Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Seeing Things

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Seeing Things

Article excerpt

Sometimes when the visual part of the brain doesn't understand why the eye is no longer sending it images, it makes some up itself.

I didn't start hallucinating immediately. For two or three years after I lost the central vision in my left eye to wet macular degeneration -- a condition caused by the leakage of blood vessels in the back of the eye -- I could see relatively normally.

Central vision is what you see faces with. It's how you read words, fork up a piece of pie or tie your shoes. But my right eye worked fine, so the grayish-black blur I saw in the middle of things with the other eye wasn't particularly disconcerting. I just looked around the edges of the blur.

The visions didn't appear all at once, either. First, riding in the passenger seat of the car, I started noticing, from the corner of my eye, vistas opening in the landscape out the window. I saw little woodland trails I could follow dreamily, even as we drove down city streets after dark. Once we were out of the city, trees by the side of the road morphed into towering brick walls suggestive of a maximum-security prison, sometimes intricately patterned with what looked liked droplets of colored sugar. When I faced front, things returned to normal. These were the beginnings of my hallucinatory adventures.

One day, as I was reading an engrossing story by Alice Munro, the lines of print were invaded. Bold patterns in vivid colors, striped, polka-dotted, some outlined in black like a Rouault painting, took over. They even danced onto the normal edges of what my right eye could see. I forced them away by repeatedly blinking.

Now the hallucinations -- both fascinating and frightening -- were everywhere. When I walked outside, the bare branches of trees oozed into thick green ropes. Stretches of plaid in lipstick red and cobalt blue overtook gray cobblestone walls. In a dimly lighted room, the shapes of hooded people occasionally appeared as if summoned by some higher power. They were not exactly menacing, but they made me uneasy. Who were these faceless beings and who had invited them? Then they melted away, only to reappear as clumps of weird vegetation that swayed in place, as if stirred by high winds.

When I first went to the eye doctor, I described the blur, but not the visions. I was prescribed doses of vitamins and zinc, and endured photodynamic therapy -- a treatment involving laser beams. But none of these succeeded in arresting the destruction of retinal cells at the back of my eye.

In 2008, I was finally referred to a retinologist who had experience with two injectable drugs -- Avastin and Lucentis -- that can be used to treat age-related macular degeneration. And so I began my monthly treatment sessions. First would come a series of numbing drops, followed by several rounds of antibiotic drops. …

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