My friend Pete has just been told his vision has deteriorated to the stage where it is no longer safe for him to drive. Pete insists his sight is nowhere near that bad and says he will continue driving. He is upset and angry but his response isn't all that unusual.
Pete has reached a stage of vision loss most people dread as it takes away a huge chunk of independence with one foul sweep. But even worse, it indicates the time has come to make the massive changes needed to accommodate sight loss. For many, having to give up driving is usually the first step into a world of disability and a world with innuendos, limitations and challenges. Taking this step causes all sorts of emotional reactions throwing even the most reasonable and responsible people into denial and despair.
John has retinitis pigmentosa (RP). He has some central vision but very limited peripheral or outer vision. He also lacks night vision.
Like many people with RP, John was initially able to hide his vision loss. He says his denial started as a young man.
I was very much a closet RPer and said nothing to those who hired me as a young legal associate. Deep down, I knew I was hiding something of potential significance but the fear of being turned down for the job, coupled with denial guided my thoughts.
John's fear and denial continued for several years. Eventually he confided in his law partner. John says although his partner noticed some signs of poor vision, he failed to understand the significance of John's loss. Together they came up with a plan enabling John to continue to drive.
I still can't believe what we did, says John.
I was determined to drive home even at night. As long as I could see the taillights of the car in front of me I was OK. That car just happened to be driven by my law partner guiding me home.
John goes on to say,
this lunacy continued for a couple of years, even though I knew I was pushing my luck. But that's the thing: the fear and the anxiety of giving up driving overwhelmed me and consumed much of my rational thought.
He also admits a lot of his denial came through fear of what the future held and as long as he could drive, he could convince himself and others that he was OK.
It wasn't until another senior partner called him into his office and told him he had to stop driving that John says he came to his senses.
Lindsay also had difficulty giving up driving. Lindsay has central vision loss and quickly learned to use his peripheral vision.
I just made sure I stuck to the left of the white line. It sure as hell was scary. It was always scary. I never saw the traffic until it appeared 20 metres in front of me. Once I saw a guy on a bike directly in front of me. I slammed on the brakes stopping just in time, says Lindsay.
When the cyclist asked Lindsay if he nearly hit him, Lindsay told him that it wasn't a close call. And when Lindsay's specialist told him he shouldn't be driving, he recalls thinking to himself
I sure as hell know that.
Loss of independence
Lindsay says not being able to see properly while driving was scary. But losing his independence and becoming dependent and a burden on others was a lot more frightening.
I have been fiercely independent and very active all my life. If I didn't drive, it would have been extremely difficult for me to get to work. Besides, I didn't want to give up all my other activities either.
I knew if I gave up driving, I'd have to make a lot of dramatic changes. I just wasn't quite ready to take that step.
Eventually Lindsay had a massive drop in his vision that caused him to give up work and driving.
Denial and understanding
It may seem incredible that otherwise rational people can take such risks that endanger themselves and others. But avoiding something you are not ready to deal with can be common. Most psychologists and health care workers call it denial.
According to American psychologist and author Kendra Cherry,
denial functions to protect the ego from the things that the individual cannot cope with. Denial can involve a flat out rejection. Or in other cases, it might involve admitting that something is true, but minimising its importance.
It's only with understanding and the right support that fears are diminished, appropriate choices are made and people learn to overcome obstacles once thought impossible.
As John and Lindsay found, stepping out of the driver's seat isn't easy but it does lead to a safer and less stressful existence. My friend Pete is about to find that out.