Off North Road : Phantom vision
In the early days of my struggling with the gradual loss of my central vision due to macular degeneration (now termed macular aging dysfunction or MAD), I began having frightening episodes while driving. Frequently, I would pass a line of small children following an older girl wearing an old fashioned bonnet. They seemed to be waiting in line to cross the road. I would slow down rather quickly and, as I reached the girl with the bonnet, the whole scene would disappear - no girls in line, no one with a bonnet.
At home, while watching TV, I looked up at the window at the end of my room and saw a very pretty young girl in Technicolor at the end of my room watching me. I put down the newspaper in disbelief. "The little girl couldn't have been tall enough to reach that second story window without a ladder," I thought, and we had no ladder. I was disturbed. Could I have been having an hallucination?
Several times in the next weeks I would ask Mary Ann if she knew who had just walked through the yard to the street. She said she'd seen no one.
I decided I would not drive for a while until I felt a lot more secure. The front passenger seat in the car became my torture seat. My wife seemed to have become a racing driver and her left-hand turns usually spun me against the door as if to throw me out of the car.
Then I asked the eye doctor about my vision. My depth perception was gone, he told me. That began my own thinking about my several crazy episodes. Yesterday I called Mary Ann to the back window to see the half dozen or more small creatures grubbing on the lawn. They were having a time of it. "I don't see anything," she told me.
There I was, seeing things again. I was so determined to justify myself I went out into the rainy drizzle in a light shirt, got wet in a minute, and found the lawn to be totally clear of any trespassing beasts. I was flabbergasted and slunk back into the house to tell Mary Ann I must be seeing things again.
One day, we received a news letter from Sight Loss Services, Inc., a nonprofit helping organization focused on folks with impaired sight, especially MAD. On the last page was a paragraph about The Charles Bonnet Syndrome, describing some of the scenarios I had been going through. What a relief to find that I was not as mentally imbalanced as I had feared but experiencing the simple result of my impaired vision. It was something I could get used to. It is fairly common and not too mysterious if understood.
Depth perception became the chief clue in the solution. The small children at the roadside turned out to be a row of culvert barriers, the triangular posts of cement guarding a culvert or ditch; the girl with the bonnet became a rural postal box. It seemed plausible. The girl in the window remains a mystery (perhaps a wishful thought that my granddaughter might visit). The small beasts grubbing in the grass were images of dancing tassels of butterfly weed superimposed on the more distant lawn which I could distinguish as I walked closer. Similarly, other objects in my line of vision became changed when they were superimposed on more distant objects.
Perhaps another aspect of the experiences I have had is that a dream sequence will follow me into a room when I awake, and it seems as if there is another person present although never seen after I have fully awakened.
I am reminded of the speed-reading craze during the first weeks of John Kennedy's presidency. We learn a good deal of reading skills by seeing the words in a line of recognizable shapes rather than depending on a beginner's spelling a word one letter at a time. The recognition of whole words, even groups of words, speeds the reader on.
As I think of the phantom images I have experienced, I am brought back to the realization of how mental shapes can take form in one's consciousness without the actual forms being present. This understanding makes sense to me and it helps me through the adjustment of realizing these phantoms were probably going to be with me for a time, perhaps forever.
Now I look for the telltale details of the culvert posts or the leaves dancing in the foreground of the back yard or the shape of a rural post box.
This adventure into old-old age, as opposed to the previous stages of young, middle and old age, is a series of unexpected surprises like these phantoms. Mother, at 98 years old, told me, "Old age is not for sissies." The wonder is that I can still walk a couple of miles, press the keys on my word processor and enjoy the added fruits of one year after another. May they keep on coming.
Dr. Russell Hoxsie, author of "Let's Walk, Lily," published by MV Times Press, is a regular contributor to The Times.