It was another crazy day on the streets of New York City. I needed to get to a certain theater where I was scheduled to perform. All around me, masses of people moved in what seemed like every possible direction. Horns honked and street vendors shouted to be heard above the noise of traffic and pedestrians. I was terrified.
You might wonder why I was so afraid, or, you might think you know the answer. You're probably thinking I was afraid because I was a blind woman alone in such chaos. That wasn't it at all. To be honest, I'm afraid whenever I go out because I suffer from agoraphobia with panic disorder.
I would not have been able to travel the streets of New York at all if it hadn't been for the black dog at my side. Caroline, a black lab/golden retriever cross, knew her job very well. Not only did she have to guide me safely through the obstacles the city put in my path, but she was also responsible for keeping me out of areas that were likely to cause me to panic. Most guide dogs are trained to walk straight down the middle of the sidewalk, moving their people around obstacles, and returning to the center. Caroline didn't work like that. Instead, she hugged the building line as closely as she could without letting me run into it. When the buildings ran out, she picked up her pace, minimizing the time I spent in open space.
Of course, New York was a little easier than some places would be. Since there are always people walking around, there's not a lot of open space. Plus, there was the added benefit of knowing I was far from alone. If I reached out, I could have grabbed hold of someone passing by. Granted, they probably wouldn't have liked it, but the thought that I could do it was very comforting.
So, on the afternoon in question, I had gotten off the train, and been hauled through the hell known as Penn Station. There was no way to avoid open space in there, which meant my dog was literally dragging me through the building. When I panic, I freeze. Once that happens, we're finished. I become convinced that something very bad will happen if I take another step, so I remain rooted to the spot, waiting for someone to rescue me. Luckily, Caroline knew better than to let that happen. She weighed close to seventy pounds, and had quite a lot of strength. The fact that I'm very slightly built made it easy for her to keep me moving. This is very counterintuitive for most guide dogs. They do not drag their people. If the person stops, so does the dog. However, Caroline was taught that this was not an option. Stopping in an open area meant nothing but bad things.
Finally, we were out of the station and on the street. Despite the people around me, I could feel the panic building within me. I'd done this for the past five months, and it was taking its tole on me. I felt like I was reaching my breaking point as we wove our way through the people on the sidewalk.
Sounds began to recede. I felt like I was hearing everything from a great distance. As I walked, the ground seemed to move beneath my feet, creating a sort of floating effect. I became very lightheaded, and awareness of my surroundings was quickly deserting me. I just knew I was not going to make it to the theater, and, if by some chance I did, I wouldn't be able to perform. All I wanted to do was crawl into some very tiny hole and stay there for as long as I could.
Dogs are very attuned to the emotions of the people they love. Caroline had been taught to be aware of my anxiety level. I don't know exactly what went through her mind. All I know is that her stride became more purposeful. I might not know where I was, but she knew, and she knew the location of the theater as well. As long as I hung onto the harness handle, she'd get me there.
I have no idea how long it took to reach the theater. I have no memory of stepping inside. All I remember is the blessed peace of backstage. Sure, people were tuning their instruments. There was a certain amount of commotion caused by people in charge of lighting, but I was no longer outside. I was pressed up against a solid wall, and I could breathe again.
Sadly, Caroline is no longer with me. She retired in the summer of 2012, and died of unknown causes the following winter. Acelet is my current guide. He doesn't work exactly like Caroline did, but he too has learned to guide me as well as to keep me safe from my inner demons.
None of my guide dogs have guided in conventional ways. Instead, their trainers were forced to improvise, to think outside the box. I will always be grateful for their willingness to do so. I don't have as much independence as some people, but, with a dog by my side, I have more than I otherwise would.
This has been my entry for week 8 of
Thank you so much for reading.