“My diagnosis of cone dystrophy is one of the best things that could have happened to me. Sure, I didn’t always see it as that. I was devastated at first. Today I embrace my differences. I am also a career counseling intern and I choose to show my students that my lack of vision isn’t a barrier. I want everyone to know and “see” what I “see” — that no matter what you go through in life, no matter what you have to overcome — you can still be amazing.” — Mariagrazia Buttitta, Survivor, Author, Advocate
When I was first diagnosed with Cone Dystrophy disorder at 14 I had to prepare for a future that, initially, had been turned upside down. I stopped to wonder and reflect on what my life had been like and consider the uncertainty of what life would possibly be like moving ahead.
To consider the impact it had on my family is an emotional thing, still. My family was just as confused and filled with fear as I was.
At that young age I remember throwing myself into my mother’s comforting arms and I started crying. I asked myself the “why me?” Question. I was angry, scared, devastated, and hopeless about my future, what it meant.
I thought to myself, “I can’t handle all this.”
The seemingly inconsequential things we so often take for granted in our day-to-day lives suddenly became the litmus test for normalcy. And with all that came the questions I’d ask myself constantly.
Could I see well enough to drive myself around? Would I wear sunglasses for the rest of my life? Would I be the lady with the big white and cardinal stick gingerly making her way across the street? And Would I be able to not just live normally, but feel normal?
Who wants to put their future in the crosshairs and consider- really, deeply consider- that all the things that you’d planned for- a degree, aspirations in my career, marriage and a family of my own- might very well be delayed at best or worse not even possible?
It was a series of thoughts that were nearly unbearable.
I resolved myself to not focus on the negatives of such a powerful and potentially devastating diagnosis. I had to redefine my priorities without losing myself and work to better understand the reasoning behind sticking with my choices.
Nowhere else was this more important for my personal outlook than in the moments of darkness and pain when a person is sometimes confounded by the reality of the situation.
I’d asked myself over and over again how can I learn to handle the uncertainty of life ahead?
“Very young, I grew up in a country that didn’t accept differences including a disability or a mental health condition. I was never to talk about any of these issues as if they were terrible crimes and I the criminal. I struggled with anxiety my entire life, but it’s not until I came to New Jersey at 21- years old, that I learned that being legally blind and dealing with anxiety and depression, didn’t necessarily have to dictate the rest of my future. Along the way, I met my role models one being- Kevin Hines who thought me that life is a precious gift and you always need to aim to be here today, tomorrow, and everyday after that.”
So for inspiration I decided to look back at when I first moved to the United States and it was then that I remembered what it was like to have the opportunity to deal with being legally blind, anxious, and depressed head on in a place that would have the resources from a clinical and psychological perspective.
“In my early life growing up in Italy, I lived in a country that didn’t give me the confidence, the tools, nor the opportunities to be able to cope and live with that blindness. When I moved to New Jersey at the age of 21, I was connected with the commission for the blind, who gave me the opportunity to go to college, and help me live and thrive despite my blindness, my anxiety and my depressive disorder.”
As one would imagine my challenges weren’t just related to my lack of sight.
My anxiety, my suicidal ideations, and feelings of fear and hopelessness often dominated my outlook, too. I remember thinking to myself how can I get past these feelings? What’s going to help me regain my footing and be able to tackle the mental aspect of wellness not just the physical issues with my sight?
Initially, I had all the typically-negative perceptions a person could have when confronted by my doctors with a diagnosis for my mental state.
“I was pretty embarrassed when I was finally diagnosed with an anxiety and depressive disorder because I thought it made me look weak, I was afraid of seeking treatment or taking a pill because I didn’t understand it.”
Being open to the idea that I could become mentally well and have my anxiety and depression treated with a team of people- including my family, friends, and professionals who supported me through everything- who truly cared for me and wanted to help me made it easier to accept that we were taking the right approach.
Today, I accept that medication can be an important, critical part of treatment and wellness. I’ve had to create a whole new outlook for myself based on a treatment and wellness plan. And that requires action. It requires a level of honesty as I look within myself when I struggle- and I still do- to feel normal at times and also handle the fear that comes at times when I’m out in the world.
“I truly want people to know they are not alone in their struggles. My message is not about fixing it all or how one size fits all, but rather let’s teach individuals the tools and the support systems they may have access to in order to help them live a life that’s worth living for. As a society we tend to focus on the “let’s get rid of it” or “let’s overcome anxiety and depression” attitude but it’s really about finding ways in which we can learn to manage pain. This shift in thinking, is what’s going to help us reach a meaningful life despite our challenges and differences.”
I’d say that what really changed my outlook on that part of my treatment was this:
“My mental illness isn’t any different than any other physical illness. I would treat diabetes or a migraine or cholesterol issues with medication.”
And coming to that conclusion was really a huge milestone for me personally as I continued to get better and confront my vision issues head-on.
All of these things have contributed to where I’m at today.
As I’ve made my way through the world of mental health I’ve had the fortune of collaborating with renowned suicide prevention awareness advocate Kevin Hines. He ultimately ended up writing the foreword section of my memoir. Kevin’s a storyteller, author, filmmaker and founding partner and CEO of 17th & Montgomery Productions, LLC. It’s a mental health digital media company.
When he was asked about my memoir- and about my personal aspirations in overcoming the challenges of her physical limitations and mental health Kevin said:
“Mariagrazia Buttitta writes a passionate, palpable, powerhouse of a life story. From her vivid descriptions of Italian culture, and food, to her mountain moving poetry, she paves a path to hope. Hope after living with a mental illness, and hope even when sight is taken from her. Mari’ shares colorful memories from her personal diary, and past. She shows the world, I am here, and I am real. She tells us I have mental illness, I am blind, but I will always see. I see you Maria. I see you. Remember that #HopeHelpsHeal and don’t forget to #BeHereTomorrow while we all #KeepOnKeepinOn.”
I’ve also had the opportunity to interact with Kyle Maynard, a speaker, best-selling author, ESP award-winning mixed martial arts athlete. He’s the first quadruple amputee to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Aconcagua without the aid of prosthetics.
Kyle goes on to make the connection between limitations and a person’s disability and the critical element of choice and how to handle the challenges associated with both as it relates to my personal experiences:
“Disabilities are actually more universal than we realize — we all have them, to one extent or another. Mariagrazia is a testament to the fact that we get to choose whether we become victim to them or not. I believe she actually sees a lot more than we do and we could do well to borrow some from her vision. A must-read.”
My memoir and my goals in helping others who struggle with mental illness and physical limitations which both have potentially debilitating stigma is to make it okay to talk and okay to take action.
The goal in writing “Now I SEE: How I Battled Blindness, Mental Illness, an Espresso Habit and Lived to Tell the Tale” was because I wanted to share my journey and talk about my eye diagnosis, but also talk about my anxiety and depression.
Most importantly, I saw the impact I had on someone when I spoke for the first time. I shared my journey and I had someone say to me that I saved their life.
So what do I do to take care of my diagnosis and stay mentally well?
I talk about self-care a lot. I have to take 10 to 15 minutes of every single day of my life to meditate, go for a walk, exercise, play with my therapy dogs who are named Happy & Lucky.
Essentially, I must make the time to do the things I love and enjoy doing. I go to therapy, hang out with my supportive mother, my friends, take medication for my anxiety and depressive disorders. And yeah, I still have the symptoms and diagnosis, but I have the tools and the support system in my life to help me live one day at a time. I am currently a graduate student at the College of New Jersey in the clinical mental health counseling program, I do motivational speaking, and writing as a way to express myself and give others hope. I want my career to focus on helping others, being a spokesperson for blindness and mental illness, inspire and give hope.
Pretty powerful stuff, to have another human being come up to you and admit in their own dark moment of struggle that they related to your issues and saw hope when perhaps none existed before.
That is why I write and why I sat down to try and make a difference in my thoughts to pen and paper.
That is why I talk- to others who may feel alone in their own struggles.
That is why I won’t ever stop doing both.
In addition to her goals with the memoir she’s the leader of her own inspirational social media campaign called #eyeforacure campaign.
What’s it all about?
Her eye disorder forces her to always have to wear sunglasses and people are curious, making assumptions, wondering “what is she hiding from?” Her campaign aims to promote people to help in helping her tear down those assumptions.
She says, “this is more than just following an Instagram account or taking a selfie — it’s about educating the world by raising awareness and celebrating our differences.
To get involved takes less than three minutes and three easy steps.
1. Take a selfie wearing sunglasses
2. Follow the campaign on Instagram at: embracingdifferenceseyeonacure
3. Upload your selfie on Instagram using the hashtag #eye4acure OR if you don’t have an Instagram account, email selfies to firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about how you can help as well as information about corporate and retail partnership needs go to the below link:
For more information about pre-ordering copies of my book, my writings, my future engagements and speaking events or to purchase a copy (also available in paperback, e-book, and soon -audiobook) for yourself or your organization please do navigate to the below link:
And don’t forget to check out her book trailer video here on YouTube:
Mariagrazia is also available via her social media platforms at: