Today it is one year since I started working with my guide dog, Fiji. To mark the occasion I wanted to share with you the greatest gift that Fiji has given me over the past year.
I had a meltdown towards the end of my first week of training with Fiji at the SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind in Cape Town, bursting into tears at the lunch table and running from the room, with a very concerned young guide dog trailing me.
I felt like I wasn’t coping with my new dog. I found it hard trusting Fiji not to place us in danger. Every single step we took was frightening for me.
In hindsight it’s so obvious to me what was happening, but at the time I had no idea where this fear came from. Since stopping work in February 2013 I had spent most of my time at home. That was also pretty much when my previous guide dog, Eccles retired. As a result I’d got out of the habit of taking initiative. I’d got out of the habit of independent action. Without realizing it I had become like a robot – waiting for instructions before taking any action. I had stopped using my own abilities to interpret the world around me and let others do so on my behalf.
And the worst thing was that I had no idea it was happening.
To give you just a few examples: when travelling by train from Prague in the Czech Republic to Krakow in Poland in September 2013 I was so scared that I couldn’t climb onto the train without help. In fact, I couldn’t even walk down the platform without support. Over the years my sense of balance had deteriorated – when we were travelling Craig couldn’t leave me standing on my own to go and take photos since I was convinced I would fall. He had to find me somewhere to sit or something to lean against. In so many little ways I had yielded control and allowed other people to interpret the world around me.
Training with Fiji was the first time in years I had to start depending entirely on myself and my brand new guide dog to interpret what was happening around us.
In many ways getting Fiji forced me to confront my own dependence and relearn the skills of thinking and acting for myself. Thankfully the SA Guide-Dog trainers helped me confront that fear and start building the trust that is the foundation of a successful partnership with a guide dog. In doing that I regained my sense of my own independence.
In the last year the changes to my level of independence have been profound. Fiji and I regularly walk to the nearest shops to buy groceries, or head to our local coffee shop to meet with friends or colleagues. When we need to go further afield we think nothing of Ubering to do the things we want to do. And on holiday in Poland a few months ago not only did I climb on and off trains on my own (yes, even without Fiji, who was back home in Cape Town) but I also felt no qualms about standing on my own while Craig wandered around taking photos. I’m more willing to try new things on my own and to find new ways to do what I want. Even Craig has admitted it’s taken him a while to get accustomed to my new independence.
I’m often told that my positivity and drive make it seem like life is always easy for me. I prefer not to focus on the tough times. So it’s not easy for me to admit –to myself and especially not to others – how dependent I had become until I got Fiji.
So today, on our first anniversary, I want to acknowledge the profound change that working with this beautiful, mischievous, friendly and tireless white Labrador cross Golden Retriever has brought about in my life.
Fiji’s retaught me the courage to trust in my own abilities, the strength to use my senses to interpret the world around me and the initiative to become independent once more… and that is a priceless gift!
Hmm… and if that’s what we’ve achieved in the first year, can you imagine what’s in store for us in the years to come?