While watching a television show with my daughter last night, I noticed I was rubbing my eyes a lot. A gray spot surrounded by black was distracting me. The spot began to expand, with bright colored and black moving shapes and lines around it, and yellow lights flashing throughout the colors. It grew to encompass nearly the whole circle of my peripheral vision, but I could still see around the gray area, so I kept watching TV and said nothing.
I was having a migraine. Not the screaming headache kind most people associate with migraines. These are visual, or ocular migraines. I’m not sure which (they’re actually different). I get them occasionally.
The first time it happened, I felt deeply frightened. The moving image persisted whether my eyes were open or closed, and despite its strange beauty—akin to a stained-glass window exploding and melting simultaneously—it was deeply disturbing. I have the unfortunate tendency to do what psychotherapists call “catastrophizing” or “disasterizing” over any particular stressor. In a matter of a few moments, my busy mind careened to every worst-case scenario while simultaneously running through a lightning speed checklist of what to do in the immediate moment. “Am I having a stroke? A seizure?” crashed against, “How am I going to drive home?” “Should I be calling 911?” “Am I going to die?” slid in between fragments of first-aid assessment and a rapid-fire re-prioritizing of my afternoon’s to-do list—if this was bad, which tasks could I postpone? In a matter of seconds, the idea that I might be going blind exploded into images (and associated grief over loss) of my loaded bookshelves, my unfinished painting, my new camera, my not-yet-finished manuscript for work, my children’s faces, the vista from atop Cadillac Mountain.
While scores of scenarios played out in my consciousness, I picked up my phone and googled “visual disturbance.” Despite my tendency to catastrophize, I am usually highly functional in an immediate crisis (though I often fall apart afterward). I recognized that other than the bizarre images unfolding in my brain, I could still see decently and had no other symptoms of illness or trauma (I did do the FAST stroke check, by the way). Google turned up millions of results for visual disturbances, but at the top was an image that bore a slight resemblance to what I was seeing. And I discovered I was experiencing a migraine, and that the symptoms generally fade in less than an hour, so I sat in my car and waited.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m including this story in my blog thread, “A Pandemic Journal, Of Sorts.” It’s because in addition to being a catastrophizer, I am also an analogizer (that one isn’t a term psychotherapists use, because I made it up for myself). I cannot help my constant connection-making, nor do I want to; if I did, my brain wouldn’t function anymore, and life would be far less interesting. Lucky for the people who know me (and who read my blog), I only give voice to a tiny percentage of my tortured analogies!
Last night, it occurred to me that my migraine experience felt pretty similar to the longer-lasting self-isolation during this horrific pandemic. Yeah, I know, a HUGE stretch of analogous thinking (and oh, how ever so privileged), but the experiences echo one another, with the exception of course that migraines are not contagious and their duration is relatively brief.
The migraine began with that small gray splotch that gave me pause as I was binge-watching Lucifer with Skye (my young adult-child who is living with me now that school is cancelled for the rest of the year). But I could still follow the show (argh there are seven seasons of it!). The slowly expanding blotch did distract me because I still fear that it indicates something is very wrong, even though there isn’t anything I can do about it, and also because it comes along with a little nausea and vague headache. My initial awareness of the Corona virus was like that; I watched the news from China rolling in, and worried, but went on about my life as usual, even though my catastrophizing self kept mumbling, “but Ebola…SARS…MERS…” and I had to make a real effort to keep on keeping on. To compartmentalize it. Because most of the time, the things I fear might happen never do (well, mostly).
The visual disturbances of the migraine continued to expand, surrounding my central vision. I watched the show as if through a telescope, but I could still see and think. The narrative continued, but surrounding what I watched on the screen were undulating colors and shapes and sparks of light. My attention zig-zagged back and forth between the two awarenesses. Yet I was safe in my living room and knew that I needed only wait it out and the disturbance would pass. I’ve never discussed my migraines with a doctor (I have so many other health issues that I forget about this one). So I know that perhaps I am at risk for something, but as far as I can figure, there’s really no treatment for the issue.
As the virus outbreak grew into a pandemic, I found myself continually zig-zagging in my attention—what was happening in the world/what I needed to do in the moment. People are dying/I need to buy toilet paper. Everything is closing/what about my cavity that needs filling and my follow-up CT-Scan? POTUS’s malignant narcissism is accelerating to more hideousness/I need to register to vote before Town Hall closes. & etc. In the ensuing days,
As my vision disturbance began to peak last night, Netflix continued to stream, the kittens continued to wreak havoc, and my adult-child ate chocolate. I stopped paying attention to the TV and watched the colors instead. Despite the discomfort and anxiety they provoked, they were startlingly beautiful. I wished I could capture them on video so others could see too (think animated mashup of stained glass windows with Miro, Dali, any/all of the abstract expressionists). Why? Because in my mind, there’s nothing like a disturbing symptom or illness that nobody understands to make you deeply feel the fundamental aloneness of being. So I sat with my existential moment and allowed myself to appreciate the weird loveliness my brain was creating.
The pandemic continues to grow. It may still be on my vision’s periphery, but it has hijacked my attention. I haven’t been out of my house for ten days now except for 20 minutes to go to the dump and purchase cream for coffee from my tiny village’s country store. I’m reading and watching the news and clicking around Facebook a lot. The experience of living in this time is surreal. Someone I know said he feels like he’s living in an episode of The Twilight Zone, and another said a dystopian novel. I feel scared and anxious and excruciatingly sad for people. I feel guilty for the privilege I have. I feel helpless to help others. I feel the utter wrongness of all that is happening.
Yet, I’m just beginning to see the disturbing beauty of it as well. Though we’re all fundamentally alone in our experiences, there’s a shared awareness now that didn’t exist before, and it’s allowing people to connect more, and differently. Amid the darknesses of deaths, economic disaster, and a frightening void of wise leadership, there are all these gorgeous bits of color and light. I’ve talked online with people I haven’t communicated with for years because we all seem to be on social media at the same time. I’ve already written and received several letters, an almost forgotten pleasure. I started posting a poem each day because I was finding solace in poetry and thought maybe others might too, and they have responded to my posts with gratitude. We’re all sharing art, and music, and photographic celebrations of Spring and growth.
Just this evening, I joined a Facebook live event. Cambridge Revels Spring Sing happened online, and I belted out old favorites along with David Coffin as I have for thirty years or more. Nearly eight hundred people sat before their computers singing, posting emoji hearts, and talking with each other in the comments. I cried at the end of it, not because I missed Sanders Theatre or the pub venues of yore, but because so many of us sang together. Mine were the tears that spring from the confluence of grief and gratitude.
I hope we can all keep singing together (whatever forms our songs take) so we don’t lose the beauty and wonder of life to the darkness and fear that threaten to drown us. Yes we’re fundamentally alone—in our pandemic isolation and in our being as humans. But we do build bridges across the abysses, bridges of of love, of laughter, of song, bridges that create light. It will pass. We will be battered and worn down, but we can keep singing.
If you stuck with my post this long, you are an extraordinarily patient and forgiving reader. So I reward you with a link to David Coffin’s (of Cambridge Revels) recent post on YouTube and Facebook. He’s singing one of my anthem songs, “How Can I Keep From Singing?”