IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was Blinded by Stress (Literally)

What do you do when you wake up one morning and you can’t see? You freak out, naturally.
Publish date:
December 16, 2015
health, stress, blindness, eyesight, Central Serous Retinopathy

Black Friday, 2012: I woke up in my mom’s house in Texas with my eyes seeing the usual just-woken-up blur. This morning was different, though. Things were still blurry in my left eye.

Rub, rub. Nothing. I ran to the bathroom and look in the mirror. My eyes looked fine, but there was an amorphous bubble in the center of my vision that won’t go away. I didn’t feel any pain, but I was sure I had something stuck in it.

I ran to my mom and asked her to look at it. She did the mom thing and advised me to put a warm compress on it. Because those fix everything. After soaking a washcloth in warm water, I tried it a couple times but had to stop because of the sulfur smell to the water. Thanks, fracking!

I resigned that there wassn’t much I could do until I got back home to L.A. Over the next couple days, I watched the bubble morph in size, trying to relax, but secretly crapping my pants.

By the time I got home to L.A., I was starting to not just see a bubble, but a gray spot over people’s faces. The discrepancy between eyes was starting to mess with my depth perception causing headaches and nausea.

The urgent-care doctor couldn’t see anything either, but my eye test, which I usually ace with flying colors (I’m the only one in the family without glasses) failed in my left eye. It was so bad that I not only missed which way the “E” was turned, but I couldn’t really make out the chart. It had a gray blur all over it.

The doc advised me to go see an ophthalmologist right away and gave me some eye drops because my tear ducts were inflamed.

That Thanksgiving had been the first holiday without my dad. He had died five months before, and I was having a rough time coping. Our relationship was a strained one, but that's not unusual when you consider how many others had the same alcoholic/military/Irish/dysfunctional dynamic. Couple this life event with a typical modern-day, overworked, stressful job at a weekly news magazine and my body was asking for something to blow up.

I got in with an ophthalmologist that week. She scanned my eye and saw something. She thought it was a cyst. A cyst? In your eye? That can happen? Guess so, but it trns out that was still not the case.

She gave me a round of steroids that would hopefully help get rid of the “cyst” and asked me to come back in a week. Turns out it was like throwing gasoline on a fire. A week later, the bubble had doubled in size. The ophthalmologist got me an emergency appointment with one of the best retina specialists in L.A.

The retina doc ended up saving my sight. He knew exactly what it was even before looking at my eye: a hereditary eye disease called central serous retinopathy.

When people that have CSR go through prolonged periods of high stress, fluid leaks in the retinal wall creating a blister bubble in the center of your vision. It usually occurs in men and people with intense occupations, such as fighter pilots. I was a “rarity.”

After being in the office for a few hours, I finally had a proper diagnosis. Treatment: relax.

Easier said than done, especially when you can’t see.

If I couldn’t relax, my eye would have to get a laser treatment that would cauterize the leak where the fluid was coming in.

The next couple years were a game of playing whack-a-mole with my eyeball. After a few months, the first leak was not going away on its own and had to be lasered. My eyesight got better right away.

A couple months passed and another leak sprang; this one was only half as big as the first dickhead of a bubble. I waited it out again but needed to get that one lasered, too.

By this time I had quit the magazine job and moved over to advertising. I traded one type of stress for another. I also suddenly lost one of my closest lifelong friends a year and a day after my dad died. It served as a reminder that you never know when these events could happen and to not take anything for granted — especially relationships.

I tried to educate myself on ways to live with CSR and manage stress. Usual stuff doctors suggest, but we rarely follow: quit caffeine and sugar, eat a healthy whole-food diet, read labels for hidden steroids (skin creams, nose spray). Meditation or breathing exercises and getting quality sleep were a must. I committed to it and it helped. More than anything it came down to lifestyle changes.

The more I talked about CSR, the more friends and acquaintances told me they had it, too. Weird for something that seemed “rare.” Same story: high-stress job, working too many hours, on call constantly and usually peppered with life events that complicate things more.

If you keep putting yourself in high-stress situations, something is gonna happen. Bottle it all up, and it will manifest somewhere. If you’re constantly exhausted by work and your body flinches in fear with each late night “ping” on your phone, it may be time to reevaluate. Listen to your body. It knows.

My dad used to be a HVAC technician. Two weeks before he passed, he told me a story from a year prior about how he was working on a boiler when his arm went numb and he got stuck inside. He thought he was a goner. He even joked, “I was just hoping they’d find me before I’d start to stink.” Nice, dad.

I knew he hated that job, but he worked to put food on our table and a roof over our heads. I wondered what his quality of life would have been if he had kept working on cars like he had loved doing.

You are going to be overworked. It is just the reality of our culture, so you better find something you love to do. I recently left my ad job to focus on the fine arts, a second career and first love I have been juggling for the past twelve years.

It’s a totally scary venture especially when you tell people and are welcomed with either an eye roll or an “isn’t that cute” face. But you know what? It is fucking cute. You know what isn’t? Regret. Oh, and health problems, especially when they're preventable.