Finding My Musical Way After An Eye Stroke

close-up of an eye

In September 2021, the world as I knew it shifted overnight. I woke one morning unable to see properly out of my left eye. I rushed to hospital, where an opthamology consultant eventually diagnosed a Central Retinal Artery Occlusion (CRAO), also known as an eye stroke. It’s a condition where blood flow to the retina becomes blocked by an arterial clot. This often results (as it did for me) in permanent visual impairment. I had lost about 80% sight in one eye. Not just physically disorienting, this felt like a profound loss – especially as it threatened my deep-seated passion for playing, sharing and teaching music. How would I cope?

Adjusting to New Visual Landscapes

It’s hard to describe what the world looks like when you’ve had a CRAO. Imagine trying to look through a car windscreen in heavy rain, but without windscreen wipers. It’s a bit like that in my left eye. Couple that with a normal right eye, and the disparity creates a stereoscopic view that is quite disturbing. It’s similar to the “trippy” vision you get if one of the lenses falls out of your spectacles or sunglasses.

The challenges I would face began to become apparent right away. I used to easily glide over sheet music and lead sheets, or swiftly arrange and produce tutorial videos on my computer. But not any more – I couldn’t see well enough. Or so I thought – but as so often, necessity is the mother of invention…

On every digital device I owned, from my phone to my laptop, even my Kindle, I bumped up the font sizes dramatically. This wasn’t a permanent fix, but I felt a need to start taking back control. I had to make my digital world accessible again, even if it meant reading only a handful of words to a page.

Incorporating technology even further, I began to transition from using traditional paper sheet music to leveraging the capabilities of digital displays. My Surface Pro tablet, with its sharp screen and adjustable settings, became a crucial tool. The flexibility to adjust and zoom into scores digitally has been invaluable.

The affected areas of my left retina have died, meaning I’ll never regain the sight I’ve lost in that eye. But over time, my brain has adjusted to interpreting the world under these more challenging conditions. It manages increasingly to ignore the blurred parts, and interpolates my visual experience from what I can still see. Brains are amazing, aren’t they? On my screen devices, I’ve found a comfortable middle ground, with font sizes still a little larger than before, but manageable.

The Road to Resilience

Some techniques were more about mental adaptation than physical. For instance, shutting my affected eye completely made me happier performing close-up tasks like reading or playing the piano. I still do this sometimes; it removes my depth perception but feels pleasantly normal not to have the “broken sunglasses” effect once in a while. I notice the oddness less these days, but it’s still there – perhaps eventually I’ll be able to ignore it completely.

Driving the car presented its own challenge. Though I could still drive legally, coordinating vision from both eyes, especially on longer journeys, was tiring. Initially the resulting eye strain was too much after even a few minutes. My wife had to take over on longer trips. With patience and persistence, I have pushed the drive-time gradually upwards. Now I can drive for several hours without difficulty.

Coming to terms with my new reality was an uphill struggle, but it was made more bearable by the support of family and friends. I am particularly grateful for the understanding and warmth expressed by some church friends during those trying early weeks. On Sight Loss Sunday (our church had become a Sight Loss Friendly Church with the Torch Trust) the minister highlighted some challenges faced by the visually impaired. He gave me the opportunity to share about my recent eye stroke, and the kind, concerned response of the church community provided much-needed strength.

Embracing Music, Embracing Life

Ultimately, I think the hurdles thrown my way by the CRAO incident have only reinforced my bond with music. Faced with its difficulties, my determination to play, create and share has only grown stronger. While the piano remains a constant companion, I have joined my local U3A recorder group. I’m experimenting with a midi wind instrument, and my worship music journey has taken me back, for a while at least, to the guitar.

Taking The Unseen Path

Every so often, life takes us on a detour we didn’t anticipate, and an eye stroke certainly wasn’t something I envisaged grappling with. But it happened, and I’ve mostly learnt to live with it. I’m thankful for my supportive family and friends, and I’ve learnt to be grateful for the eyesight that remains, at least for now.

None of us know exactly what the future holds. But when faced with life’s challenges, I encourage you to adapt and persevere as much as possible. Dwelling on our losses achieves little. Instead, let’s be thankful for what we have, stay as strong as we can, and harness that positivity to fuel our passions, musical or otherwise!

How About You?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s post:

  • Have you faced any physical or other challenges that forced you to adapt your approach to your music, art or other passion?
  • How have you used technology to overcome obstacles in your pursuits?
  • What lessons have you learned when navigating unexpected life events?

Please add your comments below!