Monday, November 28, 2011

Ending it All

Ending It All

In general, people seem to think of me as a patient, cheerful, easy-going guy who usually finds the bright side in situations. Some see me as in fact too optimistic and patient. There was a brief time, however, when these qualities had utterly failed in me. A short time when I was so miserable and devoid of hope that I seriously contemplated ending my life. I never wrote about it afterwards for many reasons. Chief among them was the wish not to cause my friends and family any more pain than was necessary. The period of which I write lasted only a couple of days. Not long at all unless you happen to be seriously contemplating causing your own death.

One of the ways I try to contribute something meaningful and be productive is to share my life story. Such an account would be incomplete if I chose, as most people likely wood, to leave this darkest and most shameful of mental journeys buried in a dingy forgotten corner of my memory. Writing all this down hasn't been fun. It has already led to some hard conversations with people including my father who, naturally enough, had to examine things in detail and try to understand what had brought me to this point. We always want to close the barn door after the horse has left. It's human nature. I know I'm in for more such awkward discussions once this gets out there. I felt compelled to write about this darkest of times in my life for a few reasons. First of all, I sincerely hope that my own brush with thoughts of suicide might in some way serve to help others avoid actually going through with it. If I could find a way up from the bottom of despair, perhaps you will also find the strength to keep hoping , working, and waiting for change. At the time I contemplated ending my life, there seemed absolutely no prospect of meaningful change at all. Finding a way to restore my sense of contentment, purpose and direction just didn't seem at all possible. And yet, despite no job, tight money and no marriage, I'm reasonably content and happy these days. I also hope that my journey to rock bottom serves to illustrate just how important healthy communities actually are. There have to be more ways for marginalized people like me to find meaningful contributive places within communities which allow us to earn both self-respect and that of others. It can't be all about how much money you make. That's incredibly un fare when you're denied the opportunity to make any. There's also a lesson here about how dangerous it can be to put all of one's eggs in a basket which could be kicked away. That's a mistake I never intend to make again for anyone.

Janene had been the light of my life for over two years. For a large portion of that time, we had been engaged. At last it seemed like all my values and efforts had truly counted for something beyond family and friendship. I may not have been able to find a job, but I had at last found a woman who truly loved and valued me enough to want to make a commitment that would change my life. This was what I had longed for even more than I wanted someone to let me into the job market. To at last escape the confines of a society and disability support system which had essentially locked me into an extended isolated childhood. To finally get into a commitment where I could really have a positive impact on someone very dear to me and live something akin to a "normal" Canadian life as I saw it. I wasn't looking for a free ride. Precisely the opposite in fact. I fully expected to cook, clean, and do whatever else I could to make life better for both of us. I didn't want to be pitied. I wanted to actually matter to someone other than my family. I wanted to live life with someone around my age who actually enjoyed going places with me and experiencing new things together. Someone to really build a lifetime of memories with and share all the ups and downs. Marriage is one of the few vocations with wiggle-room enough for insomnia, writer's block and a propensity to disorientation particularly when travelling outdoors. I've always had a sense that I could give more to others in the realm of friendship and relationship.

That seemed finally to be on the verge of happening. We had discussed all the major issues, been completely up front with each other about everything. My friends and family were fully behind us. Unlike my previous marriage which was, in hindsight, entered into on very shaky grounds, things would be different this time. We had done quite a lot together, shared a lot of fun and even some tougher times. We built enough love and trust to become engaged and start seriously planning for a future together. And then, on an Easter Monday, all that was decisively ripped away from me in the space of around an hour as she broke the news to me over our last coffee together. She no longer wanted to marry me. It was like someone had come along with a perverse sort of chainsaw and cut away my future. My recollections of that last evening together are still somewhat fragmented. I was so hurt I could barely think.

The pain of losing a love built up over time with care is indescribable. It devastated me beyond words. Life had suddenly gone from seeming full of hope and possibility to being utterly empty. Looking ahead, I saw years and years passing with agonizing slowness leading absolutely nowhere. What creativity I had would dry up in the face of continued stagnation. There would simply be nothing worth writing about anymore. I needed to somehow find a way to start relating to wider society despite my major difficulties in actually getting anywhere on my own. All I had to offer; my patience, thoughtfulness, ability to see more than one point of view, my compassion, my skills, my honesty.. Everything I was just wouldn't get me connected with others in a permanent, constructive and meaningful way. I'd never get an opportunity to show anybody who could really change things for the better what I could do. My willingness to work or even volunteer my time hadn't mattered a damn to anybody. Now, I saw that neither had my willingness to love. It didn't matter how hard I tried. It simply wasn't ever going to be enough for anybody to give me more than a casual friendship or the odd thank you email.

While waiting for subsidized housing, you're in no position to be making long-term commitments unless it's to a full time job or living arrangement which gets you right off the system and eliminates your need for it. They can't tell you where you are on the list since you may be bumped down by people in greater need. For example, priority is understandably given to people in abusive or otherwise dangerous situations. There's no way to know whether you'll be waiting for years or that something won't come up tomorrow. Being stuck in this limbo living like a child with my parents was very frustrating but thankfully not at all physically or mentally dangerous. Finding out that you don't have the skills to get hired, have tremendous difficulty navigating and are pretty much housebound unassisted, can't even find anywhere in the community to volunteer your time let alone socialize; That's downright soul-destroying. People who look at us and say things like "He should get a job." or "They're so lucky. They can sleep in as late as they want and we pay for it." have no idea at all what they're talking about. Had there been door-to-door transportation, I would have cheerfully volunteered at a distress centre or helping newcomers learn English. Presuming it was moral and reasonably safe, I would have done damned near anything just for a sense of belonging and productivity whether you paid me or not. Had it been possible to flip burgers, deliver pizza or clean out sewage pipes, I would have done it. There just aren't any starting jobs that I could find. That's how an honest intelligent man can end up in his mid thirties with around six months work experience. Everywhere seemed to either want long-term commitments I couldn't make in good conscience or be impractical to get to for me. Everyone passed the buck to someone else. Since I had no problem physically walking, I couldn't qualify for any sort of door to door transportation. People expected the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to do everything for us. That was never their mandate at all. They tried to fill in the incredible gap left by a community unwilling to take the time to understand what slight accommodations they might have made to unleash our potential as participative citizens. Cutbacks and changes have stripped a lot of the more social community-building aspects away over the years. Everything is becoming more centralized and volunteer positions once held by blind people have been replaced by paid sighted people. For an organization who reportedly help the blind, they certainly don't hire a lot of us. The result was a vicious social and employment Catch22 there now seemed no way out of. Getting married had pretty much been my only remaining real hope of breaking out of it. There seemed no chance at all that the painful lessons I had learned during my first attempt at married life would ever be put to good use.

Time after time, I would get just enough experience with an element of adult life to appreciate its meaning and then, it would be snatched away from me. Graduating with my degree from university had been a golden moment. I had earned my BA and still kept my head on well enough to have made a lot of friends. Only then did I discover just how situational all those friendships were. There wasn't even a graduation celebration of any kind. We all just went our separate ways and never looked back. The only full time job I ever had ended due to the company going bankrupt after a mere five months. Once again, the new life and friends just melted away. My marriage had lasted five years failing due to many circumstances including the endless wait for affordable housing. And yet, they contained enough good times for me to understand just how much difference to one's sense of self esteem and place in the world that a steady job and a stable, lasting, healthy relationship makes. Love and companionship were things that were truly worth taking risks for. Janene and I seemed to be heading for a far more stable and healthy marriage full of possibilities. I had come to feel fantastic about being her faience and looked forward to being her husband. I had started making real inroads with her circle of friends and looked ahead to getting to know them further. Now, all of that was torn away from me. I was so damned tired of finding myself with nothing but pain to show for all my troubles. By walking away after saying so often that she wouldn't, she had brought all of my anguish and sense of worthlessness to society to the surf ice.

I felt absolutely powerless. There was no individual upon whom I could justifiably unleash my anger. Even Janene wasn't deserving of any sort of vengeance. Society should have been able to offer me more in life to participate in and hold on to than it had. Intelligence, honesty, cheerfulness, loyalty; all these things damned well should have counted for more. I should have had some sense that my efforts in life were of value to people and leading somewhere, but there were no such indications at all outside the relationship with Janene. That situation wasn't her fault. It was due to a whole host of circumstances, attitudes towards disabled people and societal decisions stretching back for ages. These decisions and attitudes plus my disabilities had conspired to place me in a kind of cage. From this physically comfortable cage, I could hear everyone else going about their lives full of meaning and social substance. More than that, I could hear them complain about how tired, over-worked, and busy they all were. I would have cheerfully walked away from just about anything I owned and done pretty much anything morally acceptable in order to get a real honest crack at living that kind of life. I couldn't break out of the cage on my own. No one was willing to make the kind of commitment necessary to actually open the cage for me. Not even someone who had been deeply in love with me. If she had been ultimately unwilling to, was there realistically any hope of anybody else doing so? I thought not.

The cognitive dissonance I faced through most of my adult life after graduating university was bad enough to deal with. Now, after a wonderful reprieve, it was back for business and magnified tremendously. Cognitive dissonance happens when events in life don't match one's expectations or when one holds opposing beliefs. For instance, a police officer thinks of himself as a good man, but he has had to kill someone in the line of duty. That can really psychologically tare some of them up. My sudden reversal of fortune thrust me into a very dark and different place beyond any mental upheaval I had previously known. All my disappointment and anger had nowhere to go. The glass had gone from brimming full to not only half empty but cracked near the bottom. It's a very dismal spot to occupy emotionally. There should have been more to life, but there wasn't. There should have been places to go, things to do, and people to see, but there simply weren't. Suicide is by nature one of the most selfish acts one can contemplate. You reach a point where you just want the pain to stop and you almost can't care about those you leave behind past a certain point. Now, I struggled with the horrid cognitive dissonance of very much caring about friends and family but still considering committing an action that I knew would cause tremendous pain to them. It seemed like the only possible way to escape the pain I was feeling. I dimly knew that there were people in the world in far worse circumstances than I was. However, my sense of overall perspective which had been marvelled at and remarked upon by many people was almost completely subsumed by grief at what I had lost and anger at the world. It was flat out impossible to concentrate on reading, writing or anything. Nothing would give me any relief. There was no getting away from the situation.

Short of offering absolute incontrovertible proof that life would be less solitary and very different from that point on, I don't think anyone else could have made me pause and reconsider. In an attempt to show that they care, people will say all sorts of things like "Someone else will come along." or "Things will get better." I had heard all that utter bullshit before a great many times. I knew people meant well by saying things like that, but frankly, they just gave me an increased sense that everyone was passing the buck and would continue to do so. You hear that stuff so much that you find yourself wishing you could inflict what you're facing upon them and give the whole world a taste so that you might at last truly be understood. Unless someone was prepared to actually volunteer to be a girlfriend who would keep her word and marry me or an employer who saw enough worth in me to offer me an honest shot at life, there was simply nothing they could do to actually be of meaningful assistance. Perhaps, a cool couple of million dollars would have been enough to get me to think that life could change drastically enough. Then again, I had heard Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins in The Edge. That film illustrates pretty clearly that being incredibly wealthy tends to have some substantial drawbacks when you want people to appreciate you for who you are rather than what you have. I needed something major to change. There was simply no prospect that anybody I knew could or would make that happen. It didn't seem very likely that I would get to know anybody new either. The only change I could at all reasonably hope for was a change in my own frame of mind. Barring stupendously unlikely intervention, I had painted myself into a hopeless mess that only I could get myself out of.

God would certainly not approve of me killing myself. I knew that but at that point, I didn't care what he thought. I was furious beyond words with him for creating a fucked up society where people like me could just be tossed aside, our compassion and potential simply left to slowly rot away like surplus fruit. The bible couldn't help me out of this one. I wasn't anywhere near a state where anything from that book could reach me. My faith seemed entirely unjustified. If I was going to back off from this and stick around, God would have to reach me in a more worldly way. I also didn't turn to family or friends with these suicidal thoughts. I didn't want to find myself in some sort of institution or anything like that. I knew inside myself that I had to find my own way out of this somehow. Also, it wasn't my friends and family's fault that things had turned out this way. If there had been anything they could have done to make such concrete positive differences in my life, they would have done so years ago. They couldn't understand the pain I was in now and saw no end to. My parents had worked most of their lives and had been able to find what community and social outlets they needed. How could they possibly grasp the sense of utter futility and heartbreak I now faced? My reality simply differed too drastically from what they had known. Laying my suicidal thoughts on their plates would only make things harder for them since there wasn't anything they could do to put me in a better overall position.

My thoughts turned to how to go about the inevitably painful business of suicide in as ethical, dignified and non-painful a way as possible. As angry with society as I was, I had no wish to cause friends or family any more pain than I would when they realized that their efforts weren't enough to prevent me from such a drastic step. Anger and bitter disappointment have a way of short-circuiting one's rational thinking about the consequences of one's actions on others. One tends to focus on the immediate details and situation almost exclusively. I had some vague notion that everyone would get over my leaving them eventually. I would only become more of a burden as continued stagnation made me more bitter, angry and depressed. Far better that I punch out now before things took such a dive as to completely rob me of any self-control at all. I was doing everyone a kind of horrid favour. That was how I rationalized it.

I knew of no high buildings or cliffs I could get to on my own so that method was out of the question. Truth to tell, smashing onto the ground from a great height has always struck me as a somewhat messy and ignominious way of departing from the land of the living. You never knew who might be at the wrong place at the wrong time. It could be some kid who finds you and is traumatized for life at the sight of what gravity can do to a body. I didn't want that. There was also no way to obtain a gun with which to shoot myself. Even had there been, Stephen King had written a short story in which the narrator had eloquently outlined what a chancy method of killing oneself a shot to the head actually was. I had gotten to know a mentally challenged fellow in secondary school who had been in a car accident. He remembered clearly what it was like to be able to think normally but could do so no longer. The thought of permanent but survivable brain damage creeped me out. Apparently, chances of this sort of outcome are pretty high presuming you actually survived the shot. In any case, obtaining a gun was pretty much out of the question. I couldn't get one legally as a blind man in Canada. The criminal world had never been a part of my life either so that route was out. Getting run over by a vehicle was out too. I had no wish to traumatize some poor driver despite what a tremendous hindrance a lack of affordable door-to-door transportation had been and still is in my life. Thinking about my rib cage being crushed also repelled me from that notion. While a little disorder can be downright comforting and make a place feel lived in, I've never gone in for serious extraneous mess. Poison was also out of the question. I had read and heard a lot about how chancy a process that actually is. I doubtless could have found something around the house but had visions of finding myself in some hospital getting my stomach pumped and having suffered some sort of permanent damage or other. I didn't like the idea of my parents finding my body. That thought bothered me quite a bit but I couldn't think of a process short of complete disintegration which would get them around that. One couldn't just disappear very easily.

There were only two methods which seemed both likely enough to work and at all tidy or dignified. The first was cutting myself with a sharp knife to the point where I bled to death. I figured that if I did that in a bathtub and thought through the blood flow enough, things would hopefully remain somewhat contained. The second method which seemed preferable almost from the start was to put a plastic bag over my head tightly and lay down in the tub with my head under water. I had read of some famous writer or other who had done this. It seemed perfect in the sense that it was tidy and as ethical as one could get with the whole idea of premature self-inflicted death. The spec tor of what horrid sensations and thoughts I might experience while asphyxiating certainly gave me pause but not nearly so much as the other methods above. There was no chance of a terrible un contained mess resulting. I also liked the fact that it left me firmly in control for as long in the process as my mind was capable of exercising such. I could always rip the bag off my head or failing that, claw a hole in it with teeth or fingernails if I changed my mind. Hopeless as I was, I didn't like the idea of finding that I actually didn't ultimately want to die but having no way to save myself. If I was going to make a final exit, I wanted it to be clearly my choice and on my own terms unlike so much of my life had been. Visions of bleeding out uncontrollably were therefore none too appealing in more ways than one.

The other major objection to using a knife was more a problem of ethics. The sharpest knives in the house had been sold to my parents by my good friend Adam during a brief stint as a knife salesman. I was very surprised when he actually managed to convince my father that they'd be a good addition to the house. He's not a very easy sell even when it comes to far less costly items than Cut co knives. I had no doubt whatsoever that one of those knives would be sharp enough to do the job. However, if I used one, what would it do to Adam if he ever found out that his successful sale was so intimately connected with the death of his friend? He certainly had enough on his plate without throwing that nasty curve at him in addition to dealing with my death. He had been a very good friend to me for well over a decade and been best man at my wedding. It would have been cruel and selfish of me. Even in my hopeless despair, I saw that clearly. The direct connection was so simple that it cut right through my own suffering unlike other equally valid but more complex objections. If I did X, a good man who had befriended me would suffer for it.

Coming to that conclusion was what started me thinking back on all the ethics and philosophy classes I had taken while obtaining my BA degree. The professors I had were all very thoughtful and interesting. I have a lot of fond memories of those lectures. Wistfully, I thought back to those days when life hadn't yet showed me so very plainly how isolated and apart from my peers I would find myself. I remembered one professor presenting a situation where you were in a dark theatre seeing a movie after just picking up a new switchblade knife. Becoming bored, you decide to see how sharp your new knife is and plunge it into the back of the chair ahead of you. It kills the person sitting in that chair who happens to be your best friend. That's the last thing you would have wanted to happen. Are you as culpable for the murder as someone who actually planned to kill your best friend? How do we know what we know? Given that all of our senses are fallible as are our minds, is anything we take to be reality actually certain? There had been so many interesting lectures and discussions. Suddenly, vapid as the ghost I had contemplated becoming, there he stood in my memory.

Tourist Jim is on a vacation in South America. Walking along one day, he comes upon a village. This place has clearly been the sight of unrest. Curiosity gets the better of caution and he proceeds into the village. There, he comes across the dictator of the small country and a large contingent of soldiers. A line of twenty men are up against a wall. The dictator is about to order his soldiers to shoot all of them when Jim comes into view. The dictator decides to make Jim an offer. If Jim takes a gun and kills one of the prisoners, the dictator will spare the remaining nineteen. What should Jim do?

My professor gave us this problem at the start of the class and let us wrestle with it for the entire hour. As one might expect, we all tried to find a way not to have to make the choice presented. Shooting the dictator was suggested right off the bat. The professor had a ready answer for every suggestion the class could come up with. He could have run a splendid Dungeons and Dragons campaign. If Jim shoots the dictator, the dictator's loyal soldiers will carry out his last orders shooting all twenty prisoners in addition to Jim. If Jim refuses or walks away, all twenty prisoners will die. If Jim shoots himself, all twenty prisoners will die. The prof never missed a beet as the class pulled out all the stops desperate to find an ethical way out of the box.

Once any possibility of avoiding making the choice had been ruled out, the discussion then turned to who Jim would choose. Not one member of the class felt at peace with simply killing one person to save the rest. Neither did we feel easy about doing nothing and thereby condemning everyone to die. The professor next started dangling possible answers in front of us. What if a very old man stepped forward to volunteer to be shot? Surely, it would be acceptable to shoot him so that those with longer left to live would be spared. The class seemed as alright with this as it was possible to be with the prospect of killing any innocent person until the professor asked: What if that old man, had he been spared, inspired his grandchild to do something extraordinary? Hadn't any of us been inspired by older members of society to straighten out our lives, be better citizens, etc? Was it at all proper for us to attempt to make a judgement about the value of the lives of complete strangers based solely on such things as the length of time one had left to live? What about our own lives? Even with our intimate knowledge of ourselves, could we ever really say that our lives were of no further value before they had run their natural span?

I remember leaving that class with a new appreciation of just how precious each life was and what a rotten job it must be to have to make decisions which you knew would or even might result in the deaths of others. I don't think I was the only one who left in a very contemplative sombre mood. Every now and then, I would remember Tourist Jim and his dilemma as I went about my business. Unlike a lot else which has long since drifted out of mind, that problem and others like it continue to inform how I choose to live. Facing that dilemma was a far more formative moment for me than I realized at the time. Looking back, I can see now how it changed me increasing my tendency to advocate for those who the world deems forgettable or expendable.

Tourist Jim made me ask some new questions of myself. How could I be so certain that I might not be that old man who inspired greatness or made a critical difference to people in some other way years later? Certainly, I had every likely hood of having any semblance of real adult life as I saw it delayed further probably by years. However, if nothing else happened first, my turn for affordable housing would eventually come up. I would then be somewhere that I could think of as my own place in a community where I could set down roots without fear of being swept off somewhere else. At some point, the un fare stalemate I found myself in would be broken at least a little. I just had to hang on somehow until that happened. Things would indeed get at least a little better in time.

Thus it was that my life was first put in danger by a woman who loved me but walked away, and then quite possibly saved by a dilemma faced by a completely fictitious character. Thanks to Tourist Jim, I stopped asking whether I should end my life. Right then and there, it became obvious to me that I had to stick around for the full duration. I would never again seriously consider an early exit no matter how bad things got. Having looked once down that dark passage, I knew that it wasn't really an escape at all. Even in my deep despair, I saw that I simply cared too much about others and the pain it would cause them to go through with any sort of early exit. There's also the issue of instinctive self-preservation. Did you notice how I turned away from methods which were too messy or uncontrolled? Strangely, I didn't think I had any real wish to keep on living; Didn't realize how even in those dark moments, part of me was looking for a reason not to go ahead at all. Had I actually attempted to kill myself, I don't think I could have overcome that. When push really comes to shove, I'm not the suicidal type. It just took being smashed against rock bottom for me to know that for certain.

The journey back upwards from rock bottom has been pretty uneven. Until last November, I don't think it would have been wise for me to attempt to write all this down. Things had certainly gotten more enjoyable long before then but there were bleak relapses when there was just too much time with nothing in it. Before some pretty substantial changes had taken place, looking back at that dark time may well have set me up for serious depression. How have I gotten from that horrible frame of mind to the happy and mainly contented emotional space I now occupy? The full scoop is in my blog for the really curious. Here's the short version for the rest of you.

Things started out slowly with two phone calls. One was to my orientation and mobility instructor. If I was going to be stuck at my parents' house for much longer, I needed to take a stab at learning to get somewhere. As things turned out, the first objective I focused on was getting to Symposium Cafe, the very place where Janene and I had broken up. It took months of training, but going there on my own for the first time with the help of my Trekker Breeze was a very big if lonely milestone. I reclaimed that place from the ashes of a once promising future and made it part of the one I still actually had. I never have met any new friends there as I once hoped I would. However, it continues to be a place where I like to bring the ones I've found elsewhere. I don't go there alone much at all anymore. The staff are great and so is the food, but there's that empty space near me which simply ought not to be. I save my money for when there are one or more other people to go out with.

The other call I made was to the Meadowvale Christian Reformed Church. Somehow, I needed to reconnect with God and have the ghost of a chance of connecting meaningfully with other people. I had to turn a new page and become involved even if it would all be taken away at some future date when housing finally became available. The church proved to be a very welcoming place right from day one. The pastor was very wise, compassionate and thoughtful. I soon found myself getting to know some very good and friendly people who had room in their lives for the different and extraordinary.

Family and friends stuck with me through my dip into despair and did whatever they could to keep my spirits up. It took a bit for me to discover that they had always valued me as a single man even if I myself had briefly lost that capacity. Not only was the glass undamaged, but it still actually had a good deal of water in it. The Summer after Janene left was a pretty long and empty one but contained some interesting excursions including a trip to Chicago. There were other smaller milestones. The songs that had been too painful to hear for months after Janene left became enjoyable once again and were re-introduced to my hard drive. There were over a hundred of them which could stop me in my tracks and bring all the frustration and memories back. Those songs were once again mine to enjoy with the hope of better times ahead. A small thing, but an important step. As my nieces got older, my relationship with them, my brother and his wife grew stronger. Being a good uncle became more of a cornerstone of life. So too did helping my mother and father deal with technology and computers.

Eventually, after a ten year wait which helped destroy my marriage, I was given a subsidized apartment in the same area where I had lived with my parents. The steps I had taken to become less isolated weren't just going to disappear on me after all. I could build on them. Having a proper home is so much more than having one's own place. That in itself proved to be a somewhat bitter discovery. I had somewhere to invite people to, but getting them to actually come and form friendships proved a more difficult process than I had expected. Particularly for extroverts like me, it's critical that we find people around us to get to know. That took far longer than it should have. I still found myself going through the major part of many weeks where there was no face to face interaction with anybody. Over time though, meaningful friendships started forming. There was Shirley, an English lady around my parents' age who liked going for walks around the lake with me. Joseph, a cheerful if conflicted gay pun-loving Scrabble player who gave me rides to and from church quickly moved from being an acquaintance to a friend. So two did Doug and his mischievous wife Nan who wrote "If you can read this, then God has performed a miracle" on a notepad stuck to my fridge. The message was discovered the next day when my friends Mark and Wendy came over to visit and saw it. To date, other than through the wondering laughter of occasional guests, I never have.

My first New Year's party in this apartment was another very meaningful milestone. We all had a good time despite their being no corkscrew. It brought some of my old friends together with a few new ones for a long evening and night of good discussion and happiness. There was Stephen, a blind friend of mine since grade school who now looked forward to a trip of a lifetime. he would soon be off to India to volunteer at a school for the blind. Joseph was there having fun with the first audio arcade game he had ever experienced and meeting some of my other friends. So were Adam and his girlfriend, a very welcome thoughtful new acquaintance. Shirley even dropped in after returning from another New Year's celebration elsewhere. She came to her blind friend's apartment hoping to borrow, of all things, a flashlight. I have every reason to hope that the next New Year's gathering I have here will be even more memorable. If nothing else, we won't find ourselves short of a corkscrew.

Gradually, I had become more familiar with the local area. Now that I had a permanent place of residence, it became worth the high investment in time and effort to do so. This finally made it possible for me to volunteer at the Dam, a place where troubled youth can hang out and hopefully be influenced to make good choices in their lives. Circumstances had at last permitted me to make a two-year commitment in good conscience and get to the place on my own for most of the year. My parents and new friends like Shirley were willing to help when it became too dangerous in the Winter for me to walk there and back. Connecting with the teens has been pretty slow going. I've sat through a lot of hours where I might as well have been on the moon as there. However, I've gotten to know the staff and other volunteers. Once in a while, I think I've even managed to do some good for the teens I'm supposed to be there to help. Not the most productive use of my skills and talents, but it at least gets me out of the apartment once a week to a place where there are possibilities.

The online world also began to regain its place and value in life. A friend I hadn't seen since secondary school tweeted that the Chilean miners were about to be rescued. Thanks to Twitter, for once in my life, I was able to tune in and watch the drama unfold with the rest of the world. Sad that it took a near fatal disaster to get me in tune with everyone else, but there you are. Listening to Internet radio and becoming involved with the communities which grew up around the various shows brought me further back from the edge. There was the May long worldend experience which saw me up at two A.M. participating in Jonathan Mosen's doomsday celebration. At that virtual shindig, I discovered that it didn't matter that we were all so physically far away from each other. It still felt damned good to be a part of something special with people I had come to know if only at a distance. Another couple who I had lost touch with around a decade ago found me on Facebook. Hard as I find that site to use with my screen-reader, it does have a way of allowing people from the past to come into your present. I've enjoyed some wonderful hours getting reacquainted with them and helping them with computer issues. It helps them get more out of life and helps me feel valued.

I had lost my sense of progress and motivation for quite some time without realizing it. I had become so disconnected that thoughts of working on my book or creating Enchantment's Twilight seemed almost silly. What good could they possibly do anybody in a world which seemed so hell-bent on ridding itself of permanent relationships and cohesive communities where people felt like they mattered? Over this past Summer, my sense of community engagement and optimism was increased by a number of events. It was easily the best Summer I've ever had. From a great vacation at Lake Joseph to a multiethnic church conference in the US to a trip to Canada's Wonderland with two friends I had chanced upon while out for a walk, it seemed like everything that should have been happening while I was in my twenties was at last starting to happen now in my mid thirties. On Canada Day, I was even able to go out on my own with the help of my Trekker Breeze GPS device and enjoy fireworks in a park near my building. I can't begin to describe just how liberating that experience was. Things had really changed for the better in a fundamental way. More importantly, so had I.

No longer was I willing to head off anywhere. I had managed to find a home worth keeping, sharing and adding to. A place built of people who saw past no job and no marriage and tight money I couldn't earn. People who saw my true value as a person even when I had lost sight of it myself. That's not something I'll walk away from lightly if ever. My purpose is now very clear. The autobiographical book and game are worthy goals but are really just means to a larger end. Above and beyond everything else, that end is to help disillusioned people to see the intrinsic value within themselves and in each other. It's to try and live out an example of why it's important to be included and to include others in a greater community. I do have a kind and just boss. His name is God. I'm on his payroll for life. First and foremost, he cares about the relationships I have with others. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

There's still plenty of stuff on my bucket list. I hope to be married one day to someone who appreciates me and adds to my life here. More than likely, it'll be to somebody else facing one or more disabilities. I haven't given up on sighted women entirely. There are certainly some out there who look for inner strengths rather than external assets. However, they do seem to be quite rare. At my age, I find that most who find me interesting at all have already been spoken for. It's one area where I've left things in God's hands. Having a positive impact on a community is something I'm at last in a position to actually be doing. It feels damned good. I still hope to eventually find ways of doing more in the local community and less online if possible. However, if that proves unfeasible, I believe I'll still manage to give a good account of myself productively speaking. I seem to have reached a point of critical mass where I can find enough ways to help friends who I can actually get together with so that I don't feel quite so damned disconnected anymore. Regarding travel, things are starting to look somewhat more positive. This is definitely the case when it comes to local travel. I've met some friends who are interested to take me along with them to various places. I'll have to watch my spending but am likely to get around a lot more than I have previously. Perhaps, either with family or through the church, more distant travel may even prove possible.

Things have most definitely turned a corner for me. A corner of changed expectations and newfound contentment with who I am as a person. People will say that not having others see your value is their loss rather than your problem. I know what they're getting at, but can't fully agree. We all come to a point where we need to discover our own intrinsic value. My sense of intrinsic value had certainly been lost and I had to rediscover it. However, consider Sherlock Holmes. He knew himself to be a very gifted and talented man. He wasn't at all humble or bashful about his abilities. Despite that, he had to resort to drugs when things weren't interesting enough for him. He once asked of Watson what good having powers of detection were if there was no field on which to exercise them. Minus any desire for drugs, I found myself very much in the same situation. I knew I could give a whole lot to people given the right circumstances. There was simply no way to connect the dots and bring them about. That's an ongoing problem that I may face for the rest of my life. A problem not so much solved as reduced to a dull roar I can live with. I've found enough to enjoy life with what I have and hope for better things to come.

A big part of maturing as a person is learning to maximize the hand you're dealt making the best of what is within one's reach. It's about adjusting expectations as much as it is about trying to better one's prospects. My life certainly isn't anywhere even close to the template for successful that society sets out and that I had once fully subscribed to. Barring any big changes, I'll be giving away my life's work rather than selling it. In current circumstances, it would be crazy of me to try. A steady, stable and secure job would be the only sensible move that would give enough stability. Those seem like things belonging increasingly more to the past than to even the present let alone tomorrow. I'm as secure and well off here as I'm ever likely to be. There are a lot of restrictions the absurdity of which would horrify people if they took the trouble to educate themselves. On the other side of the coin though, I've been blessed in many ways. There are a lot of reasons for me to be profoundly thankful. I have absolute freedom regarding my time and where to direct my effort. I have a close family and some very good friends. Once in a while, being different does expose you to unusual opportunities. Over the years, I've been on television a number of times, met some famous people, touched exhibits you're normally not allowed to, had time enough to write a fifty-thousand-word guide to help blind people who own accessible computers, and published an online magazine. Increasingly, as I release more of my writing and interact with the online and offline community, I'm becoming more known and less feared. There's a real hesitation among the fully able-bodied to take the time to get to know disabled people. That can take quite a while to even begin to dissipate. It takes more than casual encounters although they play an important part. If you're on the lookout for ways to be of help to people, opportunities will eventually present themselves. Things will eventually open up and get better. When you live an extraordinary life, finding one's own stride and balance can also take longer. Extraordinary tends to lead to lonely and excluded far more than it ought to. Despite that, such a life as I've found is most emphatically worth the living.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review of King of Dragon Pass for the iPHONE

Review of King of Dragon Pass
Game available from the iPHONE app store for $9.95 regular price
Produced by A-Sharp Software
Fully playable without sighted assistance.
Reviewed by Michael Feir
Rating: 9/10


The Apple iPHONE has certainly taken the blind community to an unparalleled level of affordable accessibility. Its built-in Voiceover screen-reader has managed to turn a flat-screen device into one of the most useful gadgets I've ever owned. Years ago, I had bought King of Dragon Pass for the PC only to discover that it was completely unplayable without sighted assistance. The text was printed in a way my screen readers couldn't detect. There was also a map to explore which required a mouse and sighted help to manage. Worse yet, in a painful paradox, the game required continuous reading as it was mostly text-based. Any sighted people I found who would try the game with me would very quickly lose patience having to read everything out loud. Now, thanks to the ingenuity and inclusiveness of the iPHONE, I am able to fully enjoy this unique game experience.

Let's be clear. This is a game made for a sighted audience first. There's artwork on the screen and the map to be explored. Things are set up to be easy for sighted players to scroll around when they need to. However, for those who have the patience to explore the screen, every element of the game has been made accessible thanks to the Voiceover screen-reader and the efforts of programmers at A-Sharp Software. The developers continue to update the game and have proved very responsive to peoples' reports of issues they faced while playing using Voiceover. There have been several updates since its release and they have included improvements for Voiceover users as well as other additions to the game like new scenes. At this point, the game is fully playable for blind people who have patience and recognize that due to its visual nature, there are some quirks to be wrestled with from time to time. If you can live with that, then get ready for a brilliant game where a flexible but cohesive narrative takes centre stage. Blind players may not be able to appreciate the artwork, but for a very refreshing change, we aren't left out of the picture.

*The Interface:

As I say, there are some quirks. One of these which I think is ultimately favourable is that the game must be played in landscape mode with the home button on the left or right. Presumably, this makes things like scrolling around the map somewhat easier. Familiarizing yourself with the screen layout is essential for this game. For instance, when the menu is toggled on, it goes across the top of the screen. I used to have all sorts of trouble getting to it reliably until I figured this out. Hitting the "menu" button toggles the menu on or off. It makes a slightly different sound when it's on. KODP uses ordinary controls familiar to Voiceover users. You can flick left and right to go between options and double-tap to select them. You can also scroll around the map with a three-finger flick in the direction desired. The map is much larger than a single iPHONE screen so you'll need to do this eventually. One issue is that dialogues in the game tend to stack on top of each other at times. A good example of this happens when you explore. One dialogue active at that time is the map screen. Once you hit the "explore" button, music plays and you can then position your exploration cross on the map. Once that's done touch near the bottom of the screen where you should come to the exploration dialogue. There, you can choose who leads the exploration party and how many weapon thanes and footmen to send. You also set the exploration pace between slow, normal and fast. Once you have that taken care of, you can then go to the "explore" button. The problem is that there are two of these. The first one is from the initial map dialogue. The one you want is past the "menu" button. Hit that and your expedition will be sent off. You'll here the exploration music as well as horses.

Another issue can occur at various times. One of these is when sacrificing. After you have sacrificed to one of the various gods or goddesses in the Orlanthi pantheon, you might then find yourself on what seems to be an empty screen. Patience is needed here as you should keep running your finger slowly over the screen until it starts reading you the result of your sacrifice or you encounter the "proceed" button. If you find the button first, just flick left and you'll hear the result of your sacrifice. Flick right again and you'll be on the "proceed" button.

Other than these minor issues, things are quite straight-forward. The background music and sound can be toggled on and off from the "controls" option screen which is accessed from the menu or before a game starts. Especially while familiarizing yourself with the game, it would be prudent to turn off the background music to make certain that everything is heard. I certainly found this helpful. There's no way to regulate the volume of the background music separate from overall volume. However, Voiceover does automatically lower the music volume while it is speaking. Reading event text works quite well. Most of the time, there's no need to scroll. Once you've flicked onto event text, all of it is read out to you. Continuing to flick right goes across the choices available.

When using the advice, it works much like the menu button in that it toggles the adviser selection screen on and off overtop of whatever dialogue is already present. Advice is always contextual to the screen or current situation the player is presented with. Flicking right goes across the adviser buttons whose names will be read out. Once activated with a double-tap, their advice will be read out. If you need to find it on the screen, you'll have to learn where it is on the screen or find it by flicking through elements. When you're done with getting advice, find the "adviser close" button. Activating this removes the adviser selection and any displayed advice from the screen.

*Game Play:

After choosing the duration and difficulty of your game, you must set up your clan. You can call it what you like and then begin to make various choices which effect how the game unfolds. Your saga starts here. Don't expect to just jump into this game and do terrifically right off the bat. Reading the manual is a very helpful thing to do in this case. Also, during the first year you play, a tutorial box is present which provides guidance for what to do on the various screens. After going through it, you'll at least have a basic grasp of the options and different game screens that you'll use throughout your clan's history. Once you have completed the tutorial, you will no longer have to contend with the tutorial box. It will never appear again unless you reset your game centre achievements even if you start a new game.

Essentially, the game is one of decision making on behalf of your clan as its history unfolds. There are many factors which influence the results of your decisions. These include random chance as well as such things as the skills of your clan leaders. You are always able to receive advice from members of your clan ring. This is very helpful particularly as you are first digging into the game. It may be helpful to keep notes on things you learn. A lot of information is available to you in the game but details such as the personalities of clan leaders you encounter can be useful to refer to. Not everything is kept track of in the saga screen of your clan. Also, during hero quests, you can't refer to the relevant mythology. Be certain to check out the "lore" screen. There, you'll find a vast amount of information about the myths, culture, history, and much more. The game manual can also be accessed from that screen via the button near the bottom right. The manual is also available in pdf form from the "tips" section of the game's web site. This pdf is unrestricted and may easily be converted into text by Kurzweil1000, Adobe Reader, or other software. Remembering details can make a very big difference in how things turn out for your clan.

Combat in the game is quite straight-forward in terms of the decisions you can make. However, there's a whole lot going on under the hood. A clan's personality might effect how prepared their forces are. How much magic you or the enemy devotes to the battle can make a substantial difference. At times, individual leaders involved in the battle will be placed in key situations where their choice can strongly effect the outcome. Battles occur throughout the game but this aspect doesn't dominate play unless you wish it to. If anything, the game encourages careful consideration about what is worth fighting for and why one goes to war. You cannot simply conquer your way to victory in King of Dragon Pass.

Much of the farming which takes place is handled automatically. However, there are points where decisions such as how much land to set aside for which purpose, how many hunters to have, and how much magic to invest in crops can make or break a clan. Thankfully, it's very hard to make decisions in the course of a single year which would completely wreck one's chances of winning. The game is won or lost in increments over time rather than in some sudden large-scale disaster or stroke of good fortune. Your clan ring is always there to advise you of problems and will have useful things to say about most decisions. However, during hero quests or combat, you understandably cannot seek their advice.

Your people, particularly your clan leaders, are capable of a degree of growth and change over their lives. In my Tandora clan, I now have a lady who is renowned for her bargaining skill. Over time, completing hero quests, fighting battles, and other experiences may produce exceptional individuals in your clan. These should be used with care and protected as much as possible.

Don't treat each year as a separate entity. Decisions you make in earlier years may have effects which carry on through the game. From how you choose to deal with the large pantheon of gods to which clans you are feuding with, it's all interconnected. In effect, you're building a house of cards with each decision you make. While the game is fairly forgiving, it is quite possible and inevitable that a game not won will eventually be lost. Things don't just keep going forever.

*Sound and Music:

The background music for King of Dragon Pass is quite well done. It suits the epic but fun feel of the game and enhances the various moods experienced by your clan. Sadly, as I previously mentioned, it can interfere with one's ability to hear Voiceover. You can download the soundtrack from the game web site and enjoy it separately. One way or another, the music ought to be experienced. Much like in a movie, it adds a lot to the feel of the game world.

Sound effects are experienced while dealing with various dialogues. They often include music as when you send off a caravan or exploration party. They are used to add life to things such as battles, feasting, or other events triggered by your choices. The sound vignettes are brief so they don't interfere with one's ability to hear Voiceover. Beginners can fully enjoy the game's sound without any added frustration. Much like the music, the brief sound scenes add just enough detail to the game world to tantalize the imagination. Due to their brevity, the sound vignettes don't become annoying after repeated exposure.

While not effective to blind readers of this review, it should be noted that King of Dragon Pass features original hand-drawn artwork. Not having seen it, or anything else for that matter, I can't give any detail or first-hand opinion about it. However, from what I've read in other reviews, people who are lumination dependent seem to think highly of it. Artwork is displayed during scenes and is likely also present on the various game screens. Mugs, shirts and original art from the game can be purchased if desired. Details are on the game web site. Therefore, if you're playing along and a sighted person asks "What's that?" they may very well have glimpsed some of this artwork past your fingers. You'll then have to decide whether to show and explain, or simply turn on your screen curtain with howls of derisive laughter.


This game is by far the most meaningful and detailed I have ever been able to play independently. I don't believe any other accessible game even comes close to what King of Dragon Pass offers the patient thoughtful player. The re playability level is astounding. There are over 500 scenes which may or may not occur in a given time. The results of your choices are impacted by many variables which may differ should you encounter a familiar scene. Even in cases where you do all the "right" things such as the hero quests, results might differ due to the preparedness and suitability of the person chosen to undertake the quest. Different treasures may or may not be found. You become a co-author of an epic novel which never reads the same twice but always maintains its cohesion.

You don't have to be a mathematician or social scientist. The text is very well-written and you'll find yourself drawn into the story. After a while, you'll feel that you've gotten to know leading figures in your clan over the years of game time. The leadership and management decisions feel very natural and intuitive. Keeping a good overview is important to eventual victory. However, you never lose sight of how much individual community members matter. They just keep popping up. The game has a whole lot to teach about the value of community cohesion, leadership, and other things besides. Should I ever be successful in winning even the short game on easy difficulty, I'll be left with fond memories and a true sense of accomplishment. I'll also be driven to start a fresh game knowing there are still possibilities I have yet to encounter. Thankfully, it is possible to record and share one's accomplishment via the iPHONE Game Centre, Twitter, Facebook, or via emailing your game saga to yourself and then to others. The iPHONE is the perfect device to play such a game on. Despite its complexity and length, it lends itself to casual play. You can pull it out of your pocket, make a few decisions, and then simply put it away again until a few moments of free time present themselves. That is, if you can resist finding out whether your weaponthanes manage to drive off the ice demons. Like drops of water in a bucket, all these short cessions will add up and you'll be amazed how far your clan has come along.

I have always believed that games are more than mere frivolous wastes of time. Games are like journeys for the mind. We learn best while at play and games can teach us a great deal in an environment where wrong decisions don't equal real disaster. Considering this game's fantasy setting, mythology, gods, creatures and people, King of Dragon Pass can teach us an awful lot of deep truth. At its core, King of Dragon Pass lets us play with leadership and power. It does so while showing us the consequences of our decisions in a very engaging way. If ever there was a game which defied its critics to call it devoid of any meaning and value, King of Dragon Pass is such a one. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if it proves to be a watershed game for blind owners of IOS devices. It has the potential to be played both at a casual and a serious level. This could prove to be the closest the blind gaming community has come to a phenomenon like Pac-Man was for the sighted world. What's more, we're playing on an equal footing and can let our accomplishments be known. Thanks to the inclusiveness of Apple and the considerate folks at A-Sharp Software, this game truly bridges the blind/sighted gaming divide. It's worth every cent of its $9.95 regular price.