‘I TOLD you, I’m blind. I can’t anymore.’ His response surprised me. ‘So?’ My new life began.’: Man shares journey learning to live visually impaired, ‘Fail, get up, keep moving forward’

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Designed for failure, fighting for success — I want to talk about something I’ve never talked about before on here. It’s a bit of my story I really hate talking about. But these things are a part of my journey, and often the lowest parts of our paths are also what shape us into who we are today.

When I was young, I was extremely internally motivated. At age 11, I had my own lawn care business and spent most days of the week taking care of yards in my neighborhood. I also couldn’t help but be attracted to high-intensity physical activity. Things like BMX, soccer, paintball, and weight lifting. I was gifted in strength and quickly became quite talented at most anything physical I tried. I was motivated and highly independent for my age. Growing up next to Tulsa’s airport, I watched the Air National Guard practice formations every day. I remember telling my parents all I wanted to be was a fighter pilot! You couldn’t have told me otherwise. Funny how things can change so suddenly. 

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At age 12, in the middle of soccer season, I began experiencing pain in my hip that was so intense I remember feeling delirious from the 10/10 on the pain charts. After a few days of tests, I was told I had an infection in my hip joint. The strain? MRSA. At this point, my temperature had been nearing 107 degrees Fahrenheit and my body was becoming increasingly septic. I was rushed to emergency surgery and spent a few weeks in the hospital. I spent the next several months slowly getting feeling back in my leg and learning to walk properly again. Little did I know, this would become my introduction into what would be a life full of trials. 

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Fast forward to age 14. I began the slow process of losing my sight. It only took approximately 6 months for my vision to get to where it is today, however, it was only the beginning of years of doctor’s appointments and testing. Nobody knew what was happening. Even the so-called ‘best of the best’ eye care specialist couldn’t tell me what was going on. They checked for everything. CT scans for the eyes, MRI’s for tumors that could be pressing on my optic nerves, blood tests for any known eye diseases that came back negative…. And many more tests for things I didn’t even understand. Nothing gave us any answers. I remember one doctor finally came into the patient room and began explaining to my parents that this was all in my head. Simply a case of stress.‘Was I invisible?’

Listening to this doctor speak his ‘dribble,’ which was complete bullsh*t, I remember thinking, ‘Was this guy so unsure of what to say he would come up with something like stress to tell us? At least you could tell me instead of my parents.’ We would only return to this doctor one last time in which he said, ‘We don’t know what’s going on, all we can tell you is that it’s time to start thinking about this being a life long set back. There is nothing else we can do.’ This would become the last time I went to an eye doctor regarding this matter.

After all was said and done, I sat in my room wondering what the next steps would be. ‘I guess being a pilot is a no go now,’ I thought to myself. But if not that, then what would I do? Driving was out of the question — hell, I didn’t even know how to continue doing school. I spent years trying to re-learn how to navigate life again; my education became a balance of learning just enough to get by in life and a self-taught crash course on how to be visually impaired.

We tried a private school that my mother worked at. However, the teachers did not believe that I couldn’t see the books that they would put in front of me. I remember telling my mom, ‘You can ground me for the rest of my life, but I refuse to go back to that school.’ So, we ended up continuing to do school at home. Seemingly, this was working out fine. I knew I needed to figure out what the next step was for me in life. In order to be independent once again, we reached out to the Oklahoma school for the blind. At this point, I was 18 years old, a senior in high school.

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In my first couple of days at the school for the blind, I was subjected to quite a few tests. Embarrassing tests that consisted of making sure I was mentally adept. Things like, how many pieces of cereal can you get onto a spoon.They wanted to check if I was handicapped mentally in any way. After a couple of days of mind-numbing testing that lasted all day long, despite my ability to do school at a senior level, they determined that because there were no documents suggesting as such, that I would have to start over again as a freshman. I told my parents I couldn’t bring myself to endure another four years of school, most of which I already knew. This would be the end of my academic career. 

As I mentioned earlier, BMX and paintball were big parts of my life. But when I got the diagnosis of ‘Optic Neuropathy of Unknown Origin,’ and that it was a permanent fixture in my life, I couldn’t understand how continuing to do these types of things would be possible. I’ll never forget the last game of paintball I played. I was with my dad attempting to play despite only being able to see clearly through my right eye. As you might imagine, doing an accuracy based sport with limited vision was difficult, to say the least. If I peeked out of the left side of the protection I was hiding behind I had to stick my entire head out in order to use my right eye to find my dad’s position. After the game, we sat down in silence. With my head towards the ground I told my dad, ‘This is the last time I’ll be able to play, soon my right eye will lose its vision too and I’ll be forced to quit. At least this way I’ll always have the memory of my last game being with you.’ BMX would be soon to follow. 

I had been riding BMX with my best friend, Beau. He lived just a few houses down from me. When we first met he was four years old, I myself was just six years of age. So we spent most of our young lives together riding bikes and working on the tricks we saw the pros doing. Beau and I always had a strong bond, just as significant as my blood brothers. I trusted him with my life, and I know he felt similarly. Later on, Beau would move to a different neighborhood and our time together became less and less. Years went by. I lost my vision, I played the last game of paintball, and all I had still was my bike — the bike Beau gave to me — the same bike a guy at the skatepark gave to Beau after breaking his arm on it. It was a Yellow Hoffman Rhythm. The first thing he did when he got the bike was call me: ‘Dude, I have a bike for you! Let’s go ride!’ That same bike I had my last ride on.

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I wanted to maintain some level of independence and with my vision quickly going sideways, the fear of going out on my own became increasingly vivid. One day I figured I would try to ride up to the corner store and get a drink. I wanted to prove to myself I could still do the same things I once did. I don’t think I made it past three houses before I ran into the back of a parked car. There was a group of people on the other side of the street laughing. As I lay there thinking, ‘I knew this would happen; you don’t belong on a bike anymore.’ I hung my bike up in our garage and didn’t ride it again for years. One day my dad asked me if he could give my bike to a young kid who wanted a bike but didn’t have the money for one. I told him, ‘sure, I can’t use it anyway.’ This was the last time I’d ride BMX, or so I thought. 

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Throughout this timeline, my long time friend Nic started working at the climbing gym. We’ve known each other our whole lives, so he had been there while I went through this huge life change. Nic, like Beau, was a brother, a person I entrusted with the most intimate details of my life. He has definitely seen my highest of highs, and my lowest points. Nic played most of the same sports I did. We played on the same soccer teams, paintball teams, and even road bikes, and trained together. So when he started climbing, he mentioned how much fun he was having at the climbing gym all the time, constantly asking me to give it a try, saying, ‘You don’t need to be able to see to climb.’ At the time I had the mindset that, of all things, climbing seemed to be one of those that you needed to be able to see to do, but my interest had peaked. One day I decided to go check it out with him… He was right! Nic quickly became the first person I knew as a climbing sight guide. With his guidance, I learned to navigate the vertical world by listening to him call the hand and footholds I needed to ascend the gym walls. 

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However, being raised in a family of five siblings, money was tight, and the local climbing gym only accepted yearly memberships at the time. After asking my parents for a membership they said it would be a neat idea, but there just wasn’t enough money for that. So, I had to let the idea of climbing go. Back to the life of not knowing, waiting, hoping… something had to work out, right? Years went by. I slowly got back in the groove of things, becoming braver, and learning how to operate in a world designed for the sighted. But the memories of that day at the climbing gym never left my mind. 

One day, many years later, I was in the front yard of my house and I heard the unmistakable sound of a BMX cassette wheel hub clicking as it got closer. I heard my name, not knowing who was approaching me. I asked, ‘who is it?’ I was greeted with a voice I didn’t remember, an excited quick, ‘Dude, it’s Beau!’ came before I had a chance to finish my question. We sat down and I caught up with him up on everything that had happened, explaining my sudden vision loss and the time I spent in my room wishing for this journey of mine to end. I’ve never forgotten the first words that came out of his mouth: ‘Do you want to go ride?’

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I sat there speechless for a brief moment; I couldn’t believe after I finished telling him how I couldn’t see, he would have the audacity to suggest such a thing. I said to him, ‘I just told you I’m blind now. I gave my bike away, I can’t ride anymore.’ His response surprised me: ‘So?’ He said with an honest inflection, ‘I’m sure we could figure it out. I could call out where things were and we could develop a system to make it work,’ he explained. It struck me. I remembered that day at the climbing gym, the day I learned how to adapt and learn ways to work around my blindness.

I said to him, It sounds possible, but I don’t have my bike anymore.’ He said, ‘I have a spare bike at my house. If you want to try it, we can go right now.’ Almost immediately I said yes. I ran inside and explained to my mom what I was going to do. ‘Mom,’ I said, ‘I’m going to ride bikes again with Beau!’ Her response couldn’t have been any more fitting. She said, ‘Okay! Just don’t die.’ She of course knew where I was in life and knew this was a breakout moment for me. I’m sure she had her fears, but as a mother watching her son go through hell and back, she was excited to hear that I was going to be trying to live again. And so it began, my journey learning to conquer my fears and build the mental fortitude I’d need to become the world champion climber I am today. I just didn’t know this at the time. For now, all I knew was, This is the start of my new life, a life unhinged by fear and doubt. I was going to live again. 

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‘It’s as easy as riding a bike,’ or so they say. But what if you could only use your peripheral vision to navigate? Riding at speed was terrifying. The growing pains of learning to react quickly and listen sharply for Beau’s directions was just that: painful. This really was life and death at this point. The more comfortable I got on the bike the more confidence I gained. But if fear is the mind-killer, confidence must be the booze of the foolish. Becoming too lax in our systems definitely got me into some trouble. Running into cars, signs, and random objects became the norm. Shoot, I’d even fall off tall curbs I didn’t realize were there. Over time, I learned that growth was going to be uncomfortable. I believe this was the tipping point for me. Beau brought something back into my life with BMX, girt. Fail, get up, keep moving forward… no matter what. This journey is what prepared me for the life I am fortunate to have today. Traveling the world as a professional rock climber and experiencing an entirely new reality, unhinged by the fear of failure.”

Courtesy of Justin Salas

This story was submitted to Love What Matters  by Justin Salas. You can follow his journey on Instagram, Youtube, and the Team Salas Media Instagram. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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