"To admit herself to the hospital, "the ophthalmologist Teji Trethwan told after some tests. She was almost immediately diagnosed with glaucoma. A common eye condition in which the optic nerve is damaged due to the accumulation of fluid in the eye that causes pressure, it is most often detected in adults between the ages of 70 and 80. But she was barely fifty, and that's when Tiggy Trethowan began a daring journey to create a visual memory bank.

 Edited  by |ANNA sam 

Life &Style   section -  CJ journalist

Inner Hebrides, Scotland - April,2,2023

   Glaucoma can run in families, but no one in mine had suffered from it. The risk of the condition occurring can also be increased by short- or long-sightedness. But I had had 20/20 vision all my life.

I’d been living the dream, earning good money as a freelance television producer. My summers were spent event managing the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, and my winters working on survival programs and traveling the world. I owned a beautiful barn conversion in the Somerset village of Draycott. I never even imagined things going wrong.

Frightened as I was, at first I was reassured that glaucoma was highly treatable. And for most people it is. What I didn’t know then, 15 years ago, was that mine was a very rare form that would, eventually, rob me of my vision completely in both eyes.

The first stage was disturbingly quick: within two weeks I had lost all sight in my right eye. Then began the battle to save what remained in my left. I underwent 10 operations: trabeculectomies, which improve the drainage of fluid out of the eye, laser treatment, cataract surgery - anything that could possibly make a difference. But in my case, it did not. I was - I am - going blind.

Every time I returned to the doctor’s, I would tell them: “It’s getting worse.” To my dismay, they would agree.

So I decided to do something about it. My sight could not be saved, and this knowledge was devastating, but visual memories could be preserved, so I set about building a visual memory bank. It started during the pandemic when one of my chickens trotted out one day with 12 or 13 chicks in tow and I thought, as I observed them: I must make a memory of this.

What began close to home then became a journey that would span countries and continents. Since then, I have flown to South America to visit Patagonia and the Galápagos Islands. I have taken a trip around Iceland. I have even visited Antarctica.

But I’ve also returned to places closer to home: to Jura in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland, where I did my first job in 1975; to a beach in Cornwall, where I grew up, which can no longer be accessed due to health and safety concerns, and to which my friends managed to convey me despite this. And in every place, near and far, I have taken mental snapshots of sights I will never physically see again but can now evoke in my mind whenever I wish to.

I have a lovely visual memory from the Galápagos Islands of the time I left my rucksack on a bench and strolled on down to the sea, only for an angry sea lion to flop onto the shore, look at me in horror, flop up to my bench, knock my rucksack off it and lie down and go to sleep there. From Antarctica, I have collected, among others, a visual memory of the blowhole of a humpback whale, which I spotted from a boat when the creatures surrounded us. The blowhole was unforgettable - the size of a small family car - and I photographed it in my head, blinking and making a kind of “click”, as I always do when capturing a mental image for the future.

It isn’t only the visual I savor. The rest of the senses become so much more important when sight deteriorates: the smell, the feel, the taste, the sound, all are heightened and become part of what I remember. I can still smell the marvelous stench of the carpet of sea iguanas I walked through in the Galápagos Islands.

I have taken these trips with a dear friend of mine, and all on a fairly tight budget. We took a fishing boat to Antarctica for about £200, a fraction of the price tourists would usually pay to reach it. But then, I haven’t had the means to travel in style.

After my diagnosis, for a while, my life fell apart. I hadn’t wanted to admit the truth to myself or others, but eventually, I had to give up pretending at work that I wasn’t going blind and I quit my job. I had to sell my lovely home and move into a flat above a farmhouse. I became reliant on disability payments and the small amount of money my late mother had left me. It was like a bomb had hit me, shattering both my physical and mental health.

For a long time after realizing my vision could not be saved, I felt very angry and low. I hated people asking me about my sight loss. Moving from the exciting world of television to a disabled world required major adjustments, both mentally and physically.

If it wasn’t for my accountant, who phoned me every morning and told me to get out of bed, I might very well have stayed in a pit of despair. The stress was immense but I realized I had a choice: I could either give up, or I could turn it around. So I paid my debts with the money from the sale of my house, downsized my life, and accepted my career was over. The next chapter was beginning, and it didn’t need to be gloomy.

Aged 65, I currently have six percent of my vision remaining in my left eye. It’s like being inside a steamy shower, with small patches in the glass you can still see through. Or like peering through a camouflage net, composed of a mixture of leaves and gaps through which the outside world can be glimpsed. I have become face-blind, so I don’t recognize anyone unless I see them in context, which can be embarrassing.

But I’ve retained my independence with the help of my guide dog Jackie, who’s been with me since 2018. I can get around my flat and village, and I still visit London regularly, even alone if needs be, because of the confidence Jackie gives me. The charity Guide Dogs have been incredibly supportive throughout my journey and recently sent me on an assault course to add to my visual memory list.

I still have good days and bad days, of course, but what I have gained is acceptance. I keep myself busy, perhaps because I’m afraid of stopping and analyzing my situation. But when life takes a turn like mine has, you have a choice: you can either retreat beneath your duvet, or you can get back on the horse.

Unlike those born blind, I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the gift of sight for five decades and more. I’ve been lucky to build up a reserve of visual memories. I’ve been to hell and back and my life is smaller now; but in many ways, I am happier. Sight loss can be life-limiting, but it doesn’t need to be life-shortening. And I know that when my vision is gone completely, I’ll always have the sights I have captured in my mind’s eye.

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