When I think back as far as I can to my childhood as a sighted person, I recall that I was rarely without my ice skates. I started figure skating at the age of three, and over time I got to where I was in serious training for professional competition. Early on I skated in individuals, then later on I did pairs skating.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to devote my life and career to figure skating; I was thinking about becoming a lawyer, a psychologist or even a truck driver – so I could admire the changing landscape through the truck’s window. The skating trainers thought I had great potential, so I was invited to a figure skating sport school. In the end, though, I didn’t wind up getting there.
When I was 11 years old, a sharp skate blade put an end to my skating career. I suddenly felt an acute splitting pain in my head. There was a cut on my temple, and my left eye began to swell up. The physician in my native city of Kazan prescribed electrophoresis, but after each session I felt worse and worse, and soon after that my mother and I went for a consultation with specialists in Moscow. The news we were given was handed down like a judge’s sentence: “The electrophoresis you were prescribed has completely burnt the retina of the left eye. You need to prepare yourself for the fact that one day soon you will lose your sight.” No deliberate malpractice was proved, and we were told that it was an ordinary medical error.
One morning when I was eighteen, I went into the bathroom. I switched on the light, but suddenly the world went dark. I remember I thought that there had been a loss of electrical power. There was only the sound of running water, which calmed me, and reassured me that the world around me was still the same. It was me who had changed.
The end of 11th grade – the final year of school in Russia – is a time when we choose from among a great number of opportunities the one we find most appealing. But it was not that way for me. In the space of a single moment the life I had known up to then ceased to exist. It seemed that all my plans, all my goals, had shattered into pieces. I had to learn to live all over again from scratch. I had to learn to do everything in a new way: reading; writing; finding out information. I had to form a picture of the world using my ears rather than my eyes, and then feel and imagine that world inside my head as something having colors and dimensions.
Later on in one of my essays I described that period of my life this way: “Life is like a road. And before this all happened I was able to see that road. During the two years of recovery that followed, the road seemed not to exist; but then it reappeared, and I was able to go forward on it.” I can barely remember what exactly happened during those two years. Probably my mind has suppressed that information for my own sake.
To be honest, I’m afraid to imagine what would have become of me if I had not had the help and support of my loved ones, along with the lessons I had learned from doing sports. I am immensely grateful to my parents and friends, who were there for me as I was learning to live again, as I adapted to my new condition and realized that I would never see anything ever again. Their love, care, and patience gave me invaluable support. And figure skating had given me strength of mind and spirit. Sports do not only teach you to be disciplined and get stronger; they shape your personality, increase your willpower. Doing a sport teaches you responsibility and patience, as you have to keep geting up whenever you fall. And I mean that quite literally – when you fall on the ice doing a jump, it really hurts, but you still have to get up and skate on. I admit there were times when I got angry with my mother and grandmother, when I ignored former school friends who were sorry for me, so that I could be alone. But all in all I accepted everything as an ordinary severe fall on the ice, and I got up and went on.
After I had more or less adapted to my new self, I decided that I needed to get a degree, but the question was where and how. I decided I would study psychology, as I had been thinking about it before I lost my sight. After I stopped skating I had been doing martial arts, and there was a lot of philosophy in them – understanding oneself and others, the world, the universe, what we are destined to do, our paths in life. And I wanted to understand people better, and to help them.
I studied for a long time, and that process became to some extent a source of healing for me. On the one hand, during my studies I realized that a newly acquired ability – a more active capacity for aural analysis – would allow me to conduct research in an area that very few specialists had studied previously. That led to the development of a field of study known as “the psychology of the voice.” Today I am the only specialist in Russia working in this field, and, there are only a few others around the world working in the area.
On the other hand, my knowledge of psychology and my personal experience of losing my sight and coming back from that loss, have combined to give my life its meaning. That meaning is to help people who find themselves in similar situations. In my work, I try to show people using my own example that losing something like your eyesight does not mean losing your whole life: it just becomes a bit different. If you used to be able to see with your eyes, now you are given an opportunity to see life and the people around you with your heart, to be more considerate, to really hear, not just to listen.
What is my life like now? I am hard at work researching “the psychology of the voice;” several years ago I was even invited to report on the topic in Berlin at a conference of the International Congress of Psychologists. I would like to develop a clear, concise and detailed method of my work. I’ve put a lot of effort into creating my own business – a psychology of the voice school. In order to bring this enormous project to fruition, I have to be involved in it round the clock.
I continue to do sports. It always has been and remains an important part of my life, and it would be difficult for me to live without it. For a time I did archery, and in 2011 I was even the Moscow archery champion among blind participants.. That sports group is closed now, so my current time for activities outside work is mostly taken up by books – I have always liked reading, and it is the best form of relaxation for me.
I married a wonderful woman, and we have a son who, thank God, is sighted. We get along well with him. He’s s not small anymore; he’s 6 and a half years old, so he can figure out certain things. When he was little, he would naturally get very upset when I would accidentally knock over the towers of blocks he had been hard at work building. But I would tell him calmly that I could not see. He couldn’t understand my words, but the calmness in my voice was comforting for him, and then I would say, “okay, let me cover your eyes with my palm, and then you try to do something.” He would try and would break or run into something. After that, when he was only three years old, and without any prompting from me, he began taking my hand and guiding me around his toys, telling me in his “broken” children’s language where I should put my leg, and what I shouldn’t do. And now there is no problem at all in this regard. Children are actually very wise. When you talk to them calmly and try to come to agreement with them about something, they really are willing to try to understand you, and they find incredible ways of figuring things out with their parents and with other people.
I never stop exploring the world – I love travelling and hope to travel around the world in the near future. After all, you can perceive the world in different ways – you can listen to it, feel it, smell it. And it won’t be any less beautiful if I can’t see it with my eyes. In my inner vision it will appear in a glorious riot of color!
So life goes on! There is a slogan in my life that I have taken from the code of the Samurai: “If you do not know what to do, take a step forward.” This motto helps me a lot in life. I believe that there are no hopeless situations; try, take small steps, and your life will change. As long as we are still alive there is nothing frightening or hopeless.
This is part of a story series from the exhibit “Defiant Power of the Human Spirit”
Read Konstantin’s story in Russian.
About the Author:Konstantin Balyanin is 36 years old and lives in Moscow, Russia. Konstantin lost his vision as a result of a medical error. A promising figure skater in his youth, today he is a successful psychologist and a person who has learned to see with his heart. He is the only specialist in Russia working in the area called “the psychology of the voice.”