Excessive Bitters

Jenny Diski

  • An Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveller by Jason Roberts
    Simon and Schuster, 382 pp, £12.99, August 2006, ISBN 0 7432 3966 0

In 1968 my next-door neighbour in our ward at the Maudsley Hospital for the psychologically bewildered or the just plain cross was a woman from Wales in her early twenties who had slowly been going blind since a gang of boys threw lime into her eyes when she was 15. She still saw light and shadow, so she knew if a person passed between her and the window at the end of her bed, but not who the person was. For most of the day she sat sideways to the window, on the edge of her bed, her hands flat on her thighs, her legs neatly together, her face impassive, her eyes open and blank. Her name was June. She was a large woman, a solid presence in the ward, her flat, lace-up shoes, calf-length shapeless terylene skirt and home-knit cardigan in contrast to the rest of us minuscule-skirted or antique junk-shop retro birds of paradise, miserable but making the most of being officially crazy in the crazy days of 1968. June sat epically still and refused all encouragement to engage in anything, though she’d sometimes talk to us if we sat on her bed beside her. She was hospitalised because she was depressed – a not unreasonable response to the final loss of her sight. She was on antidepressants and there was talk of ECT if she didn’t show any improvement.

According to her doctor, the major symptom of her depression was her rejection of the offer of a guide dog to live with her at home. It showed an inability to accept her situation and a mentally unhealthy resolve to remain passive and immobile. In a grim monotone June explained to us, as she had explained to the doctors, that she had never liked dogs and still didn’t now that she was blind. She had enough trouble coping with herself without having to be responsible for another creature day and night, feeding it, walking it, doing all the exercises that were needed to reinforce its training. She didn’t want a dog, she muttered doggedly. She didn’t want to be dependent on an animal to get around. And she didn’t want a white stick, either. She just wanted to sit still. But they were not going to discharge her from hospital until she agreed to go for walks outdoors with a cane, and consented to have a dog. Only an admission of helplessness and acceptance of a full-time seeing-eye canine companion would persuade them that she was no longer depressed and therefore no longer at risk. To me the fact that she didn’t like dogs was a clincher. But being blind meant that her preferences were less important than taking help from whoever was charitable enough to offer it. There was no resolution by the time I left, just a stubborn stand-off; and the threat of ECT hung heavily in the air. My guess is that either brain-zapping or the fear that she would be incarcerated for ever ensured her compliance in the end. What was odd was that the doctors’ demands were all in the name of making her independent. Choosing to sit on her bed when the light of the world was dimming was not an option.

Jason Roberts describes something of the same behaviour in James Holman who, in 1810, suddenly went blind at the age of 25:

Once hope of a cure is extinguished in the newly blind adult, there is typically a period of self-mourning, in which the individual retreats from ordinary interaction. Often they speak little, respond tersely if at all to questions, and spend long hours sitting almost motionless. It is an insulative emotional mechanism, an understandable grief response to a profound loss, but also an unconscious ritual of passage … This self-mourning is a signpost of shock and depression, but also a kind of beginning. In the self-imposed silence and stillness, a new way of comprehending the world begins to unfold.

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