Kooshay Malek, MA, MFT, is a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, California. She also writes for the Discovery Eye Foundation Blog, which features lively, up-to-date information on eye disease, eye research, nutrition, low vision, technology, and healthy lifestyle choices.
The following essay, in which Kooshay recounts her concurrent personal, medical, and educational journeys from Tehran to Boston to Los Angeles, was first published on the Discovery Eye Blog as The Habit of Seeing and I See You. It is reprinted here with Ms. Malek’s, and the Foundation’s, permission.
Coming from Tehran, Iran
My eyes are what brought me to the US. I was 16 when my father and I came here from Tehran, Iran, for eye treatment. My case was an unusual case: We still, to this day, don’t have a name for it, but it’s retinal tumors of some sort. My case had been through Europe, Russia, Israel, to different conferences, and they sent me to the US as a final recourse.
During that time, in 1982, it was the Iran-Iraq war, and the airports were not open. My dad and I had to get special permits to get out for medical reasons. Then to get American visas, we were stuck in Frankfurt for a couple of months waiting. It was a very challenging time.
Her Eye Treatments Begin
Long story short, we got to Boston, and I started receiving treatments on my left eye. It didn’t respond well, and I became totally blind on the left side. Meanwhile, I could still see 20/20 on my right side. We moved to Los Angeles, where we had friends for support, and my mother and sister joined us. I was 18 when my right eye started going bad, and I started going to UCLA/Jules Stein for treatment. I went blind in that eye when I was 22.
My father passed away two years after I lost my sight. I finished college and went through independence training at the Foundation for the Junior Blind in Los Angeles. I eventually decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in psychology, because I realized I’m a good listener and I’m always wanting to help people, so I thought it would be a good way to channel that. And as a blind person, I didn’t think I had too many career choices.
I’ve been licensed as a marriage and family therapist for the past five years. I have a part-time practice, I do volunteer work at the clinic where I did my internship, and I help train up-and-coming therapists.
I think one of the reasons I was so drawn to this field is the fact that when I became totally blind while I was in college, I was able to receive free counseling through school. But once I got out, I was looking for support groups and the camaraderie I had found during independence training — being around other blind people and helping each other emotionally. I couldn’t find anything like that.
The only support groups I found were for seniors, so I just found a low-fee therapist to get some support. I’d lost my dad, lost my eyes, lost my country. I was dealing with so many losses. I think that’s why I’m so passionate about doing volunteer work in this area.
I tried to pull together a support group for some blind clients, but it didn’t work out, partially due to transportation and location and the same stuff blind people always run into, but I do offer low- or no-fee counseling to them. I also have good relationships with some rehab counselors who refer people to me. I think therapy is an important part of rehabilitation; you have to approach this holistically.
“The Habit of Seeing”
I’ve always been very proactive and resourceful. I’ve often thought, “If only there were a 12-step program for blind people.” I’ve always been able to relate to people in these types of programs: They have to give up a habit that’s no longer working for them, and they have to put their lives back together, step by step, day by day, one day at a time.
I really related to that: I had to give up the habit of seeing.
Starting as a Therapist
When I started as a therapist, I was really concerned about my blindness. I had faced prejudice in other jobs. With my first few clients, I gave them this whole spiel at the beginning, explaining about being blind and about why I wear dark glasses. My supervisor said not to work so hard to explain. He thought it was a nonissue: “If you were blonde and blue-eyed, would you be describing that over the phone to them?” he asked. He was right. It didn’t faze most people.
In the 11 years I’ve been practicing, only a few people had a problem with it. To this day, once in a while, it may come out organically that I’m blind. Most of the time, I don’t tell them beforehand.
I think I pick up on certain nuances sighted therapists may miss. I sense shifts in energy in the room. I have very strong attunements: I notice the slightest change in tone of voice — or even in their silences — and I know something’s going on.
Her Therapeutic Techniques
If necessary, we talk about my blindness, and we process my blindness in the session. I don’t leave it as an elephant in the room. The main concern of everybody who comes to therapy, whether they are seeing a blind person or not, is, “Am I going to be heard and understood?” In this case, they may wonder if my blindness will affect whether I can hear and understand them. I say: “Well, we’ll have to wait and see. If there is something you think I can’t understand, would you be able to tell me?”
That makes them self-sufficient in asking for help or expressing a need. Many patients tell me they find it so much easier to talk to me, because I don’t have my eye on them, so to speak, like a microscope. They find it close to the traditional psychoanalyst’s couch, where the therapist would sit behind them and not look at their faces.
They find out I see them better than anyone else in their life. That’s the reward of it, especially with clients who have self-image and self-esteem issues. I get to see who is inside, not who is outside, and that’s powerful by itself. People open up more easily.
My blindness is a really quiet, subtle intervention in the room at all times. It’s always present. It’s a gift I carry in there with me, and I use it.
About the Discovery Eye Foundation
The primary mission of the Discovery Eye Foundation is twofold:
- Funding cutting-edge research to find new treatments and cures for retinal and corneal eye diseases
- Empowering people with up-to-date, accurate information and personalized support through their component programs: the Macular Degeneration Partnership and the National Keratoconus Foundation.
You can read more about the Discovery Eye Foundation and Macular Degeneration Partnership at Meet the Discovery Eye Foundation on the VisionAware blog.