5 years ago today, I sat in a doctor’s office at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia with my dad as a doctor informed me that I had LHON. The sight loss I had been experiencing over the last few weeks would only get worse until I was potentially completely blind, and there was no known cure. In some ways that day feels like yesterday, and in other ways it feels like a lifetime ago.
Some people may be aware of what I do for full time work, and others may not. I currently work in Student Conduct at Ohio State University. This means that I meet with students and student organizations who have potentially violated university policies. No, I am not the principal’s office. The work is very counseling based and most students leave feeling happier than when they arrived. I truly enjoy being able to assist students reflect on times where they may have made a mistake and help them set goals for their lives.
Every now and then, a student may have done something egregious or violated university policies in a minor way too many times which leads to them needing to take a break from being at OSU by being suspended. You might be thinking that this sounds really harsh and not very counseling based. But, you would be surprised to learn that for many of these students, they are able to see the value in taking a break from school in order to work on themselves. Of course there are also the students who will fight to the end to not be suspended because they do not think it will serve them in any way and that they don’t deserve it.
I have come to learn that so much of the resistance that individuals have stems from fear. We have socialized people to believe that college is something you do after high school, it should take four years, and taking a semester off is unacceptable. Taking a break from school was not a part of their “plan”, and if they miss a semester they will be “behind.”
But, who’s to say what the “right” path is and how long it should take you to get where you are going?
I meet with every student who is returning from a period of suspension. At the end of our conversation I always ask them, “If you could go back in time and be able to not go through everything which you have with your suspension, would you?”
Of the over 50 students I have posed this question to, only one has said yes.
All of the others speak about how going through this difficult experience and breaking free from what they have been socialized to do, led them to have a better understanding of themselves, a deeper appreciation for being at school, and an increased level of maturity. As someone who met with them prior to and following their suspension, I can also hear and feel all the growth they have experienced.
I am sometimes asked, and often wonder to myself, if I could go back in time and never experienced losing my sight, would I?
Having my sight back would allow me the freedom to drive again, which is something that would be valuable now and especially when, and if, Kate and I have a family of our own. The ability to see would make my everyday at work much easier, as there are still many aspects of being in the professional world which are difficult to navigate no matter how many accommodations are made. Full sight would open up a variety of career opportunities which I could apply for and succeed at without the concern of whether or not I was able to do the job duties. 20/20 vision would make the prospect of returning for a PhD or going back to school more realistic. A life without LHON would mean seeing the faces of my loved ones, the ability to play sports and board games again, and the opportunity to experience the beauty of the world.
While all of these things are valuable, I, like the students reflecting on the unplanned break from school they were forced to take, can also understand all of the ways this experience has served me in a positive way.
Now, more than ever before July 3, 2014, am able to appreciate the simple things and the small blessings which previously would have been overlooked. After going through the most difficult and traumatic experience of my life, a “normal” day is all I need to be happy. Along with this, the newfound appreciation extends to relationships and experiences. Spending time with friends and family was something I used to enjoy, but is now something I cherish. The ability to go for a hike and do CrossFit means so much more than it used to.
This shift in perspective has changed the way I operate in the world and interact with those in it. There is no better example of this than my marriage with my wife. Kate entered my life the month after my diagnosis and the first time we hung out I was able to get away with not telling her what was happening. I was eventually forced to tell this brand new woman who I was interested in what was going on with my sight. Over the last five years, our relationship has been filled with highs and lows as any relationship would be, with the added layer of navigating the loss of my sight together. Sure, our relationship may have been easier if I had full vision, but who is to say we would even be married if not for the diagnosis? Everything we have gone through has not been easy, but it forced us to be vulnerable, learn how to effectively communicate with each other, be patient, and so much else. I do not believe that if Kate had met the Aaron with 20/20 vision that she would have liked the man he was, and we would not have worked out. Kate came into my life when I needed her most, and my maturity and values were growing alongside her arrival in a way that prepared me to know what it takes to be her husband.
I believe this same growth in maturity and values coupled with the alteration of my perspective is what allowed for me to be selected for my first full-time role at Virginia Tech less than a year after my diagnosis. In the same way I am not sure if Kate would have picked to date or marry the Aaron with full sight, I am not confident that the Aaron with full sight would have stood out or been mature enough for Virginia Tech and now Ohio State. The loss of my sight has made me incredibly empathetic and adaptable – character traits which cannot be taught and have allowed for me to enjoy and find success in the work I do.
Losing my sight and coming through the other side, gave me a story filled with life lessons for all which I have been able to share across the nation. This work began when I was selected to serve as the graduation speaker for my Florida State classmates. If you had told anyone in my class (including myself) the year prior, that Aaron Reistad would be our class speaker, I and everyone else would not have believed you. When my classmates chose me, I knew that I had been picked for a reason, and that I needed to share my story. This group of friends who believed in me sparked my courage and passion to share my experiences and life with a audiences from New York to California. None of this would be possible if I did not have a story to share.
In the last 5 years I have gone through the most difficult times of my life. There would be numerous benefits to never having gone through it all and I think about these often. At the same time, July 3, 2014 to July 3, 2019 has brought me a deeper appreciation for life and all of it’s little blessings, an increase in maturity, a well-rounded perspective, an incredibly strong marriage, wonderful jobs, and the opportunity to travel the nation sharing my story.
Just like the students who are scared to be suspended due to the fear of their plans changing unexpectedly and going on a different path than most others, I too was crushed to learn that my life was taking me down a different trail than everyone else I knew. I had been socialized to believe that only with my sight would I be able to find success, happiness, and live a life of purpose. But, I never could have imagined how taking a new path could have led me to a destination which was better than my original plan.
So if I could go back 5 years and have none of this happen would I?
I don’t think I would. Everything I have gained and all the ways I have grown, have improved the person I am and the life I live. My life today, transcends my life with 20/20 vision.