It was in Seattle that vertigo hit me for the first time in my life. Because of my nonfunctional vestibular system—a part of the inner ear that gives us balance—I had never gotten dizzy in my life. Any time I went on a whirling ride at an amusement park, I would emerge as steady-footed and clear-minded as ever. I didn’t even know what dizzy felt like. I lost all that as I stood at the top of a hill and looked down.
Everything about the hill looked wrong. The road’s curves looked cramped and abrupt. The trees and cars looked as if they were squashed from above. The world had somehow gone flatter. This new sense of two-dimensionality gave me a profound sense of wooziness and unsteadiness as I descended. This must be what dizziness feels like, I thought as I inched down the hill, using my feet rather than my eyes to sense the hill’s gradient.
Unbeknownst to me, this was the first sign that my vision was in a free fall toward blindness.
The medical textbooks describe my type of progressive vision loss so neatly. It first comes with night blindness, then peripheral vision loss. There are even pictures of what is called tunnel vision with relatively clear image surrounded by a circular swath of darkness. This tunnel of blindness closes in until everything goes black. This sequence of blindness seems so orderly, so neat. This wasn’t how it happened to me.
More things went topsy-turvy after the hill. Everything went hazy, as if a thin white film covered everything. The printed word became slippery and indefinite, growing more elusive as I focused harder. Lights developed a dingy gray glow that cast a depressing dullness on everything. What had once looked straight and sharp, such as a table’s edge, now looked fuzzy and warped. Detail began to leach away, leaving textured surfaces unnaturally smooth.
We humans have a great capacity for self-delusion. I was no different. I came up with all sorts of explanations for my fogged-up vision. It is something fixable. It will clear up and the fog will roll back. If the doctors don’t know what is happening, that means that it’s not permanent. These are all things I told myself as I bounced from one eye doctor to the next, all who gave me the same response: “We are not sure what is happening.” There was still hope in doctors’s ignorance. Most convincing of my arguments was my youth. I was only 26. It was surely too early.
The hope began to fade one day as I looked at my hands in the bathroom. I noticed for the first time that I couldn’t see my fingernails. My finger now looked like a smooth flesh-colored cylinder with slight smudges where my fingernail and knuckles should’ve been. There were no markers of human imperfections: wrinkles, discolorations, or torn cuticles. My fingers looked eerily perfect with their alien smoothness. What I was seeing was now diverging further and further away from reality.
It took me nearly a year to get a definitive diagnosis from an eye specialist. The fog that rolled in wasn’t going to fade away at morning’s light. I now had faded vision and pixelated hearing. I wasn’t quite blind nor quite deaf.