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Nicola McDowell’s Blog (7)

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.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.

Same but different

School. It was in the same location, the teachers and students were all the same as when I had last been there, it started at the same time and the uniform that we all wore was still exactly the same. But everything just seemed different.

At first I put this down to being away from school for a period of time. But in actual fact, I only ended up having around eight weeks off, which is about the same length of time as a summer holiday break. However, when coming back from summer holidays, I had never felt as disorientated as I did when starting again after being in hospital. It was almost as if I had to learn how to do school all over again. Of course, it didn't help that I wasn't able to manage with full days straight away and only went each day for one or two periods for the first couple of weeks.

But before I even got to class, I had to navigate my way through the popular congregation area around the school canteen, in the time pressured atmosphere of a morning tea break. At first, arriving at school as everyone else was coming out for break time seemed like a great idea. It meant that I would be able to catch up with all my friends and then walk into class with them, as opposed to walking in by myself, making me even more conspicuous than I already was (the beanie I wore to cover my half-shaved head was already making me stand out from the crowd).

However, having to deal with a mass of people all milling in one place was extremely overwhelming. I still remember my first day back at school, nervously walking in, trying to find my group of friends amongst the crowds of other students all wearing the same lovely maroon school jersey. It is very difficult to explain the scene that greeted me, but it felt like everything was shimmering and this made it impossible for me to focus on anyone's face. The harder I tried to recognise people, the more uncertain my vision felt. I wanted to reach out and hold the whole scene still, or even better, hold each person's face still for long enough for me to work out who it was.

Unfortunately, as it is not the custom in my country (probably not in any country actually) to reach out and grab someone's face when greeting them, I wasn't able to do this. If there was only one person in front of me, I was easily able to work it out, but when there was a group of people all moving at once, it was extremely difficult. So, to get through the situation, I tried to guess who people were, or just tried to avoid eye contact if I couldn't even come close to working out who someone was. Of course, I wasn't always correct in my guesses and the perceived avoidance of some people upset many of my peers.

As I continued to mingle with the crowd, the shimmering effect intensified and I felt like I wasn't able to clear my vision at all. I tried shaking my head, but that just made me feel worse and I started feeling nauseous as the world continued to move around me. I also tried to find something stable to look at, something that wasn't moving, but that meant I had to try and find a space where no one was and this was impossible.

This difficulty in focusing on the visual scene, also made it hard for me to move through the crowds. It felt like the ground had a slight tremor that was making me unsteady, but no one else seemed bothered by it. By this stage, I was starting to feel just a little bit insane. Could it be possible that I had somehow developed the ability to detect tiny earthquakes that no one else was feeling? There just didn't seem to be any logical reason why the world around me was shimmering like it was.

I also found the shimmering extremely distracting and I quickly realised that the harder I fought to try and recognise people's faces, the less aware of what they were actually saying I was. My senses no longer seemed to want to work together and they were forcing me to choose which one was more important at that time. I could either try to switch off my vision for a bit so that I could hear what people were saying, or completely ignore what they were saying and try and force the shimmering to stop, so that I could have a chance of working out who the person was.

And all this in the first 5mins of the morning tea break! I hadn't even made it to class yet and I was already frightened, anxious and exhausted. This was not a good start to being back at school.

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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