April wasn’t only Autism Awareness Month. It was National Stress Awareness Month too.
Last month I started having difficulty seeing. Initially I attributed it to my new eyeglasses. Everything seemed to be pixilating in the center of my left eye. It wasn’t just those annoying floaters. Any text I stared at seemed to fade out, as if a shimmering dark cloud was moving across the page. It felt like holes in my vision. I had a headache that waxed and waned but never quite disappeared. I, who pride myself on my proofreading skills, was suddenly missing typos. Writing became hard. Reading was exhausting. Driving was a white knuckle experience. I stopped doing the New York Times crossword puzzle because I couldn’t make out the numbers in the grid.
I Googled my symptoms. I know, I know. Bad idea. Of course I scared myself. I read about posterior vitreous detachment—strands in the vitreous gel inside the eye, common after cataract surgery, especially if you are nearsighted. Retinal detachment. Pituitary tumor. Macular holes. Ocular migraine. But with ocular migraine, I read, the symptoms resolve between headache bouts.
My ophthalmologist sent me to a retina specialist. She dilated my eyes. “I see a very small hemorrhage, but I don’t think that’s causing your symptoms,” she said. “You can get that just by bending over. I’m going to torture you a little bit. We’ll inject some contrast dye to get a look at the blood vessels behind the retina.”
For a nanosecond I pictured the eye clamp scene from “A Clockwork Orange.”
As soon as she left the room I whispered to my husband Marc, “The ‘torture’ part is just injecting the dye in my arm, right?”
“I’m sure it’s the dye,” he said reassuringly.
I signed consent forms, and a technician took more than a dozen temporarily blindingly bright flash photos. I returned to the doctor, my sight now a blurry pink haze. She clicked through the images on the computer screen. “That inverted smoke stack shape?” she said, pointing. “Classic presentation of central cirrus.” Cirrus? Like a cloud formation? I pictured wisps of water vapor drifting over the surface of my eye.
“The good news,” she said, “is that it generally resolves with time.”
“So what causes it?” I asked.
“We see this most in men in their 30s and 40s, who have ‘Type A’ personalities.”
Which I am assuredly not.
Why yes. We’re intimately acquainted.
And the last few months have been intense. My autistic son Mickey has landed in the emergency room twice: for kidney stones, and for a painful abscessed cyst requiring surgery. We’re struggling to figure out what he will do once he turns 21 this year and exits the school system. (That’s what they call it—exiting. Not graduating. But that is another column.) Last month was filled with psychological assessments for Mickey. Educational evaluations. Doctor appointments. EEGs. Seizure medication changes. A new consulting engagement out of state for Marc that requires him to live all week in a hotel.
I went home and looked up “central cirrus.” Google corrected me: central serous. It had nothing to do with wispy or funnel shaped clouds. I squinted at the screen to read: “Central serous retinopathy: An eye disease which causes visual impairment, often temporary, usually in one eye, characterized by leakage of fluid under the retina. Stress appears to play an important role. CSR can re-occur causing progressive vision loss.”
It’s not just the episodes of acute stress. It’s the chronic concerns that grind me down. Sometimes I feel like the Bill Murray character in the movie “Groundhog Day,” locked in a time loop and endlessly repeating my days. When Bill Murray’s character eventually learns the lesson he most needs to learn, the loop ends. He moves on to a next day. But does that analogy hold up? When you have a child with special needs, you’ve signed on for life. Do you ever truly move on?
I hope so. Because like the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, my eye is an early warning system. It’s telling me I need to learn something critical: how to pace my anxiety. If I don’t figure out how to modulate my reactions to the stress in my life, I’m going to be in serious—not only serous—trouble.
“I’m getting a doctor’s note for a live-in masseuse,” I tell Marc.
But beneath the joke is a darker truth: Stress kills you.
And special needs parents need to live forever.