The Role of Peak Experiences in the Rehabilitation Process
Written in 1999
When I was in graduate school at Western Michigan University I first learned the meaning of the phrase, “I WAS REHABILITATED!” That phrase is written in all caps with exclamation points flying. The occasion that prompted me to utter these words was my first goalball tournament.
I had been blind for less than two years at the time of that tournament. I lost a lot more than my vision in 1982. I lost many activities that I thought would never be replaced. Competitive sports was one of them. When I could see I competed in lots of sports, whitewater kayaking, soccer, and fencing a few of them. I thought competitive sports a lost cause along with my vision. My experience at Western Michigan University gave me a lot more than a higher education. My first day on campus I met Dr. Paul Ponchillia. I’m not sure but I think I recall Paul asking me on that very first day in his office if I liked competitive sports. Flashing back to my days as a sighted competitor in various sports I replied, “yes.” My next thought went something like, “yeh, but that was when I could see.” “Why are you asking me that question now?” I don’t know for sure but I think Paul probably smiled a smug smile while making plans to get me on the goalball court.
Goalball was developed after World War II. As those who had served in the war began returning with new blindness and visual impairments it was soon recognized that a rehabilitation program which offered these individuals the opportunity to learn new ways of doing old tasks was essential. Recreation was recognized as an integral part of the rehabilitation process. It was during this time that the profession of blind rehabilitation began to take shape. Cane travel and methods of performing tasks of daily living were formalized.
Goalball was born in response to the need for recreational activities. It is played indoors on a court the size of a volleyball court. The boundaries of the court may be felt with hands, feet, or knees. There are three players on each team and the ball has a bell in it which can be heard when the ball moves. The point of the game is to roll the ball past the opponent’s goal line. It has developed into a rough and highly competitive game played on the International level.
In my first tournament I once again learned the thrill of competing before a gymnasium full of cheering spectators. Of course this cheering had to be curtailed as each point was played because there must be absolute silence in order for the players to hear the ball as it is rolled down the court. Once again I felt the tension of a closely contested game. Once again I felt the adrenaline rush of scoring and blocking that I had felt in soccer. Once again I felt the thrill of a whistle blow which meant the game was over and my team had won. My teammates and I yelled and hugged each other. A gold medal was placed around my neck and we were interviewed by a reporter from a local magazine. Once again I felt the satisfaction of honest sweat and sore muscles. I WAS REHABILITATED!
The process of rehabilitation, as I learned it at Western Michigan University, consists of building skill upon successive skill. Each successive skill contributes to the building of confidence and competence. So how can one event be said to “rehabilitate” an individual? There are events which may be recognized as “peak experiences” in all of our lives. And, although the phrase may suggest it, there is not one discrete event which constitutes rehabilitation. In fact, I have had several of these rehabilitative experiences since I’ve been blind. So, can these experiences be manufactured? Can we set up an experience designed to give that rush of power and feeling of competence? I do not know the answer to that question but it certainly seems one worth pursuing.
When I think of these peak experiences in my own life it is quickly apparent that they have occurred while engaged in recreational pursuits. Is this the only arena in which these kinds of experiences manifest themselves? I doubt it. Perhaps a closer look at the experiences might reveal common threads or elements.
Several years ago I had the privilege of singing Handel’s “Judas Macabaeus.” This is a truly beautiful choral work which recounts the story of Judas Macabaeus’ leadership of Israel to freedom from Syria. I don’t read braille music so I had to braille the entire work using a kind of musical shorthand I have developed over the years. A great deal of the work I had to simply memorize. I spent many many hours with the music outside of formal rehearsals. During the last performance I felt as one with the other individuals who were singing this marvelous work. I had memorized the final chorus and so was not distracted by having to read my braille. I could, rather, completely concentrate on the experience of the music. As we sang the words of the final chorus, “Alleluia, Amen,” it seemed as though that chorus was a benediction for me personally. It felt so good and right to have reached this final chord with the other 100 performers and to hear “Bravo” being shouted from the audience. We had worked for four months to reach this moment of completion. The term, “satisfied grin,” might have acquired a new meaning that day.
Another “I was REHABILITATED” moment came in the summer of 1999. ACB of Maine had a purely fun filled weekend at a local YWCA camp. There were many activities in which we participated over the course of the weekend. Swimming, canoeing, and tandem bicycling among them. It rained off and on during the entire weekend so we had a number of games including adaptive ping pong, Bop It, and Henry which could be played indoors. The activity which prompted me to write this article was the high ropes course. The ropes course took place in a clearing in the woods surrounded by tall trees. It consisted of three challenges or courses to be completed. Each participant wore a climbing harness and helmet and was belayed by someone on the ground who was experienced in safe climbing techniques. A belay consists of a rope attached to the climber’s harness which runs up through a pulley secured above the climber and then back to the belayer on the ground. The belayer holds the rope in such a way that if the climber falls he or she will only drop a few feet and then will be caught by the rope and prevented from falling any farther.
The third course was the most difficult and this is the one that I’ll describe.
It started with a climb up a ladder to a height of about 8 feet. From there I had to move onto hand holds and foot holds which had been strategically placed up the trunk of the tree. When I say that they were strategically placed I don’t mean that they were placed for the convenience of the climber. Quite the contrary. It was quite a stretch to some of the anchors. As I began to climb the tree I reached directly above me to locate each successive anchor. They weren’t always there though. If I couldn’t locate an anchor directly above me I had to stretch my arms, one at a time, around to the sides of the tree in order to locate the next hand hold. Sometimes reaching the next foot hold required me to take all of my weight on my arms and execute a little hop to change feet on the foot hold. This maneuver was required when the next foot hold happened to be on the same side as the foot hold I was leaving. Afterwards several people asked if I found myself growing fatigued as I climbed higher and higher into the tree. On the contrary, I felt stronger and more confident with each upward movement.
Eventually I arrived at a wire strung between the tree I had climbed and a tree about 30 feet distant. There was also a rope strung to the same tree at about waist level. When this was described to me when I was on the ground it sounded easy. I mean what was so difficult about walking across a wire if I had a rope to hang on to? As soon as I stepped out onto the wire and grasped the rope I discovered what was so difficult. Both the wire and the rope were strung very loosely between the trees. With my first step onto the wire it promptly swayed to the left while the rope swayed to the right. I frantically reached back and grabbed one of the hand holds on the tree I had just left. Once steadied I ventured out on the wire again. I soon discovered that if I leaned definitely to one side or the other that I could, at least, keep the rope and wire in the same position relative to my body. I slowly began advancing across the wire while leaning sharply to the right.
It was at this point that I became aware of the people on the ground below me. They were cheering! I suddenly was not in this alone. The cheers from my friends encouraged me to continue my trek across the wire. Where was that other tree? I finally encountered it with my left hand and heaved a sigh of relief. And the cheering from the ground became a roar. Wow! I wasn’t alone in this crazy endeavor. After touching the far tree I moved back across the wire to what seemed to me to be the half way point. I turned my back to my belayer and asked if he was ready. When I received a reply in the affirmative I simply fell over backwards. The rope attached to my climbing harness caught me and I was lowered slowly to the ground. The first thing I encountered after my feet hit the ground were the two front feet of my dog guide, Beverly, on my chest and her tongue on my face. And everybody was clapping and cheering again. With all four feet back on the ground Beverly positioned herself so that my left hand fell right on the harness handle. I picked it up and, smiling broadly, walked over to where my friends waited.
I assume that this kind of experience could be described as “peak” for anyone regardless of their degree of vision. But there was something about this event which made it richer and more powerful. Was it more powerful because I did it in spite of being blind? Or did the power lie in the fact that my blindness was inconsequential to my participation? I don’t know the answer to that question and, perhaps, there is no one definitive answer. I do know that the feeling of accomplishment which came with this activity has stayed with me. There are times, in the course of my ordinary life, when I reflect on this event. I am strengthened and encouraged by this special place in my memory. And the memory gives me far more than a nice warm feeling. I may not say it consciously but I’m sure I have a train of thought which runs something like, “If I can climb that tree and walk across that wire then walking to town, making those difficult street crossings, and purchasing a few groceries is a snap!” Participation in recreational activities may be more complicated and more difficult for an individual with a visual impairment. It seems clear, though, that it is worth the effort.