Blogs & News

Nicola McDowell’s Blog (30) - Can’t you just visualise it?

Photo of a yrey tile with a Kiwi bird engraved.
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.

You would have thought that after living with CVI for over 25 years; having had it officially diagnosed for 8 years, as well as researching the subject in depth in terms of my own visual difficulties and supporting children with CVI, that I should have a pretty good understanding of how CVI affects me, right? Well, that’s what I thought, until a curious incident this week, that finally helped explain some minor marital tension that my husband, Ross and I have been having this year. In February we purchased a house that was in the process of being built and overnight we became absorbed in the whole house building circus.

Since we purchased the house when it was just a shell, we had some say in the interior decoration and the landscaping. At first, I was excited about the prospect of being able to decide on things like the colour of the kitchen worktops, whether we would have curtains or blinds in the lounge and the colour scheme of the whole house. But I quickly became overwhelmed with the number of decisions that had to be made and the time frames these had to be made in. I’ve always instinctively known that Ross and I should never ever consider being participants in a reality TV renovation show – not because we wouldn’t be able to work together in such a high-pressure environment like that, but because we make decisions in very different ways. I am the kind of person that makes decisions quickly based on gut feelings and not much research. Whereas Ross takes his time and cannot be rushed into making decisions he is not ready to make, no matter how much I try to persuade him.

When it came to our new house however, for the first time in our almost 18 years of marriage, the tables were turned on our decision-making processes. Due to circumstances, Ross was generally the one who met with the builder and other contractors, and they would give him a rundown on what we needed to decide and the options that were available to us. He would then come to me and pass on the information he had been told. Of course, by that stage, he would have already decided what he wanted and would try to sell it to me in a way that meant that I would agree with his decision. But being the stubborn and pig-headed fool I sometimes am, I would balk at this and tried to argue with him and stamp my own mark. But this time, when he asked me to describe what I wanted, I couldn’t. Just the thought of trying to make a decision about a colour, material type or electric socket location made me feel sick, which in turn made me feel extremely frustrated. Although I am by no means an interior design expert, I knew I had more of an idea of style and aesthetics than Ross, who generally makes decisions for very practical reasons (i.e., let’s go with a dark coloured carpet so the dog hairs from our black labrador don’t show up). But every time he tried to initiate a conversation with me about deciding something for the house, I instantly disengaged and gave a very noncommittal response, or simply just say ‘I don’t care, you decide’, even though I really did care about how our house would look!

Despite this dysfunctional decision-making process, we finally moved into our new house about three weeks ago and I was very relieved that I loved the interior decoration of the house and the colours “we” had chosen. Everything was going swimmingly with our nesting, until the landscaper turned up yesterday and started putting bark in some garden beds and small stones in others. After returning from a walk, I was shocked to see stones in one bed that I emphatically felt should have bark. Not wanting to make a scene in front the landscaper, I quietly asked Ross what was going on. He looked at me in complete exasperation and said, ‘I asked you about this and you said you didn’t care!’.

Knowing he was right and that it was pointless to try and argue (especially as I remembered the very conversation he was talking about), I instead turned my frustration inwards. Why hadn’t I engaged in the discussion about this? Why hadn’t I taken the time to listen to him and look at the garden beds so that we could decide together? And then it hit me. I hadn’t actually been able to visualise in advance what they would look like. It was only when the stones had been put in place, that I was able to look and say, “No, that’s not right. It should have been bark”. It was the same for the interior decorating – every time he had asked me to make a decision based on what I wanted it to look like, I had been unable to imagine and see the image in my head. All I could see was what was directly in front of me – a blank wall, a concrete floor, bare windows, a pile of dirt.

This got me thinking about my ability to visualise in general. As a teenager (before the brain haemorrhage that resulted in me acquiring CVI), I dreamt of one day swimming at the Olympic games for New Zealand. A big part of my training and mental preparation for this was visualising my swimming races in my head before any major competition. I had also been able to easily visualise other things as I went about my daily business, for example solving maths problems or creating a mental image of what a certain dress or hairstyle would look like on me. But when I started thinking about it, I couldn’t actually remember the last time I had properly been able to visualise anything. As I continued to ponder this, I also realised that any time I had tried to visualise anything, it had either made me extremely anxious (especially when I was being asked to visualise something by someone else) or frustrated with myself for not being able to see something in my mind’s eye. Some examples that easily come to mind is the frustration of both myself and a person giving me directions to a specific location when we both realise halfway through a sentence that I have completely switched off as they were saying “Turn left at the first intersection”. Or the countless times I have tried to solve maths problems in my head but have had to give up and get my phone out to calculate simple equations such as 22 + 43.

Normally when I learn something new about my CVI, I get excited about the prospect of developing a strategy to overcome the problem or make it easier to live with this challenge. But this time (and maybe it’s because I only realised this yesterday), I am drawing blanks when trying to think through what I could do to support myself around visualisation. At this stage, the only real conclusions I have come to, are that I was absolutely correct in thinking that Ross and I should never ever participate in a reality TV house renovation competition, and that the garden actually looks ok with the stones instead of bark.  Once we plant some tussocks here and there, it won’t matter anyway.

photo of the front of a garage with brown doors and light coloured stones plus a layer of bark on the ground.
Bark or stones? Not such an easy decision if you can’t visualise what it might look like.

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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.