I entered Becky’s office on a sunny morning and immediately felt her warmth wrap around me. Her guide dog Georgina, or “Georgie,” wagged her tail as we found a cozy place to talk. We made our way upstairs as Becky greeted everyone in the office and entryway, and found a quiet room.
Becky Andrews has a condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, a condition causing retinal degeneration. Over the course of her lifetime, Becky has slowly watched her vision narrow and deteriorate. At the beginning of our interview, she handed me some goggles to put on and said, “This is what I can see now.” The majority of the goggle lens was black, except for a tiny, 1 cm fuzzy circle I could see through. I could barely make out her face across from me. As we talked that morning, so many words and thoughts spoke directly to my soul. One being that, as we went throughout the interview, I realized that by being able to see, sometimes I was the one with a disability. Our vision is so easily accessed. We see without even trying. And sometimes being able to see can often “blind us” from noticing everything else around us.
Since our interview, I’ve tried several days to focus solely on tapping into my other senses: appreciating the way the laundry aisle of the grocery store smelled, the way the sunlight bounced off my windshield and warmed my skin while driving home from the park and the way that made me feel, the sounds of my family laughing and singing around the piano on a Sunday evening, the salty taste of kissing a tear off of Ellie’s cheeks as she sought comfort. What a beautiful world it can be when we start to live more in the moment and recognize all that is happening around us.
I know you’ll enjoy this interview.
Tell my readers a little bit about your family.
My husband Steve and I grew up in Cache Valley. We moved to Salt Lake area about 25 years ago. We raised our family in Centerville and have been here in Bountiful for about 12 years. Steve and I and our kids Natalie and Kendall all graduated from Utah State University. Natalie received an MBA from University of San Diego and now lives in Washington D.C. and is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Kendall is in Hawaii and he’s working on his Masters Degree in International Relations.
When the kids were little, I had to quit driving. At first it felt like my world was shrinking. I wanted them to have all the opportunities and know the world was big in spite of the challenges of transportation and getting them to their many activities. So now when they’re on the other ends of the country and I think, Oh I wish you were both closer… I realize it’s just what I wanted them to do: to explore and to know they could do whatever and go wherever they wanted to go.
Tell me a little bit about Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) and when that all began for you? Also, describe your first reaction after hearing the news.
[From Becky’s book, Look Up, Move Forward: My Journey of Losing Vision and Finding Resilience]
“It was Halloween. As usual, I was carrying a flashlight. As usual, it was bigger than the flashlight I’d carried the year before, proof of my parents’ diligent efforts to find something to help me see better at night. We didn’t know why I had poor night vision… There were bumps in the sidewalk I couldn’t see and porch steps that seemed to materialize from nowhere. During the day, I had 20/20 vision, as confirmed by many trips to the ophthalmologist, but things just seemed to disappear in the dark. A few years earlier, at my first dance review, I panicked when we had to run backstage after our number. I couldn’t understand how the other girls could possibly know where to go in that pitch dark, but somehow they all seemed to manage just fine… I had a nagging, come-and-go kind of feeling that something wasn’t quite right. I often wondered critically, What is wrong with me?”
It wasn’t until college and dating my husband now, that I was finally diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. “As the disease progresses, the cones, responsible for central vision and color perception, would be affected, leading to tunnel vision and ultimately, complete vision loss.
“Suddenly, my childhood challenges made sense—the missed volleyballs and softballs, the terrifying darkness after dance reviews, the clumsy award at Girls’ Camp, and my confusion about how others detected an oncoming handshake. The diagnosis was more of a relief than a burden. I knew why I’d never seen the stars and why I hated haunted houses. Suddenly, the past made sense. And while the future sounded rather grim, it seemed awfully far away.
“Though the long-term outcome was unsettling, the gift of understanding the past countered my concern for the future. Steve [my husband now] listened compassionately, with characteristic interest and kindness. He was respectful, and I felt that he cared about me as he really listened. The news didn’t seem to bother him, and certainly didn’t seem to change his feelings for me.
“Those few moments taught me so much about Steve Andrews—especially in contrast to the reactions of other men I had dated. Some guys brushed off my life-changing news as inconsequential; others made awkward comments, unsure how to respond. One guy even made a disparaging joke about Helen Keller (and permanently crossed himself off my list.) I remembered Steve’s even-keeled, take-it-in-stride approach with gratitude, but had no idea how much that gift of acceptance and support would sustain me in the years to come.”
I was in love with Steve at the time, and it did feel like I didn’t know a lot about that world of RP, but I knew we could take it on together. I think some of the realities of RP and adjustments happened much later. But at first, the diagnosis was almost kind of a relief; like, I’m not just clumsy… now I know.
Describe to me the emotional journey you’ve been through with this condition. Do you still go through emotional ups and downs?
Gradually losing your vision can be a process of transitions and learning new ways to do things. I have experienced varied emotions as my vision has decreased yet have always found the joy and beauty in life. I recognized early on that if I would let RP be my teacher I could learn and grow through this experience of vision loss. There have been some turning points that have helped me make those transitions and learn the skills I needed to maintain an active lifestyle.
One of the turning points for me was a day after I had quit driving. I was walking home from a friend’s house and watching for the kids to come home from school. I was walking along just fine and then wham, I walked right smack into a stop sign. Where did that come from? After getting up from being knocked down and with blood flowing, it was one of the moments where I knew I had to stop and look at what I had to do differently. The next day I called the Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired and started that process of mobility training so I could be safe. Over time you kind of have things you gradually need to adjust to. That’s a real life changer because you learn everything in a blindfold. I wasn’t ever afraid of blindness, but I knew I had a lot to learn. I knew there was a way to do things, but I needed to learn how. Going through that training was an amazing experience. I was learning new ways to open the doors that I felt were closing in my life.
In my cooking class at the blind center we learned how to make lemon meringue pie. I was so proud of this pie. Using my cane, and taking the bus home, I carried the pie in this box. I was so proud of my new skills, tapping along with my cane, and box in hand, I hurried home to share it with my family. When I opened up the box, the pie was basically soup. I realized with taking the bus and getting home from the center, this pie had been on quite a journey.
This experience was symbolic to me of how life is about the journey. It didn’t matter that this pie couldn’t be cut in nice slices and served up. We enjoyed the pie for what it represented and the effort it took to make the pie, and for the courage it took to go to the Center. Still to this day, when I’m served lemon meringue pie, I go back to that experience because it’s such a good reminder to me. I missed being the carpool mom and doing some of those things, but I had to change my perspective. I had to shift where I was going to have those conversations with my kids. I wasn’t going to have those conversations as they were piling into the car and we were going somewhere. I could find different ways to have those connections.
I love that. And I bet your kids have helped you with those transitions too.
I’m so grateful for my kids because they’ve inspired me to do so many things. That deep love we have for our kids helps us to be brave. There were so many times where I got out of my fear because I wanted to be engaged with my kids and wanted them to know I was going to participate in life. Those early times when that felt super scary, they really were my motivation and my drive to do tough stuff. They grew up knowing you just find a way. They are remarkable caring adults now.
One time in Jamaica, we signed up to do a zipline. I was so scared, and my kids were reassuring me the whole time. “You’ll be fine!” We got to the place where they gave us instructions and did the training, and the guide was saying, You’ve got to see when you’re getting close so you can holler out to us. Inside, I was thinking, Oh good, I got my out. And all the sudden I hear this voice, and it’s my son saying, “My mom’s blind. What accommodations can you make for her?” That’s been somewhat of our family motto: just finding a way. Whether it’s going to grad school, or whatever it is in your life, it’s possible to find a way to do what you want to do.
I love how your kids have become such a big motivation in your life. Do you have anyone else who you admire who has been a big motivation to you, or any books you’ve read that have helped you?
Many of my heroes are those people who are close to me who through their example each day demonstrate love, compassion, and making a difference in the world. My husband is one who has always found that ability to encourage and support me and not see my disability as something other than just part of who I am. I admire his love and respect for me. He is my biggest fan. Certainly my parents are two people I admire. They have been an example to me of love, compassion, courage and making a difference in the world their whole lives. My children are both two that have shown great courage, compassion and resiliency in their lives. Three of my dearest friends, Brenda, Suzette and Alanna, come to mind. They’re a great example to me of love, support, kindness and true friendship. We have run lots of miles and marathons together with me tethered to one of them as my guides. They are true heroes.
Another friend Julie comes to mind. Julie has had many health challenges yet is one of the most positive people that I know. She shows such courage and no matter when I call her she is engaged and such an amazing listener. She is an incredible friend.
The puppy raisers from Guide Dogs for the Blind are my heroes. They take these puppies into their homes at a very young age and love and train them for over a year knowing that they will be returning them to Guide Dogs for the Blind. It is such an inspiring gift of service. They lovingly care for them knowing that they will say goodbye for these puppies to have a greater purpose and cause. Such incredible service, love, and making a difference in someone else’s lives. I have been close to each of my guide’s puppy raisers. The Kelloggs, Kim, Libby are my heroes.
So I guess I can’t think of a famous “hero” that comes to mind, but I think about all these people around me who have been there for me at different times in my life and been an example of courage in their own life, and who have reminded me that I could do it, and I could believe in myself.
What has been the most challenging part of dealing with loss of sight? And how has this trial made you stronger?
The most challenging part is coordinating transportation. There are those thoughts of, Oh, it’d be so nice to just hop into a car and get somewhere. Or, “Okay Steve, what time do you need to leave today? Can we go together? Do I need to call an Uber or take a cab?” Sometimes that can be hard, but really it’s just become a way of life and it’s not that big of a deal.
As a blind person with a guide dog you take on the role of advocate and educator. There have been times of not being allowed access where I have had to educate about the Americans with Disabilities Act. Early on I learned this and realized I could do so in a positive, assertive way that hopefully will make a difference. I’ve found out how to enjoy things in different ways; almost sometimes in deeper ways. There’s nothing like being able to stand with someone and have them describe the sunset to you. I have a picture of my daughter and me at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and even though I can’t quite see the picture, it means so much because she was there with that “emotional cry…” that cry when you’re so happy for someone else, that you can’t hold it back. That picture means a lot and reminds me of love and to make sure I’m supporting other people that way. There are not many things I miss. I just have to be creative and find other ways of doing things. I can’t really imagine life any different and certainly don’t wait for a cure or treatment.
My life is so full and so beautiful. I have deep relationships that I value. I think I’ve gained a real compassion for people. Experiencing struggle and re-learning how to do things differently has given me a deep appreciation and gratitude for life. Waking up each day is a joy. I think it’s really blessed my life. It’s a choice we all have.
I distinctly remember a morning Steve was leaving for work and I was sitting on the front porch. It was a summer morning, the kids were young and still sleeping, and it hadn’t been too long since I had begun to learn to use my cane. Steve was going to work and I was just feeling like, This isn’t what I thought. This feels different. Cars were driving by, and I thought, What am I going to do with my kids today? It was one of those moments when I had a distinct shift. I remember thinking, You can be bummed out about it. You can focus on what you’ve lost. Or you can shift and look at what you have and what you can make of your life. By the time the kids got up, I had my courage back, and we took the bus to meet up with Steve for lunch and had a good adventure downtown Salt Lake.
It was one of those days I still remember, where I consciously made that choice to decide to show up and learn some things from my situation. Once I made that shift and opened up to what life could teach me, suddenly I was having amazing learning experiences. The kindness of people is remarkable. If you’re walking with a guide dog, you experience that on a regular basis. There has been an added level of kindness that I feel like I get to witness every day.
I am interested in what you’re doing now. What are you involved with and how are you using your experiences to help others today?
I am a licensed clinical mental health counselor. Eleven years ago Steve and I opened up an individual, marriage and family practice: Resilient Solutions, Inc. Our office has grown from 2 therapists to 14. This was my dream and I am grateful for it everyday.
My goal at that time was to have a place where people could walk in and know it was a safe and beautiful space for them to heal. I wanted a space where there was support for not only the clients, but for the therapists who worked here. I felt like if I had that as our mission, people would come. My business model was one where I wanted to give back and have my practice be a positive and uplifting atmosphere. There’s a strong group of therapists who are passionate about their work and about each other. They want to make a difference, and people come here to get professional guidance and support and to work through tough times.
Each of my colleagues has varied specialties. My specialties include grief and loss. I am one of three fellow thanatologists in the state of Utah. I also work with clients who are experiencing life transitions, chronic illness, trauma and anxiety and depression. I’m also a certified positive psychology life coach, which gives me the opportunity to really work with clients’ strengths and help them see how they can utilize their strengths to find their resilience in difficult times.
I knew how much in my own life connecting with others experiencing vision loss had helped me. So, I have always wanted to make sure we offer groups that help others not feel alone. The power of ‘me too’ can be such a helpful part of one’s healing. Some examples of the groups at Resilient Solutions are: a mom’s group for moms who have had a child die, other grief groups so people can come together with others who can understand their loss, educational evenings and groups for those who are experiencing anxiety and depression and even a course for people just wanting to improve their skills in learning to be positive and resilient. We also offer annual events such as a mother’s day lunch for moms who have had a child die. This is a special space for mom’s to come.
This year we have expanded our retreats offering three so far called: Daring to Own Your Story. Women have come from across the country for these events and are now connecting with each other and supporting each other in their journeys. My colleagues Nicole Wall, LCMHC and Lisa Bradford, LCSW and myself are busy planning next year’s retreats. Two of these groups were all women who were blind or visually impaired.
Define “resilience” in your own terms. What qualities do you think make a “strong” woman?
I love this necklace I’m wearing. It represents “strong” to me. The charm has a beautiful, sturdy, round surface with the word “love” engraved on it, and then this fragile part to it with the chain. To me, a strong woman carries that balance where she’s authentic, she’s compassionate, she’s caring, she’s vulnerable but yet she also has that grit, determination, and she brings others along with her. I don’t think a strong woman happens by herself. I think that’s really important. I feel like that’s the space I’m in in life, really appreciating all the people who have helped me become what I hope is a strong, resilient woman. And now I want to turn around to help others. I think we need each other as women and that connection is so important.
What are things you do today to strengthen your mental, spiritual, and physical health?
I teach this to my clients each day so I know how important taking care of ourselves is. We really can’t give to others if we don’t have the energy. So, I make an effort each day to make sure that I have scheduled in time for me and for what helps me be healthy. Sometimes when the week is very hectic and some long days/nights ahead I make sure there is a day of rest scheduled in as well. My day usually starts with some quiet time – meditation and prayer before a run with my friends. I love that connection. Checking in with myself and my values is helpful to me. Am I spending time on what I say matters? My husband and I love to tandem bike. That’s one of our things we do together. We joke that it’s our date night. I value those things and realize that I can help others best when I’ve filled my tank a little bit first.
Tell me about Georgie, your guide dog?
Georgie, or Georgina her official name, is my third guide dog. She is amazing and such a beautiful friend and help to me. Georgie goes almost everywhere with me. She navigates crossing streets, weaving around people, helping me find things (find the door, find the elevator, find the escalator…), or identifying change in elevations. The list goes on of what these remarkable guides do for us. I have walked with a guide dog for 19 years. One of our favorite stories is when my family picked me up for my graduation 19 years ago and we were returning to the airport my kids were having a hard time keeping up with me. I remember them skipping alongside of me through the airport. Steve said to Natalie, mom’s got her pace back. I am so grateful to Guide Dogs for the Blind and how having a guide dog has expanded my life. I am comfortable going anywhere because of my guide dogs. My guides and I have traveled all over the country independently.
Tell me about your book, “Look up, Move Forward,” and what its main message is.
After being awarded as American Mother of Achievement by American Mothers Association, several people kept asking me if I had a book. At first I laughed and then the thought wouldn’t leave my mind. I realized that I wanted to share my story. Perhaps it could help someone else in his or her journey.
There have been so many rewarding experiences from sharing my story and writing this book. The little things like coming home and having a note left on the door letting me know how much someone appreciated my book has made it worth it. I really wrote it with the hope of helping one person. Then if it helps another person, that’s great. I think sometimes people can see just the tip of the iceberg in the “bio” version. But I wanted my book to be real. I didn’t want to seem like this “super person,” and I was able to explain my struggles along the journey; that I was getting “American Mother of the Year,” yet also grieving a new loss. The idea is that we’re all juggling highs and lows. At the back of the book I wrote some discussion points for it be used in book clubs. I love when I get an email or a phone call from someone telling me it has been read in their book club. The opportunity to sit down with a group of women and share our moments of brave and showing up have been remarkable.
I love Helen Keller’s quote about a bend in the road. She says, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road…Unless you fail to make the turn.” We get these bends in the road, and we run into a challenge if we don’t make the turn. I think RP forced me to make some turns, or else I was going to bang into a stop sign. And those turns have been an amazing journey. Once I decided to make those turns, I realized there’s this whole different journey I had a chance to experience.
To order her book you can go to: http://www.resilientsolutionsinc.com/look-up-move-forward.html, King's English Bookstore in Salt Lake City, Amazon for the print and kindle version, or Barnes and Noble for the Nook Version.
Interviewed: October 10, 2016. Interview edited and approved by Becky Andrews, prior to release.