Painting What You See

cropped-drawingThe simplest piece of artistic instruction is also the most useful: Draw or paint what you can see.

It’s surprisingly difficult to keep our minds from filling in the blanks — we see a cup, and we know the cup is round and three dimensional. Our eyes tell us the mouth of the cup is a flattened oval, but that isn’t what our hands want to make. Our brains know better than what our eyes tell us.

The ability to “know better” and anticipate shape and distance like that is an adaptation that’s probably helped us, in an evolutionary sense, but it isn’t much use when it comes to accurately translating a three dimensional object onto a two dimensional space. That’s when the admonishment to create only what you can see becomes useful.

For me, it’s also a bit ironic.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I was diagnosed with idiopathic intracranial hypertension about seven years ago. It used to be known as “pseudotumor cerebri” — in essence, a brain tumor that isn’t. It mimics all of the symptoms of having a large brain tumor, but without any mass present. One of its hallmarks? Vision changes. As cerebrospinal fluid pressure increases, so does damage to the optic nerves.

I can’t drive, because I can’t see well enough to. I have dead spots in my vision, which are almost impossible to describe. It isn’t really not seeing anything, it’s seeing nothing, in the same way that House of Leaves‘ Zampanò defines uncanny as ‘full of not knowing.’ Lines and space warp and deform around their edges like miniature event horizons, wholly confined to my eyes. Sometimes, I turn my head too quickly and see showers of golden sparks, or scintillations like the sun reflecting on water.

My brain often tries to “help,” by compensating for the strangely existentially horrific idea of seeing nothing, like a kind of neurological horror vacui. It inserts spectacularly mundane things into the places where my eyes don’t work anymore — a spare copy of my laptop stuck in my peripheral vision, or a stack of books I’ve never owned. A poached egg in the middle of the floor. A glass of water that yields only air when I reach for it.
I’m not sure why it does this, but it feels like the bones of a good short story. You would think that having your brain spontaneously insert images into your vision would be the opposite of helpful… Unless hallucinating several bunches of bananas was somehow preferable to what it’s trying to protect you from seeing. Fun!

If I said that coming to terms with the idea of potentially, possibly, let’s-face-it-probably going blind was difficult, I’d be lying, because that’d imply that it was possible to begin with. I don’t know that it’s any harder for me because I work with visual media — who wouldn’t be upset at not being able to see anymore?

I’m at the point where my vision loss has slowed considerably, if not entirely stabilized. With time (and, hopefully, a prolonged remission), some of my vision might come back. A lot of it won’t.

Sometimes, I do paint what I see.

And it’s fucking weird.

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Living my best life is sucking the life out of me.

Its 2:00 in the morning, and I am writing because I have, once again, destroyed my sleep schedule.

Well, not just my sleep schedule.

I have idiopathic intracranial hypertension. It makes me forget things, feel crushing headaches every moment of the day, occasionally lose my ability to see, and want to sleep basically forever. Left to my own devices, I will sleep for twelve hours and still be able to take a substantial midday nap.

Such is life.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow me much time for anything else. This doubly sucks, because what time I am left is also devoted to coping with the headaches, dizziness, anxiety, depression, and other trappings of having a head full of surplus brainjuice. Showering is tiring. Clothes hurt. On a high-pressure day, even holding my head up is more than my neck can manage.

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A small, helpful rock.

Chronic illness demands strange rituals from you.

Sure, you go to the doctor. You take what they give you, though you might find that you have to do so at a certain time of night, or with a certain type of food, or adjust your dosage based on the weather or time of the month you take it. You start developing the small repetitions that (hopefully) keep you functioning.

Sometimes, that isn’t enough. So you branch out — you start adding medicinal baths, special pillows, vitamins, herbs. You go to a massage therapist, maybe an acupuncturist. You stretch, meditate, and spray yourself with magnesium oil. Your house becomes a haven for therapeutic smells.

Maybe you go further still. You look up the meanings and properties of crystals, and leave little groups of them huddled on your shelves or nightstand. You draw sigils on your medicine bottles, and paint runes on yourself in arnica gel and muscle rub.

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All of this is to explain how I ended up with my favorite medicinal rock.

Crystal guides usually give the same set of properties for a given stone — you use rose quartz for love, amethyst for peace and relaxation, and so forth. I come from a magical background staunchly rooted in personal associations. I don’t believe it’s necessary or desirable to reinvent the wheel, but most of the herbs, stones, and other tools I use are ones that I have a personal history with, and what I’ve learned about them doesn’t always match what the guides say.

Selenite is usually used to cleanse things. You can keep it with other stones or tools, or use the little wands to clear negative energy out of spaces like a spiritual lint roller. One crystalworker uses them to help itching from bug bites and eczema. I used to keep a couple pieces of it around to keep stagnant energy from accumulating. Now? I use selenite crystals for pain.

I get terrible neck pains sometimes, a direct consequence of a rare, incurable  neurological condition. There’s no help for it. I’ve been given everything from massage, to camphor gel, to opiates, to tricyclic antidepressants, all to little avail. If the pain becomes bad enough, it means I need to visit the ER for an emergency lumbar puncture and more hardcore pain management (which is also why I have several opinions on how the opiate crisis is affecting the way pain is managed in emergency settings, but that’s neither here nor there). If it isn’t yet at the ER point, I just have to suck it up.

One night, in a moment of sleepless desperation, I picked up a rough selenite wand and pressed it to my neck. And it worked.

Now, I keep a smoothed and shaped wand of selenite in my bedside table, ready for all of the times when pain keeps me awake. I don’t need to do much with it, just pressing it lightly to the places that hurt is often enough to give me enough relief to sleep. Would I use it instead of evidence-based medicine? No, but I also haven’t met a doctor yet that objects to me having a safe, drug-free means of relieving pain. I still need to visit the ER when things become bad enough — I haven’t found any stone that can substitute for having about 15 mmHg of extra fluids siphoned off my brain, unfortunately — but this helps make the other days more bearable.

Sometimes, chronic illness makes you do things. You might give up nightshade vegetables, take up polyphasic sleeping, or begin carrying magnesium oil in your bag.

Or, you might befriend a small, helpful rock.