Eve Riches

This photo symbolises my journey as a disabled woman, learning to flourish with sight-loss, and being genuinely cared for by my fellow humans.

When I lost my guide dog in a pet dog attack, I experienced severe anxiety about becoming a long cane user. I felt concerned about what people would think about me.

Despite knowing intellectually that my reputation is indifferent to a good life, it was extremely hard to overcome my self-consciousness. I had internalised beliefs about canes: canes meant vulnerability and weakness. I wanted people to see me as strong and capable.

I also felt severe anxiety about leaving the house alone, when I had been used to being part of a six-legged dog-human team. Despite my best efforts, my beliefs that I would fall or get lost were driving me into a state where my emotions were dominated by fear.

Running with a circle of care

Running had been a huge part of my life, but I had to give it up as my sight deteriorated.

The Stoics would argue that part of oikeiosis is the natural tendency towards self-preservation, and perhaps it is this which lead me to decide that I should forget about trying to walk, I should learn to run again.

I contacted ‘Parkrun’ (an amazing organisation run by volunteers) and asked if they had anyone who was interested in becoming a sighted guide. People responded immediately. They extended their circles of care to treat me with the same tender kindness they would have given to a family member.

Running my way through my false beliefs about injury and reputation was easier as part of a community. My guides would often share that they felt real joy in being able to help me. In Stoic terms, in living according to virtue (it must take all the virtues including courage to run with a severely sight impaired person!), they were also able to flourish.

I had to work hard to overcome my fear. I would think to myself that Marcus Aurelius would say I should really be afraid of not beginning to live! 

Eve Riches

Overcoming fear with Marcus Aurelius and Chris

I had to work hard to overcome my fear. I would think to myself that Marcus Aurelius would say I should really be afraid of not beginning to live!

I knew that I could never contribute to the world if I had lost my confidence and the ability to travel independently. By managing to do something that is a greater challenge than walking with a cane, it forced me past the self-limiting false judgements that losing my guide dog was absolutely bad, that people staring at me mattered, that I could not live a good life without health.

Eventually I entered the Great North Run with my guide Chris, to raise money for a charity we both care about. Although it was incredibly challenging and took all my courage on the day, our focus was on the people we were raising money for. By that point, people staring at me seemed truly to have become an indifferent. I focused on completing the race, knowing I was not in control of what people thought about me as I ran past the huge crowds. 

Running from fear to freedom

But the emotional path towards feeling courageous and focused and in control was a difficult one. But this is where Stoicism, ultimately, helps us.

Here’s a peek into what I was experiencing at the time:

I am sat on the sofa with one trainer on and Chris asks me what the matter is. I must have been making a face. 

‘It’s fear!!’ I burst out, ‘I am terrified, this is what actual fear looks like’. I am being a bit harsh on account of the fear and all that. 

‘Then why don’t you stop doing it? You don’t have to do it, I thought you were enjoying it??!’

I laugh a little at this. I am so not enjoying it, I am hating it. 

To start with I didn’t want to put the bright stupid orange stupid t-shirt on. For those who don’t know me, I only wear black fitted clothes, so the orange and squareness of it was enough of a challenge. On the front it says ‘VISUALLY IMPAIRED’ in huge block letters, a massive advert for people to gawp at. I hate the t-shirt. I hate the running. 

The people who run with me as my sighted guides are so lovely and kind and supportive and encouraging and generous and all of those things. So I hate them too. 

I hate the crowds and the dogs, and the starting line and people’s bodies touching me and the stupid bumpy muddy ground. I hate 700 people on a Saturday at 9, every week.

The data from my fitness tracker shows my heart rate shoot through the roof right at the start of the race, when I am hardly moving yet. There’s the fear / shame / horror in a heartbeat.

When I run, the straw of light I look out of gets smaller and blacker and sometimes blinks out. So then all you have is the tether and the instructions and the bumpy sometimes slippery ground and the yappy dogs and all the noisy people with change in their pockets or massive bunches of keys or squeaky trainers. Running right next to me. On purpose.

These first few weeks I am blinking back tears at the starting line, or even when I am getting ready. I feel like I might be sick. I feel like the world is staring at me. I am part of a health and safety briefing, I am a potential hazard. 

To start with I would say I am 100% hating it.

By about week six it has really improved. Massively. I would say I am now 96% hating it.

It’s a great combination of the fact that I’m not very fit, having given up running many years ago when my eyes got too bad, plus the pain of having to trust strangers, the constant fear of falling, the vision disappearing as my blood pressure goes up, the people sometimes bumping into me. The awful t-shirt. The tether, like a child that might get lost.

By week 12 I am 85% hating it. The people are so lovely; damn them. I start to run with one of the guides in the evening. This is easier, just me and him. We start to tune into each other and I can trust what he says. He describes to me what we are going past. I can smell the rotten apples every time we get to that part where I start to flag. ‘We’re going past a big lake’ he says ‘there are birds all over it’. He doesn’t baby me. He tells me to run faster. He goes on a course.

By week 25 I am 40% hating it. I don’t care about the t-shirt. That much. I am used to the lovely people. I haven’t fallen over yet. I feel less unfit.

There is a horrible moment when someone has let a tiny child run on her own, and she runs directly in front of me and I run her over. I cry and feel very knocked back. I am so worried I might have hurt her ‘It could have happened to anyone, it wasn’t your fault’ say the lovely people.

By week 32 my main guide and I have entered a race. We run long loops together, our feet falling in step as we train. I start to notice the birds singing. We laugh as he runs through a puddle and my foot is soaked. On the day of the race we are both really nervous again, and it is tough. Towards the end I feel like that last big hill is a bit unfair, and that I am still not very fit. I might die. We make it over the finishing line and people are cheering and I get a medal. When I get home I send a photo of me with the medal to my friends and family, my face is so proud with a huge grin and glowing cheeks. Someone replies that it’s a shame I have to wear that t-shirt. That I must be embarrassed about it.

We do a very very muddy Park Run, where we all slide slideways for half the course, the mud not wanting to let my trainers go. It is so funny, and at the end I have mud up to my thighs. I’m walking home, I am so hot and sweaty and happy and muddy. Someone asks me if I want to put my hoody on. Because people might see what it says on the t-shirt.

I say that if I saw a woman covered in mud up to her thighs with running gear on and her t-shirt said she was visually impaired, I would think that was awesome. I do not put the hoody on. 

Sometimes I get to a certain distance and I can just fly along like magic, like I could run forever. Sometimes when I run it is awful, and sometimes I’m scared. Sometimes I am inexplicably unfit, and my lungs feel sore. I run in the snow and the rain. 

But it’s ok, because I am 80% loving it.

Stoicism is something you do, not think

This whole experience shows me that Stoicism is not something you can just think about or believe in, it is something you need to DO.

I’m so glad I wrote about this experience at the time, as a big part of Stoic mentoring is being able to connect with my own failings and vulnerabilities, and how Stoicism continues to help me to overcome them.

In the repeated practice of going beyond my impressions and seeing the world as it really is, I was able to find a new way to live my best life as a long cane user.

I’m Eve Riches and this is my #PathsToFlourishing story.

Eve Riches will be talking about Stoicism, self-compassion and caring for others at Stoicon-x Women: Practical Paths to Flourishing. Learn more about Eve in this webinar for the Aurelius Foundation and by visiting Eve Riches: Mentoring & Coaching.

This is a #PathsToFlourishing story published as part of a series of stories inspired by the Stoicon-x Women 2021 theme: Practical Paths to Flourishing.

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