The Story of the Blind, Dumb Junkie
If I were to have written a memoir ten years ago, that would’ve been the obvious title. In fact, I could’ve stopped there without writing one additional word because that title told the whole story of Charlie Collins. Beginning, middle to anticipated end.
In 1980, my parents, four sisters, my brother and I sat speechless in the doctor’s office listening to our diagnosis. “I’m afraid it’s juvenile macular degeneration,” he said, and continued in a grave tone, “four out of the six children have it.” I was only nine years old. At 13, I received a certificate from the state of Connecticut declaring me legally blind. I didn’t need the state to tell me that I couldn’t see —for the last three years, the writing on the chalkboard had progressively disappeared, faces of the people I passed had become dim and gray. Although I could still make out shapes, colors, and areas of light and dark, my world seemed to be shrinking rapidly around me. The certificate made it official - I was now, “The Blind Guy.” And it only cemented the belief growing inside that I was going to fail in life. My self-esteem began its descent.
All of my ambitions died with my diagnosis. Because of my belief that I was destined for failure, I struggled through high school. It was almost like I was on an all-out quest to prove that my negative self-image was accurate. I put in very little effort in school and resisted any assistance that could’ve helped me achieve academically. I became so self-conscious about what others thought of me that I retreated in the classroom, trying to convince my teachers and peers that I was such a dumb and lost cause that they should just focus their attention elsewhere. It worked, I was now officially, “The Blind AND Dumb Guy.” Upon graduation, instead of going to college, I continued living with my parents and working odd jobs - landscaping, grooming ski trails and painting tennis courts. I had no dreams or aspirations, sure that my life, dominated by my disability, was going nowhere. I became a bit of a local hell-raiser. I used the “dumb, blind guy” excuse to justify all my high-risk behaviors and partying. But then suddenly things took an unexpected and interesting turn. Despite my inability to drive, I had developed an odd fascination for motorcycles. I owned a dirt bike which I often took out in the woods behind my house where I had walked the trail and memorized it. Some of my happiest moments of that period were spent speeding along through the trees, the breeze ruffling my hair. At those times I enjoyed some freedom from my life-sentence, I didn’t feel quite so blind. I was now 24 and held a job cutting the grass at the local motorcycle shop where I would daydream about hopping on the bikes and riding into the sunset. After a sudden tap on the shoulder, I turned to face Jimbo, the owner of the dealership. Assuming he thought the job I’d done on the lawn sucked, I cringed inside anticipating a lecture about how useless I was. “Charlie,” he said, “I was wondering if you’d like to work for me? I know you love motorcycles, and I think you’d make a good salesman.” My first thought was, “Why would he ask the dumb, blind guy? Something is wrong here!” That night I lay in the same bed I’d slept in my whole life - where I’d spent so many nights crying and wondering why I existed and even wishing I wouldn’t wake up the next day. I truly believed I wasn’t good enough for the job, yet I really wanted to try. Torn between fear and hope, I cried out inside, “If there’s a greater power out there, I really could use some help here. There's a big part of me that would love that job. Please remove whatever is blocking me from saying ‘Yes’ so I can give this a shot. I can’t allow this blindness to control me anymore! I can’t allow a disease in my eyes to take over my entire thought process, my body, every inch of me—to let it kill me! Please, help me.”
I returned to Jimbo the next morning, accepted the job with the caveat that my eye condition would probably keep me from meeting his expectations. Jimbo’s response was a turning point in my life, “I don’t know you as a guy with an eye condition. I know you as a guy who’s passionate and enthusiastic, and who loves this type of stuff!”
Jimbo gave me a chance, and I wasn’t going to let him down. I was now accountable to both him and myself. I threw myself into my new job and discovered that I was really good at sales. To my amazement, within two years, I had worked myself up the ladder and become the co-owner of the multi-million dollar business! During those years, I also married a lovely woman I’d known since childhood and bought my first home. Wow, there I was, living the American dream! The Blind, Dumb Guy was getting his act together. Or so it seemed on the outside. Strangely enough, I still wasn’t happy. Something was missing -something I vaguely recognized as a sense of purpose and meaning in my life. My self-esteem had been temporarily propped up by my business accomplishments, but underneath, at my core, I still considered myself that “dumb, blind guy.” I sold my share of the business and took some time off, hoping to find both myself and my purpose, as well as a way to integrate my vision impairment with my business skills. Then – bingo – it came to me! I had the idea to start a company to help other people with vision impairments. So I founded Vision Dynamics, a company that supplies products and services to people living with low vision and blindness so that they can lead independent and happy lives. Today, 17 years later, Vision Dynamics is still an industry leader and helping those with low vision regain hope and independence.
Happy ending, right? Wrong. At this point while you are reading this, you are probably intrigued as to how and when “Dumb, Blind Guy” transitions into “Dumb, Blind Junkie.” Well, it occurred all throughout these aforementioned successful business periods in my life. Hiding inside the business guy was the same teenager with no self-esteem, no self-confidence and no sense of worth, who always needed ways to escape from the realities of life and its daily challenges. Marry that self-loathing and desire for escapism with some financial independence, and you have a recipe for disaster (with street value). I’ll spare you the specifics of my descent into the dark world of addiction, you can read more about it in Tripping into the Light (shameless plug!). But believe me, it was a painful period of destruction towards myself and everyone around me. Tales of addiction are not rare, but everyone’s story will have a different ending.
My addiction and efforts towards healing led to the next major turning point of my life. Having a greater, introspective understanding of my own psychology as a result of my treatment led me to randomly Google “self-esteem.” I stumbled upon the website for Jack Canfield, the Chicken Soup for the Soul guy. On a whim, I bought his audio-book called Maximum Confidence and began listening: I was blown away! This guy knew exactly what was going on with me— down to the specific wording of the negative self-talk that still ran constantly through my mind. While listening to this inspirational man address the very core of my being, I had a realization - that vision impairment has less to do with the eyes and more to do with the brain. It was never truly about my eyes. Everything I had experienced, every success and every failure, was driven by my thoughts. I am living proof of the power of negativity and the ability to change your life by changing your thoughts.
Well, fast forward to today and I have multiple jobs that I’m passionate about. At Vision Dynamics, besides selling items that make life easier for vision-impaired people like “talking” clocks and video magnifiers, I’m also able to inspire and empower them. Through workshops and classes, I share what I’ve learned about personal growth, using all the tools I have acquired on my journey. This two-pronged approach makes my business unique, which has kept it flourishing year after year. I also serve as the Director of Sales for Optelec, an international company that develops assistive technology for the low vision population. My experience in the business side of the low vision industry as well as my own legal blindness and my relationships with so many others in the visually impaired community allows me to help in the development and marketing of life-changing products that are improving the lives of millions. And I’m also a motivational speaker, my most passionate project to date. I travel around the country speaking to groups, both sighted and not, about how we can “MaximEyes” ourselves—because no matter how good a person’s eyesight is, we all have blind spots! In fact, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that we all lose our “true vision” when we block ourselves with negative thinking patterns. Even people with perfect eyesight can’t see their way to creating a happy life for themselves until they put their thoughts to work for them, instead of against them.
Today, I am living my true life purpose and it’s a great one: I teach people how to see again. The next step is for you to MaximEyes your potential.