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Vision Quest - The New York Times
How going temporarily blind led me to see my life more clearly.Erik WinkowskiCredit
By Evan Cooper
Early one summer morning, I was awakened by a hammering on the inside of my skull. It felt as if a prisoner were trying to Shawshank it out through my left eye socket. When I sat up in bed to reach for the Advil on my nightstand, I became panic-stricken. Both eyes were open, but I could see through only one.
I’d been known to leap to worst-case scenarios at the first sign of any physical discomfort. (Pain in my abdomen? Appendicitis! Headache? Definitely a brain tumor.) But this was different: I wasn’t paranoid, I was blind in my left eye.
At the ophthalmologist’s office later that morning, I tried not to panic. I was nearly 20 years old, midway through my studies at U.C.L.A. Everything is fine, I told myself. You’re FINE. Like a mantra, I repeated this over and over, determined that, for once, I was not going to catastrophize.
I briefly thought I might be imagining it all, conjuring up some drama for attention. Once when I was 11, I called my dad, who lived 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, and begged him to send an ambulance to my house in Cleveland because I was certain that I had a collapsed lung and my mom was refusing to take me to the hospital.
But the doctor I saw told me with some urgency that I needed to see a specialist, immediately. I overheard his assistant quietly consider potential diagnoses: “Multiple Sclerosis, lupus, another autoimmune disease?”
I closed my eyes and imagined myself on the sort of carnival ride where you stick to the wall as you spin round and round until the floor falls away. Beyond disbelief and dread, however, I also felt a familiar swell of self-loathing.
Of course I have an incurable, degenerative disease, I reprimanded myself. This is my fault. After all, up until this point, I had lived as if an internal army of drill sergeants were commanding me to eat less, exercise harder, study more, stand out, be The Best. No achievement was ever good enough. And what is an autoimmune disease if not the Self waging a war upon the Self?
Dr. Anthony Arnold, chief of neuro-ophthalmology at U.C.L.A. Stein Eye Institute, explained that I had optic neuritis. It is an inflammation of the optic nerve which is an autoimmune response — the body attacking itself — and is often, although not always, a first sign of a more progressive neurological disease, specifically M.S. After further testing, he felt that the best course of action was to hold off on steroid intervention, hang tight and monitor my vision.
While memory has an inevitable way of blurring the past, I remember this appointment with crystalline precision, particularly the last thing he said before we left the small, windowless exam room. He said: “I will see you in two weeks, but in the meantime, please call me if the bottom drops out.”
What would that be? Total blindness? Worse? As it happened, I’d been preparing my entire life for the carnival floor beneath me to fall away. By the time I was 2 years old, my parents had split and placed a continent between themselves. I’d grown up as one of those Gen-X kids of divorce, lobbed between two worlds at the convenience of the parents and the constraints of the courts. At 6, I became a frequent flier as an “unattended minor,” accompanied only by my beloved stuffed “Lamby,” and the panic of being trapped thousands of feet above ground with strangers. I became wildly superstitious (I had to touch both sides of the airplane’s door before boarding if I didn’t want it to crash).
The spaces between my long and lonely transcontinental treks felt equally uncertain. In Cleveland, I spent endless hours alone in my room covering the pages of my diary in invisible ink, a safeguard to keep from being punished for my forbidden pain. In L.A., it was the opposite: surrounded by family and friends, I always felt as if I were playing a tug of war with time, digging my heels into the sand.
My parents may have been doing the best they could do at the time, but their preoccupation with their own complicated lives left me feeling in charge of my own well-being. I began having migraines in the second grade. Every cell of my sympathetic nervous system was firing all of the time, the better part of my childhood spent in a perpetual state of fight or flight.
A few weeks after my visit with Dr. Arnold, a naturopathic doctor invited me to attend a kundalini yoga class. My head ached relentlessly, I was nauseated around the clock, and my partial vision was disorienting and discouraging. But I was desperate to get well and therefore open to any means of healing.
To begin, I was instructed to sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor of a dilapidated yoga studio before an older man with a long white beard and a turban to match. His presence lit up the entire room. After a series of gentle stretches, he guided the class in a breathing technique that felt very much akin to hyperventilation (I now know it as Kapala-bhati pranayama. or “breath of fire”), which made my eyes cross and my head reel. The floor could drop away now because I felt suspended, safe.
The breath work also had another unexpected effect: it eased my steely grip on a lifetime of heartache. I’d been holding on so tightly for so long,-nearly two decades, that when I finally let go — eyes shut, cheeks awash with tears — it felt euphoric.
I knew immediately that this was where I belonged, and not simply because the gentle movements of yoga were a welcome contrast to years of daily, self-punishing worko For the first time in my life, I was overcome with the sensation of wholeness, enough-ness. The belief that I was somehow bad or broken became like smoke, exiting my body with every exhale.
Three months and several dozen yoga classes later, I began to notice tiny flashes of light through my left eye, the blind one. My field of vision filled with shades of orange and red.
I eventually learned that I didn’t cause my blindness any more than I cured it. But I am certain that, had my body not attacked itself, I would have continued to do so all on my own. I might never have found yoga or set out on the decades-long road to healing the deeper tissues of my being.
It was terrifying to live in semidarkness, but the blessing of losing sight was seeing the value of my life, illuminated.
Evan Cooper is the author of “Um, Like … OM: A Girl Goddess’s Guide to Yoga,” a book on yoga for teen girls. She is currently at work on a memoir.
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