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Nicola McDowell’s Blog 19

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

A great love lost

As a teenager growing up on a farm, a shopping expedition to the city was always a greatly anticipated and exciting event. Now I understand that "the city" will mean different things to different people all around the world, so to clarify - I am talking about a small city, with a population of around 100,000 people and only one indoor shopping mall (so not that big, but big for little old NZ at the time). These trips didn't happen all that often, as the city was a fair distance away from our farm. But when they did occur, it was an exhilarating day out, which normally ended with a pile of exciting new purchases to take home. As a result, I developed a love for shopping; more specifically, a love for shopping in malls. To me, malls were entertaining and stimulating, full of numerous delightful sensory experiences. Shoe shops, clothes shops, bookstores, perfume and makeup kiosks, music stores, food courts, gift shops - the list could go on, and all under the same roof! What an amazing achievement of convenience for modern society! And to top it all off, all these people in one small space, creating so many wonderful people watching opportunities. It was just magic.

So of course, following the brain haemorrhage that resulted in me acquiring CVI, I expected to continue with my shopping mall addiction. Upon my first trip back to my favourite hunting ground, however, I soon found that the numerous sensory delights that I had found enticing before, were now more overwhelming than delightful. For the rest of my schooling days, no matter how hard I tried, every shopping mall adventure would end with the same tragic story line - my love for shopping malls was ripped from me and stomped on for a number of reasons I will now explain.

The first and foremost issue of a shopping mall, is the crowds of people. Instead of providing endless indulgent people watching opportunities, crowds became unpredictable and frightening gangs. And every one of them seemed to be out to get me. Scaring me by unexpectedly looming in front or beside me. Confusing my interpretation of the scene in front of me, by abruptly changing the direction they are walking in, or even worse - stopping right in front of me! People also have a tendency to dress in bright, bold colours, that would draw my attention like a moth to a flame and distract me from focusing on navigating safely through the minefield ahead.

And the noise! Don't ever underestimate the cacophony of sounds gangs of people create when all jammed into one large, echoing space. Everyone competing with each other to ensure their shopping companion can hear them over the hubbub of the other shoppers and the hammering of shoes on the endless tiled floors. Tiles, that for some reason, are always shiny, creating blinding glare from the artificial bright overhead lights attempting, yet failing, to trick you into believing you are in a 'natural' environment. Tiles that can also be deceiving at times. One minute they make the floor look smooth and easy to walk on, then suddenly they turn into tiny steps of unknown heights that make the floor seem undulating and dangerous.

Once past the throngs of people and safely trekked over the constantly shifting floor, I might be lucky enough to find myself near a shop that I would like to enter. Here, you would think the chaos and uncertainty of the great open space would diminish and I would be able to simply stroll through the colourful and cluttered aisles, happily searching for the latest novel from my favourite author, or perfect light blue top that would match my new jeans. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. The desire of shop owners to display everything they have on offer, in the hopes that you will buy more, means that they crowd every shelf with layers upon layers of books, DVDs, shoes or whatever they are selling and every rack with clothing that is so tightly packed, you can't even isolate one piece of clothing from another. It quickly becomes impossible to find anything I am looking for, as the scene in front of me starts to blur into the undecipherable.

Once I accept the fact that I am never going to find what I am looking for, I stumble back into the craziness of the open thoroughfares of the mall, bravely preparing myself to try just one more shop. However, by this stage, I am generally exhausted, struggling to see anything at all and starting to doubt my ability to actually travel independently in this space. But alas, the onslaught of sensory stimulation is not over yet! The mall has one last sensory joy to share with me - the deliciously, enticing aroma of the food court. Surely food will distract me from my anxiety and fear? But as the smells of the yummy Indian curries mix with the smells from the perfume kiosk, that is forcefully sprayed onto any unsuspecting passer-by, I suddenly realise that it is all too much and I cannot handle being in this environment for just one more second.

This is where the fairy tale of the shopping mall always tragically ends and I sulkily give into the realisation that I am no longer a shopping mall junkie. Of course, for years, I stubbornly refused to give up on my great love of shopping malls. I was determined, that just through shear perseverance, I could get better at coping with the malls chaotic, overwhelming sensory environment and get back to my glory days of the magic shopping mall. But I never did.

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

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At CVI Scotland we are devoted to helping people understand cerebral visual impairments, and together working towards developing the understanding of this complex condition.