'I just have 25% vision in one eye, but now I'm starring on stage'
When Dundonald woman Michelle Porter's sight deteriorated she plunged into depression. But now she's about to star in one of Shakespeare's most magical plays. She tells Helen Carson how she found hope amid despair
When Dundonald woman Michelle Porter had difficulty reading five years ago, she booked in for a routine eye test - and discovered to her horror that she was completely blind in one eye.
The 54-year-old, who was working at a children's home in west Belfast at the time, was told by an optician to go to hospital immediately. There, she was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition which wasn't to get better even after surgery.
With just 25% vision left in her sighted eye, Michelle had to give up her job and fell into a deep depression, which was so bad, she no longer wanted to live.
But, with a degree in performing arts and a passion for drama, Michelle eventually found Open Arts, a theatre group for people with different abilities. And on Friday, April 26, she will take her place in the spotlight as Titania in the group's two-night production of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.
Michelle says she gets her love of performing from her dad, Bobby, who is a renowned traditional Irish singer.
And before her eyesight started to fail, she had worked with two of Northern Ireland's best-known theatre companies, Prime Cut Productions and Kabosh.
It was while she was taking a summer scheme drama class in 2014 that Michelle began struggling with reading, so booked an optician's appointment.
She didn't realise she was losing her sight: "When he told me I was blind in one eye, I had no idea the other eye had been compensating for it.
"I had glasses, but only wore them when I needed them to read or watching TV. My dad, Bobby, couldn't comprehend that I couldn't see - that this had happened out of the blue."
Michelle went to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, where she was diagnosed with macular degeneration in her right eye and diabetic retinopathy in the left. "I was devastated and cried my eyes out. All I could think about was that I didn't have sight in one eye."
Having been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in her mid-20s, she had never experienced any issues with her sight and managed the condition all that time.
She had to undergo an intensive course of laser treatment for both eyes, as well as injections to the back of the sighted eye over eight weeks.
"The whole thing was horrifying," she recalls. "I was working full-time at Glenmona Resource Centre residential children's home in west Belfast, as well as volunteering at the East Belfast Mission."
But Michelle's deteriorating eyesight meant she could no longer keep up with these commitments: "Everything stopped - I couldn't drive and couldn't go anywhere."
Her condition worsened, bringing her working life to an end: "My eyes began to haemorrhage, which caused more problems. It was a thumbnail of blood which covered the eye, so I couldn't see at all. It took a while for the doctors to get it stabilised."
The nature of Michelle's job, which involved working with volatile young people, meant she had to take sick leave: "I honestly thought I was going back to work - it took six months for me to realise this wasn't getting any better, so I was medically retired.
"I didn't want to retire," she says. "I've always worked and I didn't want anybody to tell me I couldn't work."
Losing her job was a major blow for Michelle and she fell into despair: "There was so much fear there and it took me a long time to come to terms with anything.
"I thought I was on the shelf now, there was nothing I could do, and I really didn't want to be here because I thought my life was over. I was 50 and I thought, 'What's the next 30 years going to be like with nothing to do and no purpose'? When your life is full and you're always on the go, doing things, driving about - your life is filled with that, but all of a sudden, there's nothing. It is totally horrendous."
And it was a call to the RNIB which proved a lifeline for Michelle. "I called the charity and a girl who I've known for over 20 years called Pat Swain, who is also blind, answered the phone. I just sat and cried on the phone to her and asked, 'What do I do now'?"
Pat put her in touch with Olive Rodgers, also at RNIB, who in turn recommended that Michelle with her theatre skills should join Acorn Arts Group. "I was just so depressed, it was awful. It took a year and a half to get into the group because no-one ever leaves it, so there's a big waiting list. Anybody who joins it doesn't leave because it's so good. I've been there two years now and I'll never leave - it has built up my confidence so much."
Since joining the group, Michelle's friends and family have seen her change for the better. "Previously, I would just sit and say nothing."
During her depression, she put on weight, but has since joined a slimming group and has managed to drop from a size 32 to 24: "I was 20 stone - that's because I sat in the house and ate, I ate everything. I am aiming to lose more weight before the performance. My target is to get down to a size 18 and I'm on my way there."
Michelle had some counselling when she first lost her sight, which she did for six weeks: "The girl was lovely, but I don't think I needed it at the time. I had to call a helpline when I was very low and that helped."
During her lowest days, she was afraid to go to sleep at night: "My main fear was that when I went to bed at night, I would wake up in the morning and what little sight I had, which was very little, would disappear and then I would have nothing."
And during this time, people who she thought of as friends stopped showing up: "I lost quite a lot of people - I found out who my friends really were. I thought I had a lot of people around me, but I had three who stayed. Friends who I had just went - I was highly disappointed with them all.
"But I've decided to forget about it and enjoy what's to come, and there's lots of stuff I want to do. I'd love to write a book and get something published, possibly about what I've gone through or perhaps just a story? Anything really."
Michelle's dad, Bobby, and sister, Karen, have helped her regain her confidence and one of her goals is to become more independent.
"I live in a single-storey flat, as I struggle with stairs. I use a tap-tap stick because my balance is not good, so it's better than walking sticks. If the lift breaks down, I have to do down steps, which I find really difficult."
Bobby brings Michelle's meals round or they go out to eat, as she fears a fire risk from lighting the cooker. "I don't go out walking on my own and my dad takes me everywhere, including the Open Arts group. My sister, Karen, is amazing too, but she has a family and cannot be here all the time. My dad has been ill, too, so I'm trying to become more independent."
As well as providing Michelle with a creative outlet, the arts group is a social place where she has made a new circle of friends. "Everyone at the group is there for everyone. One of the young girls who is blind comes up to Ballymena every week on the train with her guide dog. She was worried about me one day and asked if I was okay and offered to wait with me. I was taken aback because she wanted to make sure I was okay. I was really touched by that - it was so kind. All those wee things push you and help you realise that you're going to be okay.
"Basically my eyesight will go, it's just a matter of time," says Michelle. "It could go tomorrow or it could be 10 years' time. I'm under no illusions about that, it will go, but I'm hoping that it stays where it is for now for a long time."
With just 25% sight in her right eye, she cannot read a book and has replaced her paperbacks with audio books. "I can see someone sitting in front of me, but not if they moved to another part of the room."
And she is full of admiration for the abilities of the Open Arts participants: "Drama group is brilliant. They dance, they sing. Every individual has their own mountain to climb, but there is so much passion there. When everyone comes together and is doing their thing, I am so proud. I was so happy to join and would've done anything - I would have been a tree, I just wanted to take part."
Now, she has hopes for the future. "I take every day as it comes. I would love to work and I'm not writing that off. I've never not worked. I loved my job and it was really stressful having to leave, but I never say never to anything."
Meanwhile, Michelle can't wait to be centre-stage at The MAC later this month. "I'm looking forward to performing and will probably feel a bit nervous, but that will pass once I'm out there."
The Open Arts production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is at The MAC from April 26-27. Tickets cost £8-£10, visit www.themaclive.com or tel: 9023 5053. For more details on Open Arts, visit www.openartsni.org