Dr. Connie Conley-Jung

Navigating the same storm in different boats: Reflections from Dr. Connie Conley-Jung

I have been in what I call my “low vision zone”–others might call it legally blind–all my life. I grew up in Reno, Nevada. I studied Human Biology and Psychology as an undergraduate at Stanford University. I went on to earn a master’s degree in Special Education at San Francisco State University, with an emphasis in Learning Disabilities, and taught middle school and secondary school students prior to entering a doctoral program in Clinical Psychology. Although I discovered that I had an affinity for working with young people who have learning disabilities, I felt that I needed further training in clinical psychology to support their needs outside the classroom. After earning my doctoral degree and professional licensure as a psychologist, I went to work for a community mental health organization that served children and adolescents. I really appreciated this agency’s unique ability to serve young people from diverse backgrounds in both the educational and community mental health programs that it offered. Eventually, I decided to strike out on my own and started a private practice in the East Bay area.

It was the collaborative and community-oriented focus that the LightHouse places upon skills training and rehabilitation that drew my attention and prompted me to connect with Community Services staff initially. In the past, psychological services that were offered by organizations serving the disability community operated under the assumption that people who were experiencing a disability automatically needed mental health services. Thankfully, times have changed, and we no longer make such assumptions. Organizations like the LightHouse respect people’s ability to determine what type of service would be of benefit to them, as well as the timing of a particular service. The LightHouse’s decision to include psychological counseling services alongside our training services and community programs was an approach I welcomed.

After about 5 years of serving Lighthouse students seeking psychological counseling as they navigated various challenges associated with vision changes, I suddenly found myself in very similar terrain: In April of 2018 I experienced a sudden retinal detachment in the only eye in which I had remaining vision. I underwent three surgeries and was out of work for four months. What I hadn’t factored in at a personal level was just how much adjustment I would need to do, nor did I fully realize the amount of training I would require in order to resume my work fully. I remember thinking to myself at one point, “Where do I start?” With the support of Lighthouse staff, the California Department of Rehabilitation and other caring providers, I began the process in the way some of our students do – starting with the most immediate, practical aspects by placing locator dots on my phone and onto kitchen appliances so that I could operate them tactilely.

It’s been a steep learning curve for me over the past two years to get up to speed with Orientation & Mobility, Accessible Technology, and, yes, addressing the emotional impact of the most recent and significant change in my vision. I have many LightHouse staff members, family members and close friends to thank for their ongoing support and encouragement as I continue my journey.

When students are ready to come to the LightHouse for their training and perhaps also for psychological counseling with me, many of them begin to feel less isolated. But what I am hearing from many students during this COVID 19 pandemic is that sheltering-at-home has brought many of those feelings of isolation to the fore again.

Shortly after our buildings had to close and LightHouse staff had to shelter-in-place, we began calling our lists of students to check in and offer any help where we could. The staff taking those calls found that many of our students requested assistance with accessing food, transportation and other essential services. They needed help to put measures in place for financial assistance, food/grocery delivery, or assistance with filling medical prescriptions, getting to various appointments, etc.  Many with additional health conditions needed help to sort through the risks and potential benefits of getting the medical attention they needed. Worryingly, some are still postponing their usual treatment or need for care due to concerns about coronavirus exposure. All of these and other issues became more complex, particularly as many have been reporting significant vision loss and/or changes that they must somehow also address during this pandemic.

Nothing takes the place of human connection. We at the Lighthouse share this value deep within our souls. Connecting to a community of our peers not only helps us recover from traumatic events, but also supports our growth so that we can pursue a life of meaning beyond the recovery process.

All of us during this COVID 19 pandemic – blind or sighted – are experiencing a time like no other. What exactly this entails for us as individuals, communities and worldwide certainly generates more questions than answers. Yet in this current COVID “storm” each of us, in our own way and in our respective “boats,” encounter both challenges and opportunities. Together, what are we learning?

To find out more about participating in services at the LightHouse, please contact Ms. Esmeralda Soto by phone at 415-323-3673 or email her at info@lighthouse-sf.org.