Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Floaters in the Eye and OCD Vision

The eye floater grew some legs and ran off
In my post about OCD Hypervision, I was speaking metaphorically, but I've also had health anxiety about my eyes and my actual vision. In college, I suddenly noticed a couple gray squiggles floating across my field of vision. I went to the library in a panic, and starting pulling the medical reference books off the shelves(this was circa 1988, pre-internet) to look at the Eye chapter. I found all sorts of scary stuff in addition to the diagnosis that made most sense, floaters. To quote the Mayo Clinic,
Most eye floaters are caused by age-related changes that occur as the jelly-like substance (vitreous humor) inside your eyes becomes more liquid. When this happens, microscopic fibers within the vitreous humor tend to clump together and can cast tiny shadows on your retina, which you may see as eye floaters.
Sudden appearance of a flock of these can be a sign of retinal detachment, and my OCD latched onto this. It was already a hotspot, because a friend of mine actually had a detachment. I made an appointment with an ophthalmologist, after much angst because of my fear of making phone calls, and my perfectionistic self-loathing that somehow I should be able to diagnose myself perfectly before actually seeing a doctor.

The doctor was nice, and patiently explained that my retinas looked fine, and I had floaters, and that they weren't dangerous and if I rapidly flicked my eyelid, sometimes I might be able to shift the floater out of my field of vision if it was bugging me. I was convinced I would never see anything else but my floaters, that I was cursed, that my vision was ruined. I kept checking to see if I could still see the squiggles, and that of course made me more aware of them. I remember reading that eventually your brain adjusts and ignores the floaters, if you give it a chance. In spite of my OCD, I did finally get used to them.

Then in 1996, I had a job interview I was very anxious about, and suddenly a new squiggle floated by. At least I thought it was new, and I spent a lot of time compulsively trying to remember if I'd seen it before and wondering if I should see an ophthalmologist. Even worse was my critical self-analysis, trying to figure out if the stress was making me see the floater, and why the hell did I have to notice it right then, and what was wrong with me that I fixated on this, and if only I stopped fixating on it, it would go away. Was it there all the time? Was I hallucinating? Why was my memory so bad? An on and on.

Simmering with self-hatred, I went to my job interview, and once that stress lifted, I did indeed stop fixating on the spot as much, which made me hate myself even more. I felt defective in my hypersensitivity to stress and to body symptoms and sensations. I knew I had anxiety, but I didn't know it was OCD, and I had a lifetime of believing that it was all due to my personal flaws, my inadequacies. But even people without OCD find a first appearance of floaters freaky, and there's nothing inappropriate about having your eyes checked. The key is what happens after you get checked--if the diagnosis is a harmless floater, but it consumes your attention with ceasing, treatment for OCD could help.

My last entanglement with eye symptoms occurred in 2006, when I started seeing a dark spot float by when I woke up first thing in the morning. It didn't look like my other floaters, and I panicked. I went to the ophthalmologist who said I had fabulous retinas, and said that some visual phenomena cannot be explained. Just what someone with an OCD fear of uncertainty wants to hear! Fortunately, I started with an OCD specialist, doing Exposure and Response Prevention therapy a few months later.

Related Post:
OCD Hypervision
Telephone Phobia: Fear of Making Phone Calls


  1. Now I'm quite curious about how you went through with all of these eye dilemmas and how you were getting it through despite your situation getting in the way. I just remember a friend in Houston who was once also very disturbed with his blurred vision. It was so much that she was vigorously searching for treatment online before she decided to finally have a LASIK consultation. Were you able to put these floaters to rest?

  2. Yes, I went into Exposure therapy for OCD shortly after my eye exam in 2006, and that has helped immensely with the compulsive checking of my eyes. Occasionally I notice my floaters pass by my field of vision, but mostly I am not aware of them, and have habituated to their presence. The dark spot from 2006 is no longer present. I have my routine eye checks every two years, and stay away from compulsive google searching. OCD definitely complicates physical symptoms. I've learned though that no one gets a guarantee that symptoms are harmless or not--I can never research enough to know exactly what's up with my eyes at every given moment. I can follow basic guidelines for preventive care, and follow up on new symptoms, and that is as much as any human gets in terms of certainty. I hope this answers your question!

  3. Could you tell me please what ERP techniques you used to manage your floaters obsessions? I'm keen to know as I'm also having ERP for the exact same obsession. Thanks

    1. Rod, work with your ERP therapist to find the most feared consequence of seeing the floaters in your eyes, and work on an exposure that deals with that, perhaps a script you listen to, or moving on with daily activities instead of stopping to focus on the floaters. Part of my fear at first was that something was seriously wrong, but then it became a fear of always noticing the floaters and having my life ruined by that. In my case, I had this before I had ERP, but my brain adapted to the floaters and most of the time I didn't notice them, because I was worrying about other things, since OCD takes many forms.

  4. As part of your ERP did you ever purposely look at your floaters to try and break the fear cycle?