I was sitting in my favorite recliner chair watching what I could still see on the television screen. Other than the TV, the room was quiet and I was
alone. For some reason I turned my face and nearly jumped.
The room I was seeing suddenly was not our front room but a strange one. In shock, I blinked my eyes a couple times, shook my head and once again I was in my own house.
I was fortunate to only have this happen to me that one time, but other folks encounter such scenes repeatedly. For years I never told anyone for fear they would think I was going crazy. I was relieved when a few years later I learned of Charles Bonnet Syndrome.
Bonnet was the Swiss naturalist who described the condition, CBS, in 1769. He first documented it in his 89-year-old grandfather, who was nearly blind from cataracts in both eyes but perceived men, women, birds, carriages, buildings, tapestries, physically-impossible circumstances and scaffolding patterns.
We don't hear much about CBS, unfortunately. But these hallucinations are more common than most believe because only a few with CBS will speak of it, while others fear being thought of as having a mental meltdown.
Being blind poses enough problems without someone thinking we are mentally ill. Only later after sharing with a close friend did I learn of his vision hallucinations. When riding in the car he would see what appeared to be scaffolding along the side of the road.
Another man riding in a car with his wife would suddenly scream, "Stop! There is a train right in front of us."
One woman looked up from her easy chair to see several children sitting quietly playing behind her. Only after standing up and stretching did these children disappear.
CBS usually shows up when a person is losing eyesight rapidly. These scenes may vary greatly; they may be beautiful country scenes, really scary looking people, people in a miniature form or natural size.
There is no medical connection between CBS and mental conditions. People with CBS know these hallucinations are just mirages of sorts; that is, the images are illusions, not delusions. The difference is that people with delusions are convinced that what they see is real.
Patients with CBS may initially second-guess themselves but they ultimately accept that their perceptions have no substance.
In reality, those with CBS have no greater chance for having mental degeneration than anyone else.
The cause of this disorder is thought to be a misfiring in the brain similar to the neurological mix-up that occurs in patients with phantom limb syndrome. As eyesight wanes, the brain continues to interpret visual imagery in the absence of corresponding visual input, just as it sometimes continues to process pain signals from a limb that's no longer there.
Charles Bonnet Syndrome's principal symptom is the occurrence of phantom hallucinatory visions that may be very animated and full of rich details.
Roughly a third of patients with low vision develop CBS, including those with macular problems, cataracts and other eye disorders.
The hallucinations are more likely to occur when the person is alone, in dim light, or when he or she is physically inactive or lacks distractions, such as television. Turning on an extra lamp or two, staying physically and mentally occupied, spending time with family or friends and participating in social activities may reduce the frequency and vividness of the hallucinations.
Often just a quick turn of the head, standing up or even just blinking will stop these visions. Each person must learn what works for him or her; a positive attitude is the key.
Your eye doctor is the best health care professional to diagnose this condition. In addition, your doctor will already be aware of any underlying vision disorders you have that may be associated with the syndrome. A thorough eye examination to rule out additional problems and a few targeted questions about your symptoms are usually all that's needed to diagnose the syndrome.
Sometimes consultation with a neurologist or other specialist will help in ruling out any serious disorders that may mimic Charles Bonnet Syndrome, such as stroke and Parkinson's disease. If you or a love one has such "visions," help him or her understand they pose no mental harm.
Ernie Jones, a registered nurse who retired due to vision loss, can be reached at 529-9252 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.