to the computer and it follows my commands. It is remarkably accurate, and not only do my words appear on the screen in my word processor but given a bit of training I can navigate my way around popular software without having to touch anything. It saves me many hours of frustration and I wouldn’t be without it.
My Serious reading light (www.seriousreaders.com). My Mum bought me this just after I left hospital last year. Initially I couldn’t reconcile having such an expensive bedside light, but it has dramatically improved my ability to read and journal in the evenings. Tiredness is the bane of my life, and I go to bed relatively early by normal standards. My night-time routine always consists of spending 10-15 minutes writing in my journal, detailing my daily achievements, gratitude, and targets, followed by often a further 45 minutes or so of reading. I often have multiple books on the go at once, and the stack of future reading matter never diminishes.
Post stroke, I was really struggling to read for long periods, particularly later in the day when my working eye has had enough of bringing things into focus. Glasses have certainly helped, but this beautiful light has equally contributed to making things so much easier. Having tried it, my old bedside lamp didn’t stand a chance! I have learned that sometimes we have to be prepared to spend good money on making our lives easier, and that cutting corners of incessantly complaining about our limitations doesn’t solve anything.
I am not quite ready for my dream electric bike yet, as it is my mission to keep going with my traditional bike for as long as I can. One area where things have been particularly difficult when cycling has been with my loss of peripheral vision – I have around 130 degrees of vision rather than the more normal 210+. I can’t see anyone or anything approaching on my left and turning my head to look behind means I no longer have any awareness in front….a potential disaster with the potholed Bristish roads!
When I was in Florida last November, my best friend James leant me not only his bike, but also some handlebar-mounted rear-view mirrors. Initially I felt a bit of an idiot with them sticking up, but they made me feel so much safer, particularly with vehicles or other cyclists approaching from behind. I quickly purchased a very neat pair of Sprintech mirrors http://www.sprintech.eu/en/products/sprintech-racing which now sit in the end of my drop handlebars. Although they can’t replace my need to be extra-aware of everything around me, they have certainly helped to make me more confident when out riding.
So, what is the moral of the story?
Firstly, that I have consistently refused to let my limitations hold me back. I have decided what I want out of life and done my best to find a way to make it happen. I keep my focus on the positive aspects of my situation rather than feeling sorry for myself and dwelling on the abilities which I have lost.
Secondly, I have maintained my belief that I can always be better. I accept that I will never be the athlete I once was. My heart health is likely to continue to decline and my vision is not going to miraculously return, but that doesn’t stop me from maximising my potential with what I have left. If I have to ride an electric bike, surrender my driver’s licence and use public transport, push myself in a wheel chair, drag an oxygen canister or any number of other supposedly ‘undignified’ things, then I will.
Thirdly, only I will determine what I am capable of. If anyone sets me arbitrary boundaries then I will prove them 100% wrong! No matter what happens in my future (and none of us know that), I will continue to be the best version of me that I can.
Along the way, hopefully I will inspire others facing their own challenges, particularly those of a medical nature, to see themselves differently. There is no shame in admitting when we need help, but along with that comes a responsibility to do the best that we can with what we have still got.
Adapt and overcome. Don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way.