Tuesday 9 September 2008

one wave short of a shipwreck....

My recent brushes with neurology have shown me how much doctors know about the human brain, but also how much more they don't know. Technology means that we can now see inside the human skull, but any understanding of it that we do have is very much glimpsed through a glass darkly. Thanks to MRI scanning, I have seen what my brain looks like, but I don't feel any closer to understanding how it works. This has never been clearer to me than it is now.

About two weeks ago, whilst playing football, I noticed that the vision in my left eye was slightly cloudy. I tried to ignore it, but it's still a little less than two months since my surgery and my eyes will not have fully healed yet, so I couldn't really help but worry about it. Immediately after the first operation, I had been anxious that the quality of the vision in my left eye hadn't been as good as I had hoped, but as the weeks went by, it seemed to get stronger and stronger until the point where it was at least as good as my right eye. In turn, the vision in my right eye seemed to be a little more variable, and I was troubled somewhat by the way that light fractured as my pupil approached the edge of the smaller lens in dim light. After reassurance from the professor that my brain would learn to tune that out, I resolved to put my worries to the back of my mind and to just leave my brain alone to adjust to my new eyes. The cloudy vision was a bit of a worry, but I was determined that I wasn't going to just go running straight to the professor just in case my mind was playing tricks on me again.

A week later, though, and the cloudiness was still there... perhaps worse... and I could now feel a nagging sense of pressure behind my left eye too. I hadn't been given a handy fact sheet that might tell me what to expect from the operations, so I felt I had no choice but to email the professor and ask for advice. He emailed me back fairly quickly and told me that he would have expected my vision to have settled by now and that I should make an appointment to see him on Monday - yesterday. The wait for the appointment was only a few days but I found it difficult: I was really starting to struggle with my left eye and was finding it hard not to panic about what could be wrong. I resisted the urge to google, but my mind started to dwell on doomsday scenarios: what if the pressure in my eye was dangerously high? what if the lens needed to come out? what if? what if?

The day of the appointment itself I found myself able to put most of this from my mind because I knew I was seeing the professor that evening, but the vision in that eye seemed worse than ever and I developed a headache behind my eyes. I was nervous. The clinic was chaos, as usual, with twice as many patients as scheduled appointment slots, but as I had been slotted in myself, I felt I could hardly complain. I waited an hour and was then called in for the reckoning. The professor tested my vision in both eyes, he carefully and silently checked the pressures and he examined both the surface of both eyes and my retinas. Then he sat back and he gave his verdict: all the empirical evidence pointed to nothing being wrong. My vision was normal in my left eye and better than normal in my right, as it had been when I last saw him; the lenses were attached well and the pressure was good. There was perhaps a thin layer of cells on the stickier surface of the left lens, but this would have been there since the operation that inserted the lens and would be invisible to me. All good news, but why was I seeing a haze? Why was my vision cloudy now when it had been clear before? The professor had no answer, except to say that everything looked extremely good to him.

There are only two possible conclusions I can draw from this: the first is that the professor, one of the most eminent specialists in this field in the world, doesn't know what he's talking about and has missed something that is affecting my vision, or my brain is playing tricks on me.

It must be the latter.

As we drove home, I was both relieved and depressed: relieved because my eyes were okay, but depressed about the tenacity of my brain in hanging onto a haziness that probably wasn't really there. It occurred to me that the haziness had started to bother me at about the same time that I was starting to stop being bothered by the fracturing light in my right eye. In other words, my brain was tuning out one thing and fixating on another, or perhaps it simply inventing something to fixate on.

As you might imagine, this is really difficult to come to terms with. C. wondered if I had substituted fretting over my glasses for fretting over my implants, and she's probably right. But the fact that this is likely all in my head does not make it any less real to me or the symptoms any less bothersome. The bigger picture is great and I'm still really pleased that I had my eyes done and I've been delighted with the results. If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I'd make the decision to have it done all day long. I'm not so naive that I don't realise that if it wasn't worrying about my eyes, my brain would most likely still be fretting about the fit of my glasses or the scratches on my lenses or God knows what. I might still be fretting now, but at least this way round I can see the clock when I wake up in the morning. Of course, if I could stop my brain doing this, then I would stop my brain doing this. Apart from anything else, it is incredibly tiring and I just wish it would stop.

I'm actually pretty stress resistant: I don't really let the pressures and strains of the office bother me, and I am well able to take other assorted crises in my stride. It's the little things that really get to me, and frankly I'm beginning to realise that the obsession with little things is probably a manifestation of problems that I'm having elsewhere in my life. Quite what those problems might be, I don't know, but I do know that, whatever they are, I wish they would bloody go away so I can think about something else for a while.

Meanwhile, I've got some more drops for my eye (placebo, anyone?) and I'm trying desperately hard not to think about my eyesight in the hope that my brain will turn its laser like (over-)analytical focus onto something else less bothersome.

My analytical frame of mind is probably my greatest asset. Turns out it's something of a curse too, and that I'm a mentalist.

It's enough to drive you mad.


  1. Trust me on this one - meditate in some form or fashion. Try counting your breaths, in and out. All the way to a hundred.

    Your brain, as you point out, will fight this at first, but well into the count, its wanderings and your 'voice in the head' will be gone.

    Result - calmer mind, hence less fretting and analysing.

    The num num - zen yogi ;)

  2. I do this, with everything. It drives me properly bonkers, and I absolutely wish I wasn't built that way. I find yoga helps, as does othe stuff that distracts me, but it's hard sometimes, and I find myself actually standing in front of the mirror, looking myself in the eye, and saying out loud, "Stop".

    I also think I am a mentalist. But it's good to know I am not alone.

  3. I do the mirror thing too Cat. I think the worst part of the whole thing is that I am aware that this stuff is in my head, but somehow the knowledge doesn't help much.


    Mentalists of the world unite and take over.

    C just wishes I was one of those obsessive tidiers....

  4. Over a year ago, I noticed a shimmery spot in the bottom of my left field of vision. I had it checked out, and while there was a cause for it, the result is that this was benign.

    Still, it was distracting. My brain kept wanting to look at it and figure it out. This caused a great deal of eye strain and headaches. But eventually it went away. Not the shimmering...the distraction. I still see it sometimes, but my brain is used to it.

    I'm hoping the same will happen with you!

  5. Try focusing on likely Ryder Cup pairings. That'll give you something to think about