Blog

5 Years On The Road Less Travelled

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. 

Rosy Retrospection

rosy retrospection

In my previous blog, 5 Things I Took For Granted When I had My Sight, my first sentence stated, “You never know what you have until it’s gone.” But, what if I was wrong? What if we know exactly what we have while we have it? What if, while living in the moment, we experience the most honest perspective we will ever have of that exact time? What if no longer being there, and reflecting on the “good old days”, makes us misremember what it was like when we were actually there?

We have all been guilty of looking back on the past with “rose colored glasses”. A study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology discovered that after experiences were had, participants tended to remember their trips and experiences as being much more fun than it actually was at the time. Have you ever gotten out of a not-so-good relationship and looked back, only to remember the good times? Have you ever gone on a mediocre trip, but looked back fondly at the photos as if all your good times only lived in those moments?

Rosy Retrospection refers to the psychological phenomenon of judging the past disproportionately more positively than the present.

I recently caught myself wearing my own pair of rose colored glasses.
Continue reading “Rosy Retrospection”

Lost My Sight, Gained My Vision

Adobe Spark

Like most in this world I was not born blind. Similarly, the years of elementary, middle, high school, and undergraduate education, were all filled with clear sight which neither required contact lenses or glasses. However, less than a year after arriving in Tallahassee for graduate school, this would all change.
When I arrived at Colorado State University, (CSU) I, like most first year students, was excited and nervous to begin a new chapter in life. The previous years of high school were filled with athletics such as cross country and wrestling, activities like student council, and many high quality relationships. Upon graduating from high school, I felt on top of the world! Not long after this, the transition from high school to college, from home to foreign, from senior to freshman, and from being a big fish in a little pond, to a little fish in a big pond, transitioning from familiar to new people, made my first year at CSU look starkly different than my preconceived ideas.

Continue reading “Lost My Sight, Gained My Vision”

Tears to Cheers: A Dad’s Journey

 

By: Scott Reistad

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”  Napoleon Hill

I’m sure many have either heard, or even used this quote; however, I find it to be a bit incorrect.  For me, a more accurate version of this quote would be, “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of equal or greater benefit…IF YOU LOOK FOR IT.  If I don’t actually look for the benefit, many times it remains hidden.

I know many people who have dealt with adversity, failure, and heartache, and instead of growing from it, are mired in sorrow, regret, fear, and anger.  Unfortunately, this quote can also be used as a balm that good-hearted people say tritely when they don’t know how else to respond to life’s difficulties and unfairness.  And most challenging of all is this:  It is easy to say to others, but when life has sent bad things to you, it is a much harder pill to swallow.

And so begins a journey into my thoughts and feelings as to how I have had to work through tragedy and heartache in my own life.  With one of these being the tearful journey I have had to struggle through when my son Aaron, lost his vision to Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON).

I am a firm believer that one chooses their attitude at all times.  (I know…I know…there are chemical conditions that can arise in a person’s brain where they are predisposed to being depressed, or anxious, and that is not some thing that one can “choose” to not have without medical help.)  However, I do believe in the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” I also believe that you get what you look for.  In other words, if you are looking for bad in the world, you will find it; but if you look for good in the world, you will also find that.

It’s kind of like when you buy a new car, and then suddenly you see that same car everywhere.  Why?  Because suddenly you become aware of that style of car, so your mind notices cars similar to yours, even though before you never saw them and now suddenly you see them everywhere.  These quotes all seem simple when one is merely talking “theory”, but when it comes to “real life”, it becomes much more difficult.

Little did I know, two-and-a-half years ago, that all this “theory” would come crashing down on me. I was forced to find my way out of the darkness that had enveloped me with the news of Aaron losing his sight.

Continue reading “Tears to Cheers: A Dad’s Journey”

Grounded in Perspective

In her powerful book, “Daring Greatly”, author Brene Brown perfectly summarizes the power of vulnerability;

“Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

When I first began to lose my sight, I wish I would have started connecting my head and my heart on paper. Divulging my feelings, fears, ideas, expectations, and all the other things. I wish I would have been able to capture my raw emotions in the exact moment they presented themselves. I wish I would have been able to convey the difficulty I had wrestling with my blatant, extreme diagnosis. I wish I could have described in detail my fears as my entire life was being flipped upside-down. I wish I could have written these words for you, my reader, but also for myself.

I wish I could tell you that I made some sort of conscious decision not to put pen to paper, or that I was busy living life to the fullest,  but this is simply not the case. The truth is, I was terrified. I was nervous to begin dissecting the confusion and sadness of my experience. I was frightened to admit this was my life. I was not prepared to be anything but the physically and emotionally strong man I presented as. I was afraid to identify my own words with the reality of the diagnosis. I was worried that acceptance was my only option. And when it came down to it, I was scared to be scared.

I think journaling seemed daunting to me because I felt I was tackling the trauma in small pieces. I wanted relief. I wanted to regain hope, and find some sort of healthy perspective around my distress. I wanted to have the solution to my problems in black and white, with a beginning, middle and end, bound by a hard-cover, and made sense of.

So, I began to write; I began to write a book.  Continue reading “Grounded in Perspective”

What a Difference a Day Makes

A mother’s love is far reaching and intense. She has brought life into this world and will do all in her power to nurture, cherish, and love her creation. She is a mother, and also a daughter, and sometimes a spouse, sister, grandmother, and friend. When my mom’s own mother, and eldest son, both received life changing diagnoses, not only were they affected, so was she. I am proud to be the son of such a strong and loving mother, who has done everything in her power to care for me through the entirety of my life, and especially throughout the loss of my sight.  She is both a marvelous mother, and wonderful writer, who has embraced vulnerability by putting pen to paper. Thank you for being my mom and writing this powerful piece. Please take the time to read my mom’s blog, What A Difference A Day Makes,” and get a glimpse into  her  head, heart, and soul.

By Guest Blogger: Marie Reistad

Throughout my life, there have been defining moments of great joy, and other times where I have been brought to my knees. Some of the joys have been the day I got married and the birth of my 3 boys. One defining moment that brought me to my knees was July 3rd, 2014…a day I will never forget. A medical diagnosis would change my son’s life, my mom’s life and my life, as I knew it.

In the spring of 2014 Aaron had told us he was having trouble seeing so we encouraged him to get into an eye doctor, He had always had good vision, and it seemed strange that suddenly he was having issues. After his eye exam, Aaron was told his optic nerve was swollen. After a tapering dose of steroids was unsuccessful in resolving this issue, he was referred to a neurologist who ordered an MRI. In the mean time, I was looking up “swollen optic nerve” online. I discovered many things about it but the ones that scared me the most were a brain tumor or Multiple Sclerosis.

Continue reading “What a Difference a Day Makes”