These drawings were to help me understand how intertwining works in drawing and painting. how to make things look intertwined etc. it ended up being quite relaxing and even a kind of meditation. i hope you enjoy them. The go from last to first one drawn, starting with last one first. I am still working on a full rainbow ribbons drawing.
SPACE, MATTER, LOVE
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Gerard Manley Hopkins
December, first snow, 2009
Who hasn’t said, “You don’t know what you are missing,” when speaking of something she believes another ought to experience– sky-diving, say, or a certain exotic brand of coffee or the pleasures of her favorite restaurant. Because I was unaware for years that I lacked depth perception this was literally true: I did not know what I was missing because I no longer remembered what I had lost. I had in fact no idea there was anything to lose. But with prisms in my glasses, and after months of vision therapy and eye exercises, experiencing 3-D, or stereopsis as it is properly called, was as spectacular as it was elusive of description. Nevertheless, I am nothing if not a writer and so I do my best to put it into words and show you.
Early this morning I went to move my car from the snowed-in parking area and found myself at 5 a.m. alone outside. The street lamps next to the building were on. I could clearly see snow falling against the dark sky as I headed towards the lot. Suddenly there was a nearly audible click in my brain and everything changed. I felt as if I were in a snow globe, inside the snow, separate flakes plummeting around me, each on a different plane, riding a separate moving point in space as it fell.
I looked at a bush with its bare twigs, the ends of which were mounded with snow. The contrasts in it were heightened, with the boundary between the blackness of twigs and the white snow crisper than I’d ever seen it. Everything was silent. Along with the exquisite clarity and precision of detail, a rush of affection for the universe knocked me breathless. I stood there smiling. Had I ever seen anything more beautiful than what space had done to this bush with its twigs of snow? This was not the negative emptiness of which some art critics spoke so passionately, but something positive like an embrace. It is difficult to convey what I mean by this: when we speak of space we usually mean the empty gap between masses, between physical entities or things that matter –after all, isn’t that why we call them matter? But in this instance, I meant space as sculptor of reality, and as artist and sculpture both. Space was the loveliest thing I had ever perceived. It had mass and, by virtue of its own volume, gave substance to the objects surrounding it.
But I could not yet put all this into words. At the time I just smiled, and gazed at the bush and twigs and sidewalk and streetlamp in a kind of dazed wonder.
I went back inside to write at my computer. Just as I sat down and put my hands out — out! how lovely that my hands went out into space, I thought – the keys on the keyboard drew my eyes to them. My heart ached at the sight of the fraction of an inch between each key and the computer. The space that was their height above the computer took on a numinous quality that would not let me withdraw my gaze. My typing fingers too. Not only that, but the sheer fact that they were above the keys, the space between fingers and keyboard, then the way embodied space gave form and substance to the small squares –indented just slightly to fit the pad of a fingertip – all this made me laugh with tenderness and delight. I was full of bubbles. Why, the entire world was friendly!
I circled my rooms, hypnotized by space, by how space made everything important. How profoundly dishtowels spoke to me, saying, Towel, Towel. The threads stood up, cupped and defined by emptiness, each one loved into being by the artistry of space. Terrycloth folds were utterly different from a fold in paper and yet that folded paper, bent on an angle around a “shapely void,” struck me as infinitely loving. The sculpted space on each side of the fold was so exquisite it brought tears to my eyes. On I went. Doorknobs yearned, reaching out from doors into space. Bookshelves provided a welcoming recess, intimate and implicit with corners, as if saying, Come in, we will protect you. What a delicious concavity each spoon was, a miracle! My circuit of the room would have been ridiculous, had not everything been so lovely, and so thoroughly devastating.
Mere words hardly serve to describe how I perceived. I felt seized by joy, by delight and yes, by an overwhelming love for all that my eyes alighted on – snow-covered bush, computer keyboard, a friend’s hand extended in comfort. I know that most people understand the first and last, but few are mesmerized by spoon or towel or indentation of computer key. This troubles me. It is easy to love nature or one’s friends. But I suspect overpowering love for every literal thing is not prosaic. Space sculpts the world, and I was abruptly and unexpectedly given the gift to love all of it. Surely such a gift is available to everyone, yet it seems inaccessible, except largely to those crazed by either drugs or illness. Or to others who have regained, even temporarily, long-lost depth perception. Perhaps because so many have always seen space, they have lost the ability to perceive how beautiful it is and to feel how it embodies.
Later these visions, these perceptions faded along with my new but brief ability to perceive depth at all. But I remember near the end looking into a certain receptacle and being bowled over to see that it had a rounded interior. The sheer “interiority” of it, as well as the fact that it implied roundedness so matter-of-factly that I didn’t have to feel it to know it: why hadn’t I understood before? It struck me as sad and yet the most transcendent discovery of my life. If the world was charged with the grandeur of anything, then that something was the positive, optimistic Shaper of things, their Creator, which we instead call, as if it were nothing, “empty space.”
This is a tragedy and not merely for the individual of normal vision, but for humanity, most of whom will never experience a love for spoons and doorknobs or computer keys or hands above the paper or, by extension, love of every object and every nose and every creature in this world, of every thing and all matter, which is shaped by the Space that loves us. This may be the reason we have done what we have done to the environment, the precious matter in the Creative Space around us.
Because we could not see and therefore could not feel how space is the Creator and loves the matter of the world, we have destroyed it, and ourselves in the process. How could we have done otherwise? We did not know. We did not see. And we could not feel the truth: that Space is Love and loves the world and makes us, and all matter, beautiful.
The following may repeat some of what I have written before, though expressed rather differently. I “purloined” it from a letter I wrote to someone I once knew, who I hope will forgive me if he ever visits this blog and recognizes it here.
Life continues to present many challenges, which both the poetry book and Mary’s introduction to WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS illuminate , I suppose, in some detail. But among the thrills and wonders of these last few years of recovery are two that are related to one another but which I would never have dreamed of in relation to me.
I speak of vision, one — of depth perception — and two, of art. I don’t know if you have heard of the recent science memoir by Sue Barry called, Fixing My Gaze, in which she describes her strabismus and her work in vision therapy. Apparently the book has become quite popular, at least around here, after a review in the Hartford Courant (Barry lives not far from Northampton, MA). Strangely enough, I have been writing for the past year about, among other things, my own experience in vision therapy trying to achieve stereopsis . I believe I must have had “3-D vision” at some point, since I did not have strabismus as a child. At least not to the same extent as Barry, and I think I did when very young “see” what others said they saw through those Viewmaster toys (you must remember those binocular viewers with the “3-D” slides?). My later lack of 3-D vision never bothered me, apparently, and I never knew that I was missing anything, until I developed frank double vision about four or five years ago. My optometrist told me I probably had had unrecognized intermittent exotropia since childhood, but that my eye muscles had been somewhat stronger then and so my vision had stayed single. She could not say however if it had indeed been binocular, that is to say that I had used both eyes in seeing.. In any event, it was only when I was given prism glasses in 2008 and in February suddenly experienced brief, brief flashes of stereopsis that I understood what most people see, what I had in fact gone for so long without seeing. The world was suddenly, achingly more beautiful than — well, than anyone else seemed to recognize:
The first time on the Broad Street Green I passed the huge tree with its bark “sticking out” I was stunned, stopping dead in my tracks to stare at the reddish burnt sienna ridges that had suddenly leapt out at me. Stark, knifelike and jagged, the crusty surface was backlit by an early setting sun in such a way that it all seemed limned with light. A gentle roughness edged the troughs and depressions. Spawned from the cortex wood, the bark strained and stretched. I could scarcely believe how the air gently touched and tasted each indentation and projection of bark — as if saying, “I love you, I love every inch of you and my kisses, my airy bearhug proves it.” Just as surely as I knew the air loved that bark, I knew that space, the “emptiness” that cups and holds everything in its place safely, adores matter. This struck me as neither bizarre nor even uncommon, only obvious. What was strange and unfortunate to me was the fact that no one I spoke to about this experience seemed to know what I was talking about…
I cannot tell you (or anyone else for that matter, except perhaps Sue Barry, or Oliver Sacks) how much “space loves us” and everything it touches. Space is what gives us as a gift to ourselves..And when I saw it, saw space for the first time I fell in love with matter, and with the hollows and shapeliness of everything. I wanted to do nothing but gaze upon the world without touching it or or talking for at least a week…I wanted to walk around in silent solitude, experiencing space without interruption, to see without the interposing of frivolous conversation how incredible it was that you write words with pens held above the paper; that when you see a sign or a billboard, there is — and you are as certain of this as of any delusion —the knowledge that there is flatness to it, and that “more space” lies beyond it…Someone’s nose which reaches out in space is far more interesting than their voice, and the way a hand extends outward can be the most lovely thing seen…Indeed, I would tell people quite spontaneously how beautiful they looked, the way their noses projected from their faces, or their hands suddenly coming out at me…
Oh, it is so impossible to convey the sheer — well, even now there are no words for this, no words beyond that single inadequate word, beauty, for which there seems to be no useful synonym. All I can say is that while I felt no better about myself, I certainly fell in love with the substance of the world! Who can say, What is the matter with the world? Seriously? All is the world is the matter, and that matter is more exquisitely lovely and worthy of being preserved than even many principles — Free trade, capitalism, rugged individualism above socialism in any and all forms etc — Americans feel they have a right to hold so dear…
As for Art? In my cooler moments I reduce it to “medicine”, to symptomatology…thinking perhaps this amazing talent, so unexpected and newfound, has merely to do with the Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or seizure disorder with which I was diagnosed after having ECT about 3-5 years ago. I don’t know. (I read in SEIZED by Eve La Plante that not only are there personality changes but one can acquire sudden artistic abilities and interests, almost full-blown after developing TLE..so who knows?) Perhaps not. In any event, (I should mention that this is my theory little mentioned to anyone at all…Not sure to whom I should talk…) starting in 2007 I took up lifesize papier mache sculpture in a serious way, and just a week ago suddenly, VERY suddenly, discovered that I could paint portraits, just like that…I had never done a portrait before, rarely even tried to draw, had always said I couldn’t draw or paint for beans. Then one instant I felt drawn to paint (with which I had always decorated my papier mache, with swirls and colors but not true representational painting) and to doing “real art”. I “decided” I would paint a young man, and then went ahead and fearlessly did so (see first attachment)…Since then I have done one portrait a day. Some imaginary, some from photos…And I have no idea, had no idea I could do so at all! Frankly, ditto the sculpture, though I am getting used to that ability now that I have several to my name…(see two other attachments for examples of earliest pieces).
I hope you won’t mind all this “Wow is me” stuff…I’m not usually so impressed with myself, I assure you. However, while I am at it, I want to send you three newer poems. I actually dislike most of the illness poems in the book, and want you to see what I have been doing more recently, since the DIVIDED MINDS book was finished in 2003. I hope these poems speak for themselves. The “Epithalamion” one got a lot of chuckles, and ought to, when read properly (best out loud). I read it at my twin’s wedding. “To the Reader” will be the first poem in my second book, the opener, though perhaps not as “welcoming” as “How to read a Poem”. And the vision therapy one is about what I have been doing in order to regain stereopsis. Which by the way really works, vision therapy that is, despite the skepticism of most ophthalmologists, who never bother to try it out, just condemn and contemn it out of hand, because it is done by ODs not MDs….VT has to be continually practiced though or like me you can lose the ground you gained after a while. Now I struggle to gain it back. I vow to keep practicing. I do not think I can go without the exercises not after having gotten my eyes to do what they should do. It is so discouraging now to be back at nearly square one, I must admit…
I don’t know what happened, but I don’t believe I am seeing depth any more, or very rarely. I discovered this when I looked at some shelves, and again experienced the sensation of the incredible beauty of space, which told me that I was not in fact used to seeing it. If I were, I would not marvel so.
I immediately started the vision therapy exercises again, in part to test myself, hoping to reassure myself that I could still do them easily. In fact I cannot keep both my eyes “turned on”, even doing so-called pencil push-ups. During these, you wear red-green glasses and look at a white pencil held at eye level and about 12 inches away. The idea is to slowly bring the upright pencil to your nose, all the while keeping it “one pencil” i.e. not doubled, and the white color as red and green (due to the bi-colored glasses). When I do manage to keep both eyes on looking at the the pencil, the pencil itself goes double and blurry. Also, another exercise, when I manage to get both eyes on by holding a finger up and focusing on another object held behind it (the finger should double), then I notice that the background is crystal clear with jumbled intersections near borders, even though I know from experience that they ought to blur if I am seeing 3-D.
Then there is the Brock String, consisting of three balls on kite string tied to a door knob and extended out maybe ten feet. The red ball is 6 inches from the door, the green midway from it, and the yellow ball six inches from your fingers holding the other end at your nose. The idea is to focus on each ball, and see an X form in the string in front of a single ball, then switch seamlessly to another ball, over and over. Well, I do the green and red without too much trouble but forget the yellow ball (the near one). I cannot do that one at all, or at least very rarely. I see two balls and cannot bring them together; the X simply crosses and keeps on going until the balls appear at each end of the X rather than in the middle. It is only when by chance that I start out seeing one ball that I might be able to keep it that way, but then I discover that it is because I only have one eye “on” after all…or that one eye is dominating the other.
I never did get new glasses, the one Dr D prescribed at the end of my Vision Therapy when my eyes had so improved. I imagine there is no point in getting them now, since they were for better vision, right? But is there anything more I should be doing, except restarting the exercises? I wonder…I wrote to her by email, but received a weird “Auto reply” that said only that she would not respond at this time…Did not imply that she ever would…So now I am essentially on my own and I only remember those two exercises. If there are others, I don’t do them. But I do turn my eyes on by looking at my fingers, one in front of the other, several times a day, which is, I think, helpful in its own right, even if the effect never lasts and the desired doubling is small.
I guess it took several months the first time I did this, so I can’t expect miracles this second time, even though I do anticipate that it will take a somewhat shorter amount of time and less effort to get “space” back. After all, my eyes and my brain already know what they are looking for. But it doesn’t bode well for the 3-D phenomenon staying or sticking permanently without continued practice, or at least without continued vigilance…I would hate again to fall into the “not knowing I don’t see it again” non-awareness trap. I did subconsciously understand as I painted the goose that something was wrong, but I somehow refused the knowledge I ought to have looked square in the face. I guess I did not at that time want to know that I wasn’t “getting” the full pleasure from the experience that I ought to have. It might have spoiled it for me, maybe.
Now that I am free, however, I can concentrate on my exercises, and make jewelry, which uses these skills. And see how long regaining them will take. I hope not long. But I must be patient and let it happen as it happens.
On Thursday I will see what I hope will be my last shrink and then I will choose from amongst the three that I have interviewed, though I doubt highly that #1 will be among the real choices. I will certainly count #2 and hope that #3 also provides some real choice. The first is female the second is male, so there are some real differences between them, the female also being an APRN and the male an MD, which is not necessarily a plus. However, we will wait and see, until after I have met Dt Whats his name and have some idea what he is like. Wish me luck. I have my last in-person session with Dr O on Wednesday so I’d better make up my mind soon.
On Tuesday, the day after the big snowstorm in this New England state, I managed to make my appointment with Dr D, vision therapist-optometrist. I had thought that the problem, which was that I was having trouble reading due to the letters becoming jumbled and dancing around the page again, was my “constant or near constant exotropia” come back to haunt me. After three weeks spent largely in one small room in the hospital, a good part of that time using either glasses without prisms or at one point no glasses at all (because the lens had fallen out and I had no screwdriver to fix them with) I thought I’d “lost it” i.e. everything I’d spent so much time learning in VT.
Dr D did an exhaustive exam, or so it seemed to me sitting in the chair, my eyes getting wearier and wearier (!). However, when she was through, I was surprised to find out that the exotropia was actually quite a bit better, that in terms of my depth perception, I needed nothing more than to restart the exercises and perhaps spend some time looking at anaglyph pictures with red/blue glasses again — to reestablish the habit of seeing 3-D. According to Dr D I had all the ability to perceive it that I had had when I left her.
So what was the problem? Well, so far as she could determine, my right eye seemed to have become more myopic than before, enough so that I needed a new prescription. She seemed to feel that it was because of this that my vision felt jumbled, especially after reading a little while. Indeed, when she gave me the card to test my near vision, I could see every line quite well, as I usually could, since I have excellent near vision. But I knew that within minutes of reading a page of text, either in a book or more especially on the computer, I would begin to have difficulty (as I am even now as I write this). She felt that the increased medication was likely the culprit, and that if it was to be kept at this level, I should probably have my glasses changed to accommodate to it.
So all’s well that ends well. I left feeling a good deal cheerier than when I went in, knowing that I did not need to begin all over again, but only to do a tune up by myself, and get a new prescription if my meds are not going to be changed any time soon. (I may wait and see about that, since I do want to reduce the Abilify to a “humane” level, rather than keep it so high for good…I did well on 20mg for 18 months; I don’t see why I would need to stay on 35mg permanently just because of one relapse…Surely the increase need only be temporary…)
Tonight, I started “showing my brain” it could perceive the 3-D images that my eyes already see. I looked for my white, marked pencil for pencil push-ups, but couldn’t locate it, nor could I find the Brock string, though I had carefully stored both somewhere. (Lord help me, I am always doing that: packaging important items carefully with labels etc, putting them away for safekeeping, then promptly and completely forgetting where the hell I put them!) So instead, I put on my red-blue glasses and went to the internet site where I knew there were useful anaglyph pictures to get me started. If you happen to have red-blue or red-green glasses, perhaps from a three-D movie or graphic, you might like to check out this particular site, where the shots of Barcelona, and especially Gaudi’s work, are spectacular: http://www.3djournal.com/001/gal_Barcelona_3D.php
I was pleased to find that after some initial difficulty, I was soon able to resolve many of the photos into layers of depth, even a couple of pictures that before now I had not been able to see as three dimensional. What is more, upon taking off the glasses and looking around me, the world changed: suddenly, amazingly, the magic was back…Space was present again, holding things in its embrace, embodying even the flat surfaces of things, so that they now implied the substance that lay behind.
What do I mean by that statement, that space embodies flat surfaces so that they imply the substance that lies behind? Well, there is a book behind a flat book cover, no? Without the ability to see 3-D, one would not be able to know, without being told, that something was a book, and not merely a picture. The “bookness” of the book, the substance, the three dimensionality can be seen because of what space allows us to see, the continuity of a surface beyond the visible front. When I had not the same 3-D power of vision that I have now, I did not in fact see this continuity, so that unless I “knew” that a surface was a book, and therefore had the substance of a book behind it, I could only perceive the flat picture/cover presented me. It looked no different to me whether a picture, flat against the shelves, or a book, cover facing outward, and I would not know which it was, if I were not told. Of course, there can be monocular clues, clues like shadows and shading, clues like the oval on the top of, say, a glass or the curvature on the top of a book’s spine, versus the flat line of a picture. All give hints, but barring those freebies, space and depth perception are what tell most people that an object has substance, are what implies continuity beyond what is visible. Without the ability to know objects continue in space beyond what is strictly visible, you do not see the same object that the person with depth perception sees, much as you might believe you do. You can only know what you are supposed to see, say, the book, and then see it. But you do not first see the book, and then know it.
For a better example, take that palm plant I used to use as a touchstone for whether or not I could see properly. I knew it was a palm plant, yes, because it had long and multitudinous leaves, a mass of them. Now maybe I would have noticed this anyway, being an amateur botanist all my life, but what I did not do because I did not see them, was try to count the leaves, or find out where they were attached…Was there one stem or several, was it bush-like there, or similar to a tree? Looking never occurred to me, because it was just a jumble of green. I needed to be told what was there, in order to see or even notice it. Without that information, it escaped my vision; I failed to see, I failed to so much as think about it.
But that was before, now it is different. Now, and tonight in particular, the magic was back and sudden 3-D-ness made everything suddenly pop. Once again, I am filled with thanks for my original loss of depth perception, simply because in the regaining of it, I experienced, I believe, a sense of beauty that may be unique to those who, like me, have had to learn or relearn depth perception in later life. It is not something I regret in the slightest. If I missed it for some large part of 56 years, it doesn’t matter at all, because I have gained so much — well, I have no other word for it — magic now that it makes up for every minute when I didn’t have it or know what I lacked. After all, the past is gone, the present is all we have for certain, and the magic is here and now. I’m more grateful for it than I can say.
I combined two subjects in my heading –and they are related — in order to “recapture” as many readers who might come back looking for an entry after three weeks of nothing…
I’ve been in the hospital. Yes, a relapse of schizoaffective disorder, due, I think, to stress, poor sleep, worse eating and terrible time management, in tandem with a flare-up of the underlying infection of Lyme disease (for which I’d had a positive Western Blot test as late as 2006, five years into treatment).
I was in fact overwhelmed, sad, depressed, tired and sick of it all. I wanted to write and do my sculpture and it seemed as if everyone wanted many and more pieces of me and my time. Despite all the successes of the past year, I felt hopeless to change things On Effexor, after a long two and a half weeks, my spirits rose and my hopelessness diminished. I was able to unblinder myself, removing the brimmed hat I wore day and night, and enter the world again (in terms of mood, the affective part of the disorder).
In terms of the schizophrenia aspects of the disorder, this hospitalization was brutal. I heard my name, my full name, being called 100 times an hour, on any given day. When people spoke to one another within my view, I could see (and heard it) that every word spoken between them was my name, and nothing more. The entire ward had nothing better to do than to persecute me by saying, yelling, whispering my name.
Then one day something that really scared me, they whispered, “I’m choking myself. I’m choking myself. Pam, start choking yourself. Start choking yourself.” Always, almost always before this time, when faced with such “command hullucinations” I blindly obeyed the directives of the “dictator-voice,” too afraid to do otherwise. This time, rather than obey and do as he or they insisted, I ran out of my room. I looked up and down the hallway for anyone — anyone! — a mental health worker, a nurse, even the ward secretary would do. No one .
What to do? What to do? I raced back to my room, stood just inside the doorway. No, I could not stay, not with this voice assaulting my brain. I had to find help. Somehow. Then I heard someone coming down the hall, briefly stopping at every room to check on its occupant: the mental health worker “on the floor” which is the say, the one who was assigned to do fifteen minute checks that evening. Stacy, with the long dreads, was just the person I needed.
“Stacy,” I whispered urgently when she came nearer. “Stacy, I need to tell you something.”
“What is it, Pam?” she smiled.
“They’re telling me to start choking myself.”
“They are, the people who talk to me, the voices if you need to call them that.”
She frowned. “You aren’t going to act on that, are you. Now, come. Let’s find your nurse and see what he can do for you.” Then she took my hand and led me up the hallway to the medication room where Paul was doling out nighttime pills too early for my taste. “Paul, I think tonight, Pam needs her antipsychotics early. What does she have?”
He told her what I was taking, and they murmured together a little. I assumed they were discussing what I’d just told Stacy. After I’d taken the pills, Stacy again took me by the hand and walked me down the hallway to my room.
“You gonna be all right now?” she asked.
I nodded, dubious that the meds would do the trick, but hopeful in any event. I knew now that I could in fact ask for help and be given it, that I did not have to obey the voices not even when they demanded action.
But that was only one of many, many incidents. I won’t bother to recount them all, or even just one other, not right now. All I want to say is that the voices never did let up until the final weekend, due to stress caused by a very disruptive patient. It was only the weekend before the day I was discharged, when she’d been booted out, that the ward was tranquil enough for the voices to diminish, and then by Monday begin to cease. Yet even at the very same time, another problem reared its head…
This is chronic neuro-Lyme: plots abounding, exaggerated startle, acute dyslexia, increased paranoia and rampaging ideas of reference…I had them and worse in 2000 during the massive psychotic break at Y2K and I had all or most during this hospitalization in a diminished form, when the antibiotics were changed and failed to protect me from a recrudescing infection.
Now, why or how does Vision Therapy tie into this? It is related because while in the hospital, that closed-in space with blinds on the windows so the view is largely obscured, I lost my ability to see 3-D, to perceive depth and space. I even lost my ability to read or untangle letters on the page or properly read the words on a computer screen. I noticed this one day when I looked to see if the pen was clearly above the paper, and found that I could not easily say that it was, that I was deducing it from the overlap and the shadows. Occasionally, depth perception would flicker on then off, and it was delightful, but most often I found it was off, and decided to let it be. I knew how to restore it, that it could be restored, and that Dr D would help me if I needed help. So I figured, the worst would be I’d have to re-train my eyes, but the best part of that would be the thrill of re-entering the beauty of the borderline between 2D and 3D.
In the follwoing posts I plan to describe the Vision Therapy sessions that help me regain my depth perception, and also in others discuss aspects of schizoaffective disorder, the schizophrenia aspects as well as what I know about depression.
I gave up driving at night many years ago — I simply could not see properly, and it seemed to me that I often saw things that were not there, or mistook vague shadows for the wrong objects, which was unnerving at best and dangerous in more than one instance. As time passed, I simply designed my life around this lack of night vision and planned to be in before sunset unless I had someone else do the driving. It never occurred to me to ask a doctor what might be wrong with my eyes. Nor did any doctor ever inquire as to why I could not drive at night, even when I said as much…It seemed to be simply accepted and acceptable to all, that I, starting at age 35 or so, should be unable to see well enough to drive when it was dark. Perhaps because I was already disabled and unable to work this seemed relatively unimportant to them, perhaps because I was a psychiatric patient it seemed to them somehow “reasonable” or understandable…Or perhaps because I myself showed no particular distress, only acceptance. But this was later not the case, and yet still the MD eye doctors remained aloof and uninterested, dismissive, as indeed my ophthalmologist largely was about my double vision when he couldn’t solve it immediately. It was only when I spoke to my optometrist friend, L, that I felt taken seriously. Not only did she immediately tell me to come see her in the office, that we would get to the bottom of the problem, but once we did, she put prisms in my glasses then encouraged me to see Dr D for vision therapy, knowing how important the chance of regaining stereo vision was to me.
Be that as it may, as to my lack of night vision I gave up a great deal because of it. I used to be a folkdancer and for many years it was a passion of mine, but when I grew unable to drive at night I had to give it up. I stopped visiting anyone after dark if I couldn’t walk there and back and I did not even go to the movies or grocery shopping, except when the drive was extremely well lit and I was willing to take a chance.
Now let me jump ahead to vision therapy. After my eyes “clicked” into place that afternoon/evening and even more in the days that followed I began noticing details and even whole objects that I had not seen before. It seemed that because my eyes had not before resolved certain details, like the boundaries between a near object and the background, which (and I know this sounds weird) had always been just a jumble and confusion of lines, not a crisp boundary, they simply ignored them. What that boundary defined simply disappeared for me. So, for example, if I were looking at a group of objects against a complicated background, the background and the foreground would simply mesh and much of the “picture” would be lost to my sight, to my understanding. A collection of plants sitting in front of a messy bookshelf might defeat any attempt to resolve it into more than a mass of greenery and generic books. I would not have been able to separate the plants into distinct leaves on distinct plants nor distinguish one book behind all the greenery from another. The meshing of lines and confusion of background and foreground would have made it all impossible.
THis is very difficult to explain to anyone who has not had this experience. Indeed, I cannot recapture it for myself, now that I have stereo vision; I can only remember what I saw when I did not have it. Imagine you are looking through an aquarium window and you see dozens of fish snoozing in perfect rows. You can see the rows and sight down them, 12 fish deep, counting each fish and see that there is space between each fish. But without stereopsis there is no space, and the consequence of that is tremendous: Without palpable space, there can be no perceived division, no distinction between the fish either, so that you actually cannot tell how many other fish are there, nor count them precisely. You might know, somehow, vaguely, that there is a “mass” of fish, but to say exactly 12 would be impossible, unconceivable to you without stereopsis. In point of fact, you’d have trouble resolving the fish into anything but a vague notion of a “mess o’ fish.” At best they merely overlap like sheets of paper, rather than sitting each in its own three dimensional pocket. At worst, you can’t tell anything more than that there are a bunch of fish in there. And I’d be hardpressed to say which was indeed worse.
So, once I had stereo vision, I finally noticed, in the sense that I literally could see the plant leaves, the fish and other things I hadn’t seen before. Another newfound aspect of vision was that the foreground became sharp when I focused on it, but the background blurred. I had heard about this phenomenon, but had never seen it before, wondered what people were talking about all my life. When “laser photos” were first shown at an exhibit on the New Haven Green in the early or mid 1970s, everyone was oohing and ahhing over the crispness, the lack of blurring of the background, how everything in foreground and background was so detailed…But I remember thinking, What is the big deal? I see that all the time. And I didn’t understand at all what they meant by blurring of the background compared to the foreground…It was all mumbo jumbo to me. Of course, since I didn’t understand, I simply remained mum about it. I figured, okay, maybe I didn’t get it, maybe I was too science-stupid to understand. I was in fact either an A student just out of high school science or a pre-med post-college student, but since I couldn’t figure it out, I simply chalked it up to my lack of intelligence and moved on. Had I understood the implications both of what I did and did not see, I might have happened upon the problem earlier in my life. (THough likely not a solution, since they were telling people at the time that stereopsis could never be regained in adulthood.
So, here I am, Jan 2009, newly stereoscopic, able to resolve details I could not before, seeing more of the world and even able to notice that the background blurs when you focus on the foreground, and I decide, maybe I’ll try to drive in the dark…just once. I don’t know why I thought it might be different, but I had the sneaking suspicion that I might resolve the darkness differently too.
I started up the car and waited for the lights to turn themselves on (so I wouldn’t forget to turn them off). Then with a little trepidation, I pulled slowly out of the well-lit parking lot. Immediately, I could tell the difference. For one thing the whole world seemed better lit now. I could see, well, details where before there had been only darkness, and confusing chiaroscuro. Streetlights defined things, rather than merely casting shadows onto them, and assisted my vision rather than merely making matters worse. I could see into bushes, could see branches and inside the hollows. Dark recesses, doorways became just that: recesses, doorways, and not just patches of darkness, black blurs to stump and confuse me. My sole difficulty lay with the headlamps of approaching cars — these as always tended to unnerve and “blind me.” I found however that if I concentrated on the road and the side of the road, I could see right through them, that they did not in fact blind me at all.
I once was blind to much of my environment and didn’t even know it. I thought at the time I started seeing Dr D that all I wanted was to recapture the experience of beauty I’d gotten a glimpse of when mesmerized by tree bark — the reason I embarked on Vision Therapy (no pun intended). I never dreamed that I would gain so much more vision and so much more functioning in my life in the process.
I stood inside the snow yesterday evening for the first time in memory. I stood inside the snow. Does that seem like a strange statement? Yes, I have been out in the snow before, though god knows it hasn’t snowed in southern New England much these past years so last night’s storm of whitefall was really something to behold. I was holding my breath at 2pm yesterday, because the forecast had predicted heavy snow starting by 11am and it still was only cloudy by mid-afternoon. Then a half hour later, I looked up from my computer, and lo the sky was white with skirling snow coming down so furiously you could barely see the horizon. Thrilled, though still convinced it would switch to rain mid-way through, I pulled on all the warm clothing I could find, plus two pairs of socks and a thick pair of clogs, mittens and my warmest coat: I meant to go outside in that weather. Danged if I was going to be anything but warm!
Well, I didn’t need to go very far from the door. No one else was in sight except for one elderly gentleman sitting inside the lobby near the Christmas tree, and someone already shoveling snow from the walkway. Neither paid me any mind, which was good because I was not there for attention. Actually, in a sense it was for attention, it was to pay attention to the snow, to really see it, that I had bundled up and gone out there. I thought there would be some need for effort or some, I dunno, some before, before I could see it, but in fact I was inside the snow, within the different levels, layers, depths of it before I knew it. I did know it, though. It was immediately and stunningly obvious to me that this was something I had “never” seen before, or not in any retrievable memory. What I remembered was that always before snow had fallen in a kind of whitish mass, a jumble of flakes more or less undistinguished from one another, because indisitnguishable from one another. I can’t emphasize this enough, how if you cannot perceive depth, you lose detail and even the ability to perceive certain structures because of it.
For instance, I now can easily see certain aspects of my palm plant that before were literally invisible to me, because I could not distinguish one leaf from another…and therefore could not see the details that defined these aspects. Just so the snow. Now, it is so clear to me that many many flakes were falling, and what size they were and even what texture they had. But I know that last year I might have had to guess as to all that, or judge it purely on the basis of the feel of flakes falling on my bare skin. Seeing the mass of white flakes falling would not have given me any more accurate information than that it was snowing a great deal. How many flakes fell per foot, or how big the flakes and what kind, I would have had no way of telling.
Yesterday all that changed. I saw that I was actually inside snow, not looking at a curtain of snow, but within an ocean of it, with snow all around me in every direction for many miles. It might sound strange, but the very act of looking through the spaces between the flakes, the sort of weird tunnels that space made as the flakes fell, was extraordinarily beautiful. It is not something I think that most people see, or perhaps can see, having gotten too used to stereopsis (depth perception) or never having lost it. If there were some way for me to lend others this experience, or have them learn to see it from my persepctive, I would share it, as the world is astonishingly beautiful, and everyone should have the opportunity to perceive it, though without having to lose stereopsis to do so. I suppose that is what the various 3-D movies and anaglysh photos of fantasy scenes offer (to view anaglyph pictures you utilize red/green or red/blue lenses for the 3-D experience). One goes to a 3-D sci-fi movie to be wow’ed by the special effects that are so stunning, and there one appreciates the beauty of that “world” — but does it rub off onto an appreciation of the beauty of this one? Alas, I doubt it. I doubt that viewers of the movie understand that this world is as 3-D as the movie is, and that what they see in the world is as wonderful as what is in the movie. No, this world is simply too prosaic to be seen. It truly is a matter of seeing with new eyes. Which is what I have. As I told Dr D, she changed my life with her Vision Therapy, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Definition of Optometric Vision Therapy
(from the American Optometric Association)
Optometric Vision Therapy is an individualized treatment regimen prescribed for a patient in order to:
- Provide medically necessary treatment for diagnosed visual dysfunctions;
- Prevent the development of visual problems; or
- Enhance visual performance to meet defined needs of the patient.
Optometric Vision Therapy is appropriate treatment for visual conditions which include, but are not limited to:
- Strabismic and non-strabismic binocular dysfunctions;
- Accommodative dysfunctions;
- Ocular motor dysfunctions;
- Visual motor disorders; and
- Visual perceptual (visual information processing) disorders.
The systematic use of lenses, prisms, filters, occlusion and other appropriate materials, modalities, equipment and procedures is integral to optometric Vision Therapy. The goals of the prescribed treatment regimen are to alleviate the signs and symptoms, achieve desired visual outcomes, meet the patient’s needs and improve the patient’s quality of life.
Vision Therapy, it turns out, is regarded with skepticism by some vision professionals — ophthalmologists in particular I suspect, who consider it ineffective at best and a sham at worst. VT got a bad reputation from its unfortunate association with The Bates Method, a therapy reputed to rid patients of the need for glasses by means of eye exercises and little else. So far as I know, this Method was not very effective, despite the claims. Vision Therapy as defined above, on the other hand, can be. Is, in my case. But more on that later. First, let me tell you a little more about it.
First of all, after I had the prisms put into my corrected lenses, I went to see Dr D, the Vision Therapy optometrist, who did another exhaustive exam. When she had ruled out everything but what she called intermittent exophoria (“nearly constant in your case”) she recommended vision therapy, which I agreed to try for 2-3 months of once a week sessions, then re-evaluate at that time. Therapy, I soon discovered, involved using special glasses, polarized and red/green lenses to look at specialized pictures, and exercises meant to strengthen my ability to converge my eyes, something that was essential to my learning to see in stereo and which even my ophthalmologist grudgingly granted might help me. There were other exercises I did, using blocks and my fingers, trying to train my brain in a different way. At first, simple things like keeping my eyes on a pencil as I brought it towards my nose (the trick was to use red and green glasses and keep the pencil in sight of both colors and a single, not doubled image) were beyond my powers. But gradually I found I could not only do that with ease, but could even make a face magically appear between two other faces drawn on a piece of paper. Then I could converge my eyes in such a way as to have it appear in 3-D and be able to look at this from different angles.
Yet I failed most of the time to perceive the real world in 3-D, in stereo. I knew this because I knew precisely when I did see 3D, knew from the sheer beauty of whatever I looked at that I was using stereovision. I had learned that if I had to ask myself, Am I seeing with stereopsis, then almost by definition, I was not. it was clear to me that I knew immediately and without questioning when I was. I could also tell the difference, if I wanted to, by testing myself on the palm tree in my apartment. I knew from past experience that when I saw it properly, each leaf stood out in relief, in its own plane and that I could pick each spear out, pick each one up separately. But when I could not see in 3-D the leaves became jumbled in green, a mess of intersecting lines and overlapping “things” I could not quite distinguish even as leaves.
I was so discouraged by this — not once all the week before had stereopsis come upon me spontaneously, and even when I worked on using it, it had a forced quality that made depth perception tenuous at best — I was so discouraged that yesterday I decided to give up and not do it any longer, or at least to re-evaluate where I was and where I wanted to go. Though I knew I was not actually seeing in stereo ordinarily, despite my success on tests, Dr D suggested that perhaps I saw more depth than I knew, and that the effect was more subtle once one got used to it…that the shocking beauty of it faded once it became a common occurence in one’s life. Fearing that what I was seeing was indeed 3-D somehow, and that the magic was indeed already lost, I told her that I had to take some time off to decide if I wanted to continue VT. At the very least I needed to define my goals in continuing. I left, feeling empty and deflated, certain that both my time and my money had been largely wasted…
Then, voila, as if all I needed was a few days of good sleep, today “it” appeared, stereopsis and the magic late this afternoon. Then again this evening. Even as I am writing this, I have a bowl of yogurt next to me, and the very lumps of it look so exquisitely bumpy, defined by the space that surrounds them, that I cannot bear to disturb them by eating, except that taking a bite changes the configuration and thereby brings new bumps into view! If I turn, I can see Dr John Jumoke, my sculpture, standing next to my chair, and he looks completely different in 3D. His hand in space, reaching out, has a surreal, magnificence – words literally fail me in trying to describe this – the curves of his fingers, the drape of his shirt… all leave me speechless at their beauty.
The extension of any hand or a palm leaf in space is a marvel …indescribable at best, since I am aware that this must seem at best silly to most of you who have had stereo vision since birth, and incomprehensible to those of you who lack it now…The way I can best say it is perhaps what I wrote to a friend last night when drunk with Xyrem and sleep: “one of the gifts of this double vision problem has paradoxically been that learning I didn’t have 3d vision meant I could discover what 3D vision was like, newly acquired. And the world in 3d is gorgeous, magnificent, purely lovely…But no one else understands just how much so, because they do not see this loveliness…”
Later on, I wrote this to Joe (the dear friend paralyzed with ALS with whom my old readers are so familiar): “I saw my entire room in 3-D all evening and part of the afternoon today. This, despite my switching to glasses that do not have prisms in them, which means I have learned how to converge my eyes quite successfully. Partly that is good, but partly it worries me because I do not want stereopsis — that is seeing 3D– to become old hat and something I don’t notice anymore. If it loses its magic, I will be disappointed. I want 3-D to stay special to me, to remain lovely and a thing of magnificence, so that I remain aware of it. I don’t want it to be humdrum and ordinary the way it is for most people. That for me would be very sad. Part of what is so beautiful about it is its very rarity in my life…
On the other hand, I do not want NOT to see in 3D most of the time just because I am afraid it will become ordinary…Or do I? Perhaps I am indeed willing to sacrifice a life of 3-D for those special times when a moment of 3-D comes upon me unaware and wakes me up with its splendor! I would hate to never experience that ever again, which could happen if 3-D were an everyday experience instead.
Oh, I do not know what to do! In fact, I cancelled my next vision therapy session because of this indecision. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue to learn to see 3D or to stop learning more than what I already know…and even to let some of it fall away into forgetfulness again. Dr D seemed to understand my dilemma as she agreed to the cancellation, appreciating how important it was to me that 3D remain beautiful…And it is spectacularly beautiful right now. I cannot convey it fully, as you know, except to say that space is not “negative” the way art critics speak of it, no, space loves the world into being, it caresses every object and person and cups and bears and holds them in its infinite arms, space is the roundness that makes things real, the thing – and it is a thing, – that gives all matter its matter of factness, its density and heft. It is magic, and it is magnificent beyond words…
If this has not convinced you of anything, I recommend an article by Oliver Sacks called “Stereo Sue” (June 19, 2006, New Yorker) about the phenomenon of stereopsis, its loss and the regaining of it in adulthood. In it he describes the experience and the wonder of it better than I have.