NPR had a guest this week, a brilliant young man who was a junior at Harvard when a freak accident took out one eye.
Surprisingly, a lot depends on having two eyes. We orient ourselves by the triangulation our brain makes when it receives two images (which we ‘see’ as one), one from each eye, each slightly differently placed in space than the other. Our brain figures out where the object is in space through this triangulation. This gives us depth perspective.
He lost that.
He also lost peripheral vision in that eye, and found that he bumped into people unless he managed to place himself where the one working eye could do the side-seeing.
A funny thing happened, and it is a naturally occurring thing, he said. His hearing began to take the place of the lost eye. Through his hearing he began to be able to place objects in space, he could create a sort of depth perception.
It didn’t work perfectly, and he took himself out of society and gave himself a year in a cabin in the woods where he learned to reorient himself, and for him that meant not only connecting to nature, but also connecting to himself.
His situation reminded me of my own entry into MS.
When I got the diagnosis of MS, I lost my way, I got disoriented. This morning I tried to sketch a picture of me and my body (not perfect, but at least MS free) before the diagnosis. What did I lose when I got that diagnosis?
I lost (said my sketch) two things—my public sense of self, largely based on my work, and I lost my sense of my body as strong and capable and able to get through anything including occasional forays of exhaustion fueled by junk food. My self image changed from seeming semi-invincible to being exposed and vulnerable. I was in a tailspin and I didn’t know the answer. I just knew I wanted out.
Moving on with the image of the man whose hearing began to give him a way to orient himself in space, what did I find?
What entered for me at first were stories and interactions with people who were living with MS in ways that made me know life continues, gives joy and contentment. Hearing stories of people who kept living beyond their diagnosis of MS gave me a sense of depth. I began to sense that it was possible that my life could reach beyond the diagnosis of MS to be something meaningful, good, maybe even nice (couldn’t imagine, better than that, my title lied, I didn’t think best was really on its way).
This was a new skill. Turning to people outside of a handful of tried and true soul friends was new to me. I have always been someone who, though I share with dear friends, pride myself on independence. I can turn inward, I can find my own way, insights come to save the day, I don’t turn to other people until they have been proven over time and shared reflections—and I had always kept that number down. Be friendly with everybody and share with only a select few. That was my motto.
When I first got the diagnosis and someone told me about MS support groups I had thought, “The Last thing I want is to talk to people with MS and be reminded that it is real, it is in my life!”
To my surprise that changed. It is fellow MSers who gave my life that depth perception that says that I am more than my diagnosis, that my future holds more—that my self definition includes my loves, my pleasures, my prayers, and also the pursuit of trivial fun.
What happened for me was that after MS came to me, I re-entered the world, humbled, needing the wisdom other people had garnered, the hope they personified for me, and though the road to finding my way took months of hard non-fun work, like the brilliant young man who lost his eye, hearing became my way of finding orientation when I partially lost my vision.