About counselorcarmella

I am a therapist at Crossroads Counseling Center in Lexington SC. This blog contains information that I wish to make available to clients, colleagues, and others interested in resources on mental health and relationship issues.

In Memory of Kitty Jackson aka Mint Mom

I write and share this update with a heavy heart. One of the interesting ways memoirs differ from fiction is that the characters are real people with real lives. Their stories continue in the real world, not simply that of imagination. I wish I could change some of the “plot twists” for myself and the friends and family members readers met in Carmella’s Quest that have taken place since then.

One plot twist I very much would like to change if I could right now is the loss of Kitty Jackson. Carmella’s Quest readers will recall Tim (aka Mint Man) as one of the book’s main characters. Kitty is his mother, so I guess I can call her Mint Mom. Over the years, she has become much more to me than “Mrs. Jackson, Tim’s Mom.” I thought of her more and more as “Miss Kitty, my friend.” So, it is with sadness that I have to say that my friend Kitty Jackson’s life on this earth ended unexpectedly on Thursday, March 3 2016. She was 62 years old.

Since Tim and his parents lived near campus, I spent a lot of time hanging out at their house, particularly during my first semester at NGC in the fall of 1994. I talk about all of them in early chapters of Carmella’s Quest. Words on a page could never quite capture what spending time with the Jacksons was like. They were way too colorful and multidimentional for that. I did my best with what I had, though. The Jackson Clown Klan always made me feel welcome and like part of the family. Their humor, warmth, and hospitality helped this shy girl come out of her shell at a time when I really needed people in my life who could help me do exactly that. They never made a big deal about my blindness or acted like it was weird in any way. I, in turn, never acted like it was weird that they would only respond to their clown names when in costume or that they were Episcopalian and not Baptist like everyone else I knew and went to school with.

When CQ came out in early 2009, Miss Kitty messaged me to say how proud they were of me and how excited they were about the book. We kept in touch via FaceBook regularly after that. We frequently left little comments and replies back and forth. These were just brief exchanges, but they made me smile. I could always count on her to be generous with likes and kind comments on my posts. She laughed at my jokes, told me my animals were adorable, said how beautiful I looked in pictures, and was quick to respond with words of prayer and support when I mentioned concerns. I felt like Miss Kitty genuinely cared about me and the goings on in my little world.

At around 3:30 on the afternoon of Thursday May 3, I checked FaceBook during a brief break between clients, not expecting anything in particular to be going on with anyone. I just wanted to give my brain something nonclinical to think about for a few minutes. When I read Tim’s heartbroken post, I was shocked and immediately felt a wave of overwhelming sadness. I thought, “No way! This wasn’t supposed to happen like this… not to Miss Kitty… not to Tim and his wife and kids. Not to Mr. Jerry (her husband of 44 years.)” I knew she’d been sick for most of the week. It wasn’t supposed to be “that” kind of sick, not the kind you don’t get better from. The doctor’s said so. It was supposed to just be the “prayers and feel better soon” kind of sick.

In Miss Kitty fashion, she’d been posting on FaceBook as recently as late Tuesday evening. She always posted funny, interesting, and inspirational things. Never anything negative. I could tell she really enjoyed the whole social media thing. I’d often see where she’d tagged friends or family members, sharing things she knew they were both interested in or would find amusing. Tuesday night, she’d thanked everyone for their prayers. I’d gotten a“LOL” from her in response to something I said jokingly to her and Tim earlier on Tuesday when I found out they were both sick. I’m glad I gave her a little laugh as our last interaction.

I miss her likes and kind comments. Its strange for them not to be there. There have already been several times when I’ve pictured her clicking “like” from heaven and smiled. That’s the good thing. I have no concern about where Kitty Jackson’s soul is now. I know her faith in God was real, personal, and a vital part of who she was and what she built her life around. I know she is with the Lord and with her parents. I know she is not experiencing any pain or sickness anymore. I know that, if she could, she’d be posting all kinds of cool pictures and quotes to FB letting us know what heaven is like. But whatever she’s up to now, its way cooler than FaceBook will ever be (sorry Mark Zuckerberg.)

Miss Kitty’s loved ones will not grieve as those who have no hope, but Tim and his family and her many friends are grieving. The sense of loss Jerry, Tim and Steven, and their wives and children are feeling is something it breaks my heart to think about. Their loss is tremendous as they continue to live on this earth without the heart of their family being physically present with them the way they’re used to. Miss Kitty was so well thought of by so many people. Seeing all the messages of sympathy and fond memories that have been posted to Tim and his family assures me they are surrounded by love and support. Whether its stories about her role as Razzle Dazzle the clown or about the things she did as an active member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, I’m sure reading them brings smiles along with sadness. So many friends, neighbors, and family members are taking comfort from each other as they share and celebrate Miss Kitty’s life. She was an encouragement to so many people and was so well thought of. As the Bible says, they are also weeping with those who weep, though.

I hope Kitty Jackson now knows the full impact of her life and ministry. Well done good and faithful servant. I’m honored to have been one of her many friends. If you think of it, pet a cat, reach out to someone with a friendly smile or word of encouragement, make someone laugh, or do some other act of kindness to show God’s love today in honor of Kitty Jackson. Remember that none of us knows how long we have left with those we love. Please remember Tim and his family in your prayers during this difficult time. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help the family with funeral costs and related expenses at
https://www.gofundme.com/j7st7jq4
Miss Kitty’s obituary can be found at
http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/greenvilleonline/obituary.aspx?page=lifestory&pid=177939417

2015: The Readers’ Digest Version

So another new year begins. There are some things about 2015 I’m sad to say goodbye to and some very personal memories that I’ll always carry in my heart.

 

My immediate family has certainly gotten bigger this year.  I could write a whole book just about that, but there’s no way my family would let me get away with telling all their stories.  We probably could have some kind of “modern family” reality show, though.  I mean, I find us pretty entertaining.  Anyway,   there’s lots more people to hug and  keep up  with through FaceBook  between visits now.

 

So, who are they? My  2 year old foster nephew has been part of our family for what seems like  forever to me, but I think   he officially joined us sometime in early 2015. I love that little boy so much! My heart feels lighter and happier whenever I think of him  or am around him.  He started saying my name Thanksgiving Day.  He’s stolen my heart forever and I’ll always be his Aunt Carmella.

 

My greatnephew has been with us all year, but  outside his Mom’s tummy since July. He  is completely adorable and such a good baby. Its cool to be a greataunt on top of already being a great aunt. My oldest nephew and his sweet and lovely fiancée are  working hard and   learning to be parents and  partners.  That’s all very adult stuff and they’re still  very young so I’m sure its not easy at times.  I pull for them and pray for them and am proud of them for  their commitment to family and to being a family.

 

We  have also added my sister’s boyfriend and his two teenaged daughters. They’ve been around for more than six months now and I still can’t usually tell which one is talking.  Their voices are  almost identical to me. The teenaged daughters, I mean, not them and their Dad.  That would be weird. I give him mad props  for being brave enough to take on our family. My sister’s man is easy-going,hard-working, and all about family and being a good Dad to his girls. He’s funny, too. He was by her side the whole time my nephew  was very sick and in the hospital in October, which meant so much to my family.  He’s awesome with the two year old and spends a lot of quality time with him.  I think having a stable male presence around is great for my sister’s kids, too, and seeing my sister happy and treated well makes me happy.

 

Having an infant, a 2 year old,  my 12 going on 25 year old niece,  three high schoolers, and  two  young parents around means things are rarely boring. I’m hoping none of the big kids hurt themselves when they use the HiWire  Trampoline Park gift card  I got them for Christmas because Aunt Carmella  didn’t agree to cover any medical expenses related to  said gift. I should have written up a waiver just like HiWire does, saying I’m not responsible.  Oops. Despite all the coming and going, I get to see them all pretty often and   enjoy  them all so much.  We all got together at Mom and Dad’s for Thanksgiving this year for the first time, which was fun.  Mom had to work that night so  she was  tired from cooking all day, but I think she was happy having all her “kids” there.

 

2015 ended extremely warm and rainy.  Strange weather for this time of year. It was a little hard to feel Christmasy with temperatures in the  mid  to high 70s all week here in SC.  Christmas sweaters probably felt  very neglected this year. That’s okay.  The season is still about    celebrating the birth of Baby Jesus. Good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people, and on earth peace and good will.  I believe we could all use more of those things at  Christmas time and always.

 

Mom had to work Christmas Eve night and Christmas night, but we still made it to Granny’s and Pappaw’s (Mom’s parents) for  Christmas  Eve and to my sister’s Christmas morning. If our family keeps growing, Granny and Pappaw are going to have to add a couple more rooms onto their house. I went with Mom and Dad over to  my Grandma’s (Dad’s Mom) a couple weeks before Christmas.  We  put up her tree every year.  By we, I mean my sister and Mom put up the tree and the rest of us mostly watch, hang out, and socialize.  Grandma has a birthday coming up around the corner, too.  My large extended family on that side will be getting together to celebrate, of course.

 

 

I am so blessed to be part of a large supportive extended family  on both sides.  So many people don’t have that.  Being  related to so many  genuinely good and caring people  is something I’m proud of and not something I take for granted.  It gives me such a sense of security and belonging.

 

 

My four-legged family members are doing well. Brooklyn and I celebrated one year together in June. We’ve had our share of adventures this year.  She’s gained about 10 pounds of height and muscle since I first got her.  Sixty-five pounds is  plenty big enough, I think. Even though she’ll be three in February, she’s still got lots of puppy in her, but she’s coming along.   She  still has lots of pull when she gets excited or is in a new area.  Between that and  the games of tug-of-war and fetch I play with her to   help her get out some energy every day, I’m getting some good exercise in addition to  our walks.  She’s smart and eager to please and she doesn’t chew up stuff quite like she used to. I  am still trying to find  toys that  stand a chance of lasting more than a couple weeks with her. Mostly, I’ve just started limiting her  “toy time” so they last longer.

 

 

My cat KC is doing great. I think he’s 8 now. At his checkup earlier this year,  his bladder and kidneys seemed good. He wasn’t passing blood in his carrier like he used to when we’d go to the vet.  He’s not on any special food or medication anymore. He  loves turkey lunch meat and still  enjoys playing, especially  fetch with those little crinkly paper balls I spend so much time    fishing out from under furniture with my cane. He likes to talk and cuddle and is a gentle  little soul. He and Brooklyn get along well.  If she gets too frisky, he just moves to higher ground or leaves the room for a few minutes.  I finally got some pictures taken of the three of us together a few days after Christmas. First ones ever in the  1.5 years we’ve all lived under the same roof.  Mom took them.  Thanks Nana!

 

 

Its been nice to have a little time off work around the holidays. I celebrated 10 years at Crossroads Counseling Center this June.  I’m blessed to work alongside kind, smart, and dedicated folks who truly care about the clients we seek to serve and the counseling profession.  Since the unemployment rate among blind people is still around 70 to 75%, I remain thankful to be  doing the work I was called to in  a very supportive environment.

 

 

Several months ago, I had to   transition from  working with  a driver and helper who’d been with me for 3.5 years to  new  people. It was a difficult decision and transition emotionally, since my drivers/helpers become like family to me and  do so much for me and my  animals. The relationships of trust I have with them are so important to keeping things running smoothly and to keeping my stress level somewhere near manageable. Thankfully, I didn’t have to go through the usual super stressful process of advertising  and choosing from among strangers. I am blessed to now have a wonderful couple  driving  and helping me with errands.  They used to drive and  help out a friend of mine who moved out of state a few months ago.  When she found out I was looking for someone, she put us in touch and that was that.  The process of finding a new driver/helper is usually a lot more complicated and stressful so I was very relieved  that all worked out.   All three of us feel that God   put us together.  As with all my previous drivers, I am enjoying getting to know their family, too. I feel like we’re all becoming family.

 

 

My building had a small fire/big flood event  in April.  That created some middle of the night excitement as we had to evacuate, and then several hours later, take the stairs  and  tromp through standing water to  retrieve necessities and reevacuate.   Fortunately, I had  a special someone I knew I could count on who cared enough to  hang in there with me through the whole thing and  give me a place to sleep that night (when we finally   could  try and get some sleep around 4:00 am).  I’m also thankful I had a young healthy guide dog who  could handle  all the climbing up and down  stairs safely.  My apartment wasn’t damaged.

 

 

Then, of course, we had the historic flooding event in  early October.  Again, I was blessed that the biggest  inconvenience I had to deal with was several weeks without clean water.   I was  safe at  Mom and Dad’s for most of the drama.  Some people  experienced significant losses of homes or businesses, special and valuable possessions, and about 17 people lost their lives.  It was amazing how communities pulled together to help each other and how  many people got involved volunteering time and resources through   the Red Cross, shelters, churches, and other local nonprofits. It was humbling to hear story after story of dedicated  emergency workers, first responders, and  public safety officials putting so much  time and effort into the difficult tasks they were faced with. Rebuilding continues with  the support of state and national resources.

 

 

In other odds and ends… I shot a gun for the first time ever in May.  Twelve rounds  with  Dad’s  .22 revolver.  Dad and my nephew Darren were with me.  It was fun. Mom made me my own mosaic window for my birthday.   Those are  one of a kind, a labor of love, and really special.  Speaking of windows, I still miss Windows XP. I had to get a new computer at the end of April and I’m still  annoyed on a daily basis by the changes in the version of Windows and the screen reading software upgrade I’m using now. I’ve recently reconnected with several other women I used to keep in touch with who are also blind and   professionally successful.  We’re FaceBook friends now and I continue to be proud of their personal and professional accomplishments.

 

 

This new year will start off much differently for me than the way last year did.  Times and seasons.  God has a plan He is continuing to work out in my life and in the world. I will do my best to trust, be thankful for the blessings (obvious and otherwise), and  pray for the peace and wisdom to handle  the times when I’m  confused, sad, or  overwhelmed by  this crazy world. Every experience is a chance for learning and growth.  That sounds like such a counselor thing to say, but I really do believe that. I’m sure 2016 will be another interesting year. Ready or not, here it comes.

 

Beginnings With Brooklyn

I’ve been home with my third guide dog Brooklyn for over a month now. I flew up to Pilot Dogs in Columbus Ohio on June 1 and met her the next day. They had a black lab in mind for me, but then realized how much I had my heart set on yellow. The training staff had a very special yellow lab ready for the right person, but wanted to talk with me so we could figure out if I could be that person. One of the senior trainers talked with me about her Monday morning, explaining that she was a little more introverted and sensitive and would need a lot of nurturing and encouragement to do well. By the end of the conversation, we both felt that this dog and I could bring out the best in each other and make a good team.

Our journey together began a couple hours later when our primary trainer Ryan handed me a leash and said, “Her name is Brooklyn and she’s a very pale yellow, almost white.” I was so excited and relieved! I had my new yellow girl, and she had such a beautiful name. I was ready for us to take on the world. We went for our first walk together that afternoon and the process of learning and bonding as a team began.

It didn’t take me long to be thoroughly charmed by Brooklyn’s eagerness, sweetness, and laid back nature. As she became more comfortable with me, she showed more sides of her personality, and I began to see the silly inside that quiet serious girl. She has a definite mischievous streak but is also very good at playing clueless or innocent. I began getting a sense of this about three days into our training. “Who me? You think I stole your hat/shoe/socks? Does this look like the face of a thief to you?” “So I’m on my back with my feet waving in the air. You asked me to lay down and I am, right? What’s the problem?”

Brooklyn was the only yellow lab in a class with two Golden Retrievers, one Poodle, and four black labs. All four US time zones were represented in our class. All but one of us were retrains, meaning we’d had guide dogs before. The woman getting her first dog was eighty-eight years old. She was losing her vision due to age-related macular degeneration and wanted to stay as independent as possible. She was usually quiet but could be spunky and was very smart. She’d been very successful professionally and she earned my respect on several levels as I got to know her a little better throughout training.

My roommate was great, which was also a relief. She was outspoken, quirky, and energetic and was training with her second dog. She received a beautiful Golden who had the same name as my first guide. We did a lot of work together. We entertained ourselves giving Ryan a hard time whenever possible. We had a lot of fun with him and the other trainers we worked with, but got serious when we needed to, of course.

Training was intense and tiring, but I went in knowing it would be. We were up at 6:00 am each day and went on several outings before dinner at 5:00 pm. We practiced locating curbs and communicating with each other while properly executing turns. We crossed different types of streets, navigated sidewalks with all sorts of cracks and obstacles to negotiate, went to parks, stores, and on the bus. We worked in neighborhoods and in downtown Columbus. Brooklyn lead me around road construction, barking dogs, on to and off of elevators and escalators, and through revolving doors.

Things weren’t perfect. They never are, not even with teams who work together for years. I made mistakes at times and so did Brooklyn. Trainers were there to help us learn from them and to help me use voice and body language to get the best work from her. I wanted to make the most of the short time we had working under the supervision and guidance of Ryan and the other trainers. We’d be on our own in a matter of days and the decisions would be up to me. I wanted to be as ready as possible for that transition.

Brooklyn and I steadily gained confidence and skill in working together. We successfully completed our achievement walk on Wednesday, June 11. Ryan gave us our new harnesses and we took pictures for the ID cards that stated we were graduates of Pilot Dogs and a professionally trained guide dog team.

By the time Brooklyn and I graduated, the same trainer who had talked with me about her initially told me she thought we were a “perfect match.” Several other trainers told me how much they liked Brooklyn because of how sweet she was. One of them called her “Brookie Bear.” Maybe it was just my perception, but they seemed a little protective of her. I felt honored to be trusted with her and hoped they could all see that we were working out well. I assured them that we’d take good care of each other.

Brooklyn and I flew home from Pilot Dogs on June 13. We made it back to Columbia around midnight after flight delays in Columbus and almost missing our connecting flight in Charlotte. By the time I hugged my parents at the airport, I was having a hard time putting coherent sentences together. What I did manage to say as soon as we walked outside was, “Damn, its hot!” I couldn’t believe how hot and humid it was here, even that late at night. The weather in Columbus Oh had been in the mid to high 70s and low 80s. We’d gotten quite a bit of rain but the humidity hadn’t been bad. I’d missed sweet tea but I hadn’t missed the sticky, oppressive, energy-zapping heat hell that is South Carolina in the summertime. Not at all. The break was nice but it was here waiting to immediately suck me back in.

I haven’t gone through the process of transitioning to a new dog since 1999. Getting to know, and trust, a young new helper and companion isn’t something that happens in a matter of days, or even weeks. It happens slowly over a period of months as we live and work together. When I trained with my previous dogs in 96 and 99, I was on summer break from college and could devote most of my time and energy exclusively to them. This time, I’m dividing my focus between Brooklyn, a stressful career as a Professional Counselor and Marriage and Family Therapist in a group practice, a needy cat, and other responsibilities. Trying to find the balance has been fairly stressful for me. I’ve felt a lot of emotions, including being overwhelmed, exhausted, and frustrated at times. I’m sure it has been tough on Brooklyn sometimes, too.

Having a half-grown, newly trained puppy in the house and in the harness is very different from living and working with a dog who’s personality, work style, and behaviors are very familiar. I didn’t have to think so hard every second with Maggie up until she began declining healthwise. We lived and worked together so closely and easily for so many years. I recently honored the one-year anniversary of her passing and her birthday. I miss her, but I know she’s happy I have a young healthy dog helping me again. I think she would like, and approve of, Brooklyn. Brookie does certain things that remind me of her and bring back fond memories as we are building new ones. Her pull in harness when she’s excited reminds me of a young Maggie.

I’m a much more confident, settled, and assertive adult now than I was at twenty-two, so I am able to be more clear and consistent with boundaries while we are still in our “bonding bubble” as I call it. Fortunately, I have a great support system in my family, my work family, and great friends. They are all so glad I finally have a new dog. Those who know me well know I’m not truly myself without a guide dog by my side. Everyone wants Brooklyn and I to do well. I also communicate regularly with other guide dog handlers all over the US through online communities.

I live in a very walkable city area where we can venture out more. This was not the case when I first came home with my first two dogs. I was eager to get “out there” with Brooklyn, but the heat here is limitting. We usually try and get a decent walk in around 7:00 in the morning. Things start heating up quickly here, including the pavements. It helps me to be more oriented to my environment when there’s traffic on the roads, which isn’t the case if we go out too early. We don’t get home from work until its starting to get dark and we don’t take any solo walks for fun after dusk.

We’ve had a lot of nice walks, and a few “adventures,” so far, some more successful than others. We’ve gotten lost and gotten frustrated a few times. We’ve learned from each experience, though. At first, I was enjoying that sense of freedom that comes with working a guide dog so much when we first got home that I got a little overconfident, I think. I’ve learned to focus on giving her smaller opportunities to do things right so I can praise and build up her confidence and my own.

I have a lot of experience traveling and working with a guide dog, of course, but I have to adapt to how Brooklyn works and the areas of her guide work that need strengthening. I’ve realized there are things I need to work on, too, as far as my familiarity with some of the details of the streets and sidewalks near our home, and in how I communicate with her, so we can be as effective as possible as a team.

I live in an area with a lot of squirrels who are used to being close to humans and dogs and Brooklyn is fascinated with them. She gets a little distracted and overeager at times. She is a dog who needs a lot of verbal encouragement to keep her focussed and confident. I hardly ever have to use leash corrections with her. She wants me to be happy with her and seems to get a little upset or unsure if/when she makes mistakes. Sometimes, this leads her to be in a hurry and to try and predict what I’ll want. Sometimes, I have to slow her down and reassure her that she’s doing fine so she’ll relax into a good rhythm and wait for my commands. Brooklyn wants to work and wants to please. She thrives on praise and affection. She enjoys working but also settles down nicely once we’re home or at the office.

I’m very thankful Pilot uses crates now. Brooklyn loves hers and will go in voluntarily if I leave the door open. That’s her safe place and I know she can’t find anything to chew on, or chew up, when she’s in there. I have to keep very close tabs on her for that reason. She’s very young (just turned one in early February) and is all lab puppy in her mouth. She’s settled in very nicely at work, in particular, and is content to hang out under my desk with her chew toys.

She’s eating well and got her first vet checkup recently. I had to bring in a stool sample. Its fun to have to collect things like that when you live in a public area and never know who’s watching. We’ll have to keep a good check on her ears and allergies, just as we did with Maggie. She weighs 55 pounds and the vet said he wouldn’t want her to get over 60. I wondered if she might do a little more growing because she has such big feet but he said she wouldn’t.

The cat tolerates her. She doesn’t try to chase or bother him, of course. KC does best as an only child. Unlike my sweet little Fin (RIP quiet boy) KC is needy and whiney and much more high maintenance. He should probably live with a retired person who is usually home and can give him tons of undivided attention,snuggling, play, and conversation. We’re all doing okay together, though. The other day, I was sitting on the floor with Brooklyn laying on my left side and KC on my right. They both flipped over on their backs and I sat there rubbing their spoiled rotten bellies for about five minutes. I think they’re fine! I tell them they’re my “good critters.” Caring for both of them can seem like a lot at times but I love them both and am glad to have them.

There is so much about working with guide dogs that only others who know what this unique partnership is like can fully relate to, I think. Its a lifestyle and relationship that is so special and that comes with rewards and challenges that go so far beyond what even those closest to us can fully comprehend. I enjoy trying to articulate it, though. Brooklyn and I grow closer and learn new things together every day. It will take six months to a year for us to be truly solid and bonded as a team. I think it may take a bit longer with Brooklyn because of her age. I think her confidence will grow as she matures and gains more and more experience with me. My confidence in her will grow, as well. It takes time, energy, and patience. I don’t have tons of any of those things, but I remind myself to trust the process and the relationship. Its a new chapter, a new adventure. Like everything in life, there are rewards and challenges. Brooklyn and I are now facing them together. Welcome to my world, Brookie. I’m glad you’re here.

How National Library Service for the Blind Users Can Download Carmella’s Quest

For those of you who read books specially produced by National Library Service for the Blind and have wanted to read Carmela’s Quest, it can be downloaded from the SC State Library Talking Book Services collection of recorded books on the LionShare site without having to bother with doing an interlibrary loan. It is not available for download through the BARD main site yet (TBS tells me they’re working on that). It is available through SCTBS’s own digital collection, however. TBS Lionshare is a service similar to BARD but for locally produced digital talking books and magazines. Besides Carmella’s Quest, there are a lot of other titles that may be of particular interest to those from SC, as well as others interested in good writing from or about South Carolina. Just like BARD, downloaded audio files are zipped and need to be unzipped onto a flash drive to play. Go to this link and do a JAWS find or search for “Carmella’s Quest.”
http://www.statelibrary.sc.gov/lionshare

When you download CQ from this site, you will be able to listen to me reading it. I recently downloaded it myself so I could leave it playing for my new guide dog if I’m away from her for a few minutes while in the shower or something. I wanted her to be able to hear my voice while she’s relaxing in her crate to continue the bonding process even when I’m not with her. I’ve listened to some of it myself again, for the first time in a while, and am still frankly amazed at how well it turned out. I’m so proud of this project and so thankful that TBS was willing to give my idea for how to do this a try. It turned out better than I ever could have imagined.

The article I wrote about this process, “In My Own Voice: The Carmella’s Quest Colaboration” can be found online in the March 2011 issue of The Braille Forum.
http://acb.org/node/218
This article received the ACB’s national Ned E Freeman Award for Excellence in Writing in 2011.
http://www.statelibrary.sc.gov/local-blind-author-receives-national-writing-award

Recording the book, writing the article, and receiving this award were all such great experiences. I am blessed and humbled by this whole chain of events.

To Ohio And Beyond. Or, Some Info About The Adventure of Getting A New Guide Dog

I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them. I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smoothe. These are the things I will do. I will not forsake them. Isaiah 42:16
What is true of God is also true of guide dogs. I have so much more confidence and a much stronger sense of dignity and independence with a well-trained guide dog by my side. I’m looking forward to experiencing those feelings again soon. I am trusting God to bring the right dog into my life, the dog that is right for this time and season.

I am so appreciative of all the thoughts, prayers, well wishes, and support all of you have given me around this important transition. It took me a while to decide I was ready to go through this again. I’m a little scared, nervous, and excited, but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be and its about to happen! I wanted to give everyone some information about what I’ll be doing and what to expect when I come back.

June 1, I will fly to Pilot Dogs in Columbus Ohio to begin this new adventure. This is where I trained with Maggie and my first guide dog Poppy and is one of about 10 guide dog schools in the US. I will hopefully meet my new dog sometime the next day. I don’t know who my dog will be yet, but I requested another yellow lab. My dog will be around 2 years old. She will have been “predestined” by breeding to become a guide dog and her whole life will have been about preparing to help someone who is blind to travel safely and independently. She will have spent a year being raised and socialized by a foster family followed by 4 to 6 months of intensive guide dog specific training.

My new helper and I will spend two weeks in a dormitory type facility with other students training with their new guide dogs. Our day will start around 6:00 am and end around 8:00 pm. We’ll have on campus obedience training lessons, lectures about dog care and psychology, and off-campus outings. My dog and I will work closely with one primary trainer. Trainers go through 3 year apprenticeships under more experienced trainers before they can lead their own classes and train dogs unsupervised. They are very knowledgeable and dedicated people who have to be good with both animals and humans, and this is not always easy.

We’ll be out and about a lot getting lots of experience working in traffic and dealing with other situations that come up while traveling in a busy city. The challenges we face will become more difficult as time passes and as we gain confidence working together. We’ll be working around obstacles and people on crowded sidewalks, crossing busy intersections, catching busses, and getting around in the mall and other stores. Our trainer will make sure we are connecting well and can travel safely together before we’re allowed to “graduate” and return home. Our first time “flying solo” and working together without a trainer nearby will literally be when we fly back to SC.

I expect to be exhausted and a little out of sorts when I return to Columbia on June 13. That’s how I was when I came home with Maggie. I was so glad to be back but kind of overwhelmed, too. I’ll be helping my new dog get used to her new home and new routines. She’ll also get to meet my cat KC. I’m not sure how that’s going to go. I don’t know that KC is going to be too enthused about not being an only child anymore. He’ll be staying with my parents while I’m gone. Hopefully, there will be peace in the animal world or they’ll just ignore each other.

When I got Mag, and my first dog Poppy, I was on summer break from college so I could focus all of my energy on my new dog and getting us both used to being home. This time, I will quickly be returning to work and other responsibilities. This makes it even more crucial that I do things “by the book” as we’re taught during training. I will bring my new helper to work for the first time on Monday June 16. We’ll just hang out for a little while that first day, letting my dog get used to my office. For the next couple weeks, we’ll be there seeing clients for several hours each day and getting my dog used to the routine of multiple sessions in a row. I’ll be trying to focus on my clients while also carefully monitoring how my new dog is handling being in the office with people who are stressed or upset, making sure she can sit quietly and doesn’t become anxious or restless.

As most of you know, when guide dogs are wearing their work harnesses, they shouldn’t be petted or distracted. My new dog will be in harness much of the time, but even when she isn’t and is just with me on her leash, the same rule will need to apply for a while. My new friend won’t be roaming around and won’t be allowed to be petted, talked to, or fed by anyone but me for at least a month and possibly longer. This gives my new dog plenty of chances to get used to my expectations, receive praise for good behaviors, and keeps her from getting in trouble by doing something she’s not supposed to. Freedoms will be given very gradually. I did the same things with Maggie when I first got her, until I knew for sure that we were solid as a team and what kinds of freedoms she could handle. It takes a new guide dog team six months to a year for the working relationship to be completely connected and solid.

The other reasons are about me being a good steward of this amazing dog I’ve been trusted with. Guide dog schools get private funding to pay for my travel, lodging, and the training of my dog and me so that I receive all this completely free of charge. This is an amazing gift for me and all the other blind people who have experienced the freedom and dignity of well-trained guide dogs. This gives me a tremendous sense of thankfulness and responsibility. I have to be a good steward of such a blessing. So much time, effort, and dedication goes into each dog who eventually is paired with someone who can’t see to spend years leading that person and serving with love and loyalty. I want to do things right out of respect and appreciation for everyone who invested in my dog becoming a successful guide and in us as a team. This means the foster families who raised her fora year, her primary trainer, and the school itself and those who keep the program running.

I’m so thankful to have so many people who are excited and supportive of me as I undertake this new journey. Getting a new guide dog is like meeting your partner in an arranged marriage, adopting a baby, and getting a prosthesis all at the same time while being away from loved ones and dealing with a young dog who is also experiencing stress and transition. Its a lot to deal with physically, mentally, and emotionally. Knowing I have so much love and support makes all this a lot easier.

I look forward to returning with a new member to my personal and professional families and I know so many thoughts and prayers have gotten us here. Thank you for your sensitivity and understanding and for being a part of our lives. I’m excited to celebrate this new beginning surrounded by so many caring friends and loved ones. I’ll be in touch while I’m gone and will share news and more specifics as I know them. Talk soon!

Reader Feedback from Jeff, The Singing, Piano-Playing, Tremendously Funny and Entertaining Older Guy Featured in Several Chapters of Carmella’s Quest

I recently heard from Jeff, a romantic interest near the end of my first semester at North Greenville, via FaceBook. Our brief relationship is, of course, described in Carmella’s Quest. It was unexpected, intense, exciting, and, not surprisingly, didn’t last.
Jeff and I have been FB friends for years now. I hold no ill will towards him and wish him well. He wrote to tell me he’d read CQ, which was a nice surprise. We had an interesting little chat. Some of the comments he made will go in the “Responses From Readers” section. Others will stay between me and him. What he said, in part, was:

“Your book was really good. I actually was able to find it in the iBook store, so was able to download it to my iPad and iPhone. It was a great story, an easy read, eye opening, so to speak, and, well, just plain great! I couldn’t put it down. Great job, Carmella. Hope you write more. You’re VERY good at it.” – Jeff, One of my romantic interests in CQ

If you’re interested in knowing more about the brief romance between me and this singing, piano-playing, irreverently funny, older man, read Carmella’s Quest: Taking On College Sight Unseen, published by Red Letter Press. Jeff is one of several fascinating men I became close with during that time and they’re all part of the story.

Jan 2014 Update: My Friend Donna Marie Gold’s Caring Bridge Blog

Its amazing how much time gets away from us. I’m still here and Carmella’s Quest is still around. I am without excuse for letting this blog go unblogged for so long. All I can say is that I found it necessary to keep my writing to myself for a while. Various circumstances arose during the past couple years that demanded most of my time and attention. These were intensely painful and private matters. As always, writing was a vital outlet during this time but most of what I wrote about was equally personal and private.

Some of these life events involved my own health. Others involved a roller coaster ride of emotional closeness and distance with one of CQ’s main characters that played out painfully but inevitably over several years. The most important major life event I’ve been through during the past couple years was caring for my faithful guide dog Maggie as she began deteriorating physically and mentally. She was finally helped to pass peacefully on July 11 2013 right before her sixteenth birthday. What I went through with her has changed me in such profound ways and there will never be another dog I love the same way. She was with me when CQ was published in print and when I recorded the audio version at the SC State Library’s Talking Book Services offices.

Six months after Maggie’s death, and as a new year is getting underway, I am turning my attention back to projects that have been neglected for far too long. There are several CQ related things I’d like to catch readers up on. In the rest of this entry, I want to talk about a woman who was part of my life during that time. We knew each other through living in the same dorm and through singing in the choir together. She served as my sighted guide on and offstage during the multistate concert choir tour I talk about in Carmella’s Quest. Her name is Donna Marie Gold. I want readers to know about this woman and the journey she is on.

Donna is one of many friends and classmates from North Greenville I’ve reconnected with via FaceBook. I relate to Donna on several levels. In addition to a love of singing and a common faith, Donna and I were both also called to similar types of work. We both transferred from North Greenville to colleges in Columbia SC. Me to Columbia International University and Donna to Columbia College. We also both pursued additional training in Biblical studies. While I was working on an undergrad degree in psychology, Donna was studying social work. We were both at USC (the real one, in South Carolina) working on our graduate degrees at the same time. I finished my counseling degree in 2004 and Donna obtained her masters in Social Work in 2005.

We both pursued professional licensure and careers as helping professionals. Donna is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She is from the Columbia SC area, which is where I live now. Donna worked in several social work positions here before moving to San Diego CA. Since 2006, she has been the clinical director of an agency that oversees residential programs for women and children in difficult and vulnerable situations. She also opened a part-time private practice.

Towards the end of 2013, Donna was preparing to move back to SC. There were some difficult circumstances going on with her family and she wanted to be geographically closer to them again. Donna was in the middle of making these arrangements when the unexpected happened. She found out she had uterine cancer. She knew she would need to stay put in CA for a little while longer in order to maintain her employment and health benefits to afford treatment. Donna thought she would have the needed surgery ASAP and get on with recovery and her plans of returning to SC in early 2014. Then came more unexpected news. Donna learned that she would not be able to have surgery to remove the cancer right away as would usually be the case due to another health issue.

Specifically, doctors won’t perform the surgery until Donna loses a considerable amount of weight. They told her the risks involved would be more of a concern than the cancer at this point. So, Donna has now undertaken the challenge of losing a lot of weight in a short amount of time. This situation forced her to face an area of her life that has been an ongoing struggle for years. She has entered a medically supervised liquid diet program involving shakes containing needed nutrients. She is in a group with others who are on this diet and has lost quite a bit of weight during the past few weeks. Donna reports that she has not “cheated” on her diet. Only one other person in her class can say the same. She is seeing the results of her efforts but knows she will be continuing this program for a little while before she can be cleared for surgery.

Donna also knows that, when she can eventually eat again, she’ll face the challenges of having to learn to have a healthy relationship with food. This is something so many struggle with to some extent. Donna still plans to move back to SC once her health is more stable. Meanwhile, in addition to hunger and resisting food temptations on a daily basis, Donna struggles with physical pain and financial stress. She is going through a time of difficult emotions and having to find new ways of coping besides turning to food. She is experiencing a lot of medical expenses and is attending a lot of medical appointments while continuing to work in a profession that, though very rewarding, can also be very stressful. I know that firsthand. It can be hard to take good care of yourself while working so hard to help so many others.

Donna is relying on her faith and the support of her medical team, family, friends, and a network of people who care about her as she is going through these challenges. One extremely healthy thing Donna decided to do, in my opinion, is to share her journey through a blog on the popular Caring Bridge site. Being willing to share about our personal experiences via writing is another thing Donna and I have in common. Putting one’s struggles “out there” in this way requires a level of transparency that can be uncomfortable, at times. Donna and I have talked about how vulnerable it is to let others in on very personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences in this way. We also both agree that doing so can be very healing and powerful for ourselves and our readers. Sharing our truth can be freeing, too. Others may learn about us, but we also learn a lot about ourselves. It also allows us to share how God is working in our lives and the difference real faith makes through “I” messages, which are often met with more openness than “preaching” or “evangelizing.”

I asked Donna if I could write a blog entry about her story. For one thing, those who have read CQ often ask me about people I knew during that time and are interested in updates. More importantly, I wanted to do this because I think what Donna is going through and the choices she is making are important to share. We all have areas of our lives we know we need to give more attention to. Sometimes, circumstances force us to do so in ways that are vastly different from what we might have wanted. At such times, we face hard choices that may be difficult and uncomfortable. Donna has done this and continues to make the choice to pursue her health and wellness each day.

I encourage readers to visit Donna’s “Fast and Furious” blog to get to know her and more of her story and to support her with thoughts and prayers.
http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/fastandfurious