By Chris Hofstader
Notice, the byline on this post is Chris Hofstader. This item is not written by BlindChristian nor is it by any other alter ego like Gonz Blinko, Sy T. Greenbacks or James Blink Secret Agent GGJ. This is all me with the patina of fictional commentator stripped off. This is not an easy item for me to write as it is very personal and dives into areas involving addiction and mental illness. I hope it serves as good reading material and, for anyone who is going through something similar, I am available via email and Skype to talk about such issues. While these issues are very personal, other than the specifics, they are not unique to me so I hope this serves the Blind Confidential readers and anyone else who receives this by email or a repost well.
I find that I struggle to think back on August 2005 with anything but terror as I felt horrible for the entire month. I cannot remember feeling as poorly since I gave up booze and illicit drugs in March 1997. My depression grew so bad that I had to go to a locked ward at Sun Coast psychiatric hospital for a short stint followed by an 8 week outpatient, full day, five day per week program at Windmoor Mental Health Clinic.
I can’t quite recall the order in which the events leading up to the suicidal ideation that brought me to the Sun Coast emergency room occurred during August 2005. Some major events over the previous nine months and longer certainly contributed to the collapse on August 30, coincidentally my wife’s birthday, last year. I left a job I heled and loved for six years due to medical and other personal reasons in November 2004. I spent a long time before that and after trying to find a solution to the extremely painful RSI issues from which I suffered. While working, I had two choices: feel a lot of pain or numb myself with pain killers, neither option works in a position where one thinks, directs and manages for a living. The cognitive impairments caused by pain or Vicadan made work at my level impossible, my injuries had defeated me and I had to stop.
Shortly after leaving, I went through a series of doctors who kept increasing my prescriptions for Vicadan, the heavy pain killer, and Soma, the equally heavy muscle relaxant. I also received heavy steroid injections directly into my spine and the area of the chronic muscle pain. I now understand why so many professional atheletes behave so irrationally – steroids do really horrible things to one’s psychi. I would often burst into tears over a sad event on a stupid television program, let alone the state of my life.
Thus, in the months leading up to August, the opiates and steroids dominated my conciousness which didn’t seem so strange to me as it did to others. Meanwhile, I had a lot of legal problems going on around me with lawsuits threatened that, to me (then as now), made little sense. By August, I felt that I may never work again, the pain had not decreased by much, a lot of people would call me and ask for advice (and you wonder why the AT industry is so fucked up, they would call a certifiable crazy person for ideas) but none seeking wisdom wanted to pay me for my time. I had spent six years working in the blindness biz and few of my mainstream contacts remained intact.
By August 1, I moved almost full time into my bed. I took between 3000 and 4500 milligrams of Vicadan daily. For those of you unfamiliar with opiates, 1 mg of heroin is equal in strength to 10 of morphine which equals 100 of codeine. Codeine is the active ingredient in both Vicadan and Soma so my daily dosage had reached more than a bundle of heroin per day. The damnedest thing, I never got high. I had worked my way up the resistence scale to a point that I never noticed the effects of the drugs, people around me saw that I had become pretty weird but, on the inside, I only felt an increasing darkness surounding me.
At some point during August, I went out fishing with my friends John and Jay. Without knowing it, this very hot, very slow fishing day near Fort DeSoto may have become my last. We did have a good time and I hooked but did not land some of the most desirable fish in our waters. Metaphorically, it fit in perfectly with my month, a bit of leader pulled out, the drag would yell and, suddenly, all would go slack.
I spent a lot of time talking to people on the phone and over Skype that month. I spent a lot of time listening to DVS movies stream from Freedom Box. I rarely showered, my eating habits fell far from healthy but I never missed a pill. I spent most of my time feeling sorry for myself, counting all of the so-called friends who called when I had a big swinging dick job but now ignored my pathetic self. I received a phone call threatening litigation if I continued working on an open source project. I started receiving the heaviest doses of steroids thus far in my treatment plan. By the end of the month, I could not remember the last day in which I didn’t cry my eyes out.
On August 30, poor Susan’s birthday, she went out to some sort of event with the local Democratic Party. I felt that, if I couldn’t work due to pain or drugs, that I couldn’t even help out on open source work, that people watched everything I did, listened to everything I said, I still felt the intense pain no matter how many pills I stuffed, I hadn’t even thought to get my wife a fucking birthday present. I reached the end, I would take every pill in the house and, including all of the codeine, the various psych meds, including benzos, the sleeping pills the NyQuil, I should certainly succeed in doing what seemed to be best for all involve. I would check out.
I hadn’t written a note and wanted to make sure I sent a final “fuck you” to all of the right people and a final loving message to the others. I didn’t feel like writing and fell asleep or at least went into the nod for I don’t remember how long. Susan came home. She came upstairs. I told her that I planned on taking all of the pills. She asked me not to. As it was her birthday, I agreed to postpone any such a decision. Susan hid the pills.
The next morning, we went to the emergency room at Sun Coast and I got admitted for the suicidal ideation. The psychiatrist there immediately Baker Acted me, thus certifying me nuts and, by the law of the State of Florida, required that I remain in the protective custody of this locked psychiatric ward.
Right before I kicked the booze and other drugs back in 1997, I went to Melrose/Wakefield hospital and later to Bornwood Hospital, both in Massachusetts. Melrose/Wakefield is a terrific facility. You get a really good class of nut, really good food and the group sessions always filled us with laughs. My first encounter at Bornwood happened two weeks after I stopped the booze and drugs. I went into a state in which I couldn’t sleep and I started to hallucinate. They brought me to what the patients fondly call, “The Bug Unit.” My wife seemed a little concerned at the 9 inch tall red letters on the door that said, “Keep Locked, Escape Risks.” I told the doctor that I didn’t belong in such a place and pointed to the hole in the wall behind him where all of the roaches were climbing out. There was no hole; there were no bugs. They gave me a very nice pill and put me to bed.
On August 31, 2005, I found myself back in a very similar place. The ward door remained locked 24/7 and one had to get buzzed in or out. There were no carpets, just tile as some of the other inmates were incontenent. The noise level high, the echoes off of the tile loud and the other nuts pretty scary.
First, the people at Sun Coast did what they could to remove all dignity. They took away my cologne as I might decide to drink it. They took away my pajamas, lest I hang myself with the drawstring. They took away my casette player lest someone steal it. They took away my shoes and sheepskin, Gucci loafers and replaced them with foam rubber analogues with smiley faces on them. They took away my ball cap, my belt, my shower gel, my facial scrub, my little ball for washing myself and all other items that one would regard as personel.
Then, they escorted me to my room. The matresses felt like hard phone rubber one might buy in a slab at a hardware store. The pillows were filled with some substance that certainly does not exist in nature. The sheets and blankets clearly had petroleum in their past. I wanted my 300 thread count, Egyptian Cotton designer sheets, my real goose down pillow and my nice comforter. I wanted pajamas made of silk and not the polyesther they gave me. I wanted my silk bathrobe back. I wanted to go home but, when I tried to check out against medical advice, they reminded me that I would remain there under state law as their charge until the psychiatrist approved my dismissal. I went to my bedroom and cried myself to sleep.
The following day, someone woke us up, a nurse practioner spent about a minute with me and said I remained crazy and we nuts gathered in the day room for a miserable breakfast and spent our time until lunch watching Katrina on Fox and CNN. We got our lunch, ate and returned to viewing the television. I asked about things like group sessions and anything therapeutic and they said they had a schedule for such but had to finish other chores before we could get to them. In 72 hours, I spent less than four total in anything resembling a healthy session and spent the rest in the day room watching Americans die on live television while the president said, ”I think Brownie is doing a great job,” from his vacation in Texas.
I made friends with a mentally challenged 19 year old woman who was in for observation pending an arson trial. She seemed harmless to me and, on the day I got to leave, she gave me some pictures she made for me from her coloring book.
One afternoon, while watching Katrina with my illiterate arsonist, the day room phone rang and someone announced the call was for me. To my surprise, after I took the receiver and said hello, I heard a familiar voice say, “Hey Chris, it’s Ted.” He had spoken to Susan and called to cheer me up. Thus, a legend of our industry, a true hall-of-famer, called me in a psychiatric ward to discuss life, business and some issues of a legal nature. This one phone call made a huge difference in my attitude toward everything. Suddenly, the nasty ward seemed profoundly more tolerable and, while I can’t say that time flew by, the remainder of my visit included a bit of hope that hadn’t existed when I arrived.
After getting sprung from the ward, I noticed that the pain in my shoulder had dropped a huge amount. This likely came as a result of the big steroid shots earlier that month which may not have had only poor effects. I stopped taking the big pain killers and switched to Advil. Susan and I went to see “The Aristocrats” and I can’t remember laughing so hard in years. By the time we got home, though, I told Susan that I felt poorly. She touched me and said she had never felt a fever so bad, my lungs were congesting and my head filled with snot. I took some NyQuil and went to bed. All night, I swung between freezing and sweating. I assumed I had caught a nasty flu while on the ward.
The following morning, the sickness really hit. I would either sweat profusely from all over, most especially at the joints or feel so cold that I had to put on a heavy sweatshirt and get under the covers. The auditory hallucinations started. Then the visuals, “It’s a miracle, I can see!”
Anyone who has felt dope sickness knows the rest of the story. Needless to say, I had to return to an emergency room to get the blood pressure evened out and had to spend weeks drinking gallons of water per day. I spent a lot of time in restrooms during September.
A year later, I’m working again. I’m even doing research into aging related disabilities and digging it. I’m working with the guys on Blind Programming on building a tutorial to provide useful information to blinks who want to learn programming in VS .Net 2005. I’m working on some more project proposals for the university. Some of my legal issues followed me into 2006 but haven’t reared their ugly head in quite some time. I can’t say everything is perfect, hell, I’ll find something to complain about in paradise, but no real shit is flying, I have few fears, I’m doing alright no matter what the world or I thought in August 2005.
Our buddy Gabe left a comment on my “Don’t Blame the Victims” item yesterday. In it, he cites the “income of AT vendors” and suggests that they could and should be doing much more investing in development. He suggests that those who defend them on the smaller than Sun, IBM, Apple or Microsoft do so without understanding how the AT companies milk the VR system.
My question in response is to ask Gabe to cite his sources on the income of AT companies. It will be one year and nine months since I left FS tomorrow and I have no access to their top, bottom or any line in between. I don’t know how much debt they are carrying nor what their expenses might be. I know even less about AI^2, GW Micro, Dolphin and Humanware. I do know that Mike Calvo isn’t spending his days smoking chronic, sipping drinks with umbrellas and being surrounded by bathing beauties on his yacht so I don’t think Serotek is rolling in the dough.
So, if these guys have so many spare dollars, how did Gabe learn of it? I thought I got a lot of industry gossip but he must be the master.
Also, even if the AT companies had the bucks to invest in more application support, I would not put Open or Star Office in the top ten list of applications to support. I would first say, get the MS Office suite singing in every feature, every screen, every dialogue and add more augmentations to make the applications work better for blinks who need to work in collaborative projects. Then, I would suggest MS VisualStudio and Eclipse as many blinks make a really good living making software and, if the screen readers worked better with these programs, then I think it will pave a way for the blind hackers to greater opportunities for promotions and greater flexibility in their career options.
I would then focus on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) areas of educational material. Studies show that poor understanding of the STEM subjects among blind students graduating from high school keeps them from studying such in college and, as a result, further narrows their career options. I would encourage the AT companies to work more intensely on audio editting and music software as, while it is a stereotype, many blinks really like this stuff and many use such tools in their jobs.
Now that Microsoft owns and advertises Great Plains accounting and database software, I think the AT vendors should explore working with the boys up in Redmond on making these talk. For years getting a professional accounting job has been nearly impossible for blinks as virtually none of the vendors of the software cares a wit about accessibility. Intuit is nearly hostile toward blind people and AT companies but I have heard a few blinks have been able to square peg QuickBooks into something JAWS can sort of work with. Thus, for businesses large or small to hire blind bookkeepers and accountants is nearly impossible today.
Then, following my dream list, the AT vendors would go in and figure out to provide 100% accessibility for every application they advertise they work with. If they had such money, I’m sure they would have already done so.
Next, I would suggest that AT companies do some hardcore UI research to hopefully make screen readers less one-dimensional and, hopefully, improve a users efficiency so they can grow to be more productive in this very competitive work environment.
After all of that is done and in the box, they can start working on the next versions of all of the stuff I mentioned above so the blinks can keep their jobs when the products they currently need are upgraded. If they can accomplish all of these things that blind people really need, then they should consider a second or third office suite.
The reality is that any of these AT companies could have profoundly larger development budgets and still not find that Open or Star Office is a high priority. We have MS Office and it works really very well with most AT. Sure, in an ideal world, Star and Open Office would be nice, I would enjoy having more choices over which products I buy. The pragmatist in me, though, says lets get as many job oriented categories covered as broadly as possible and then work on the competition issue. Sure, freedom of choice would be nice and, as I mentioned in the article that drew Gabe’s comment, no one is stopping Sun and its two former FS employees from writing the scripts or using the JAWS API DLL to build in accessibility for their programs. They have the tools, they have appropriately skilled employees, they really want to see this done, they do, by the way, still have boatloads more money than FS or GW and they should shut up, stop whining and, if they truly want accessibility, DIY!