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3 Things Frank Bruni Learned From His NAION Diagnosis

And here's what I learned.

  • Posted on 19th May, 2022 09:30 AM
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While some health issues are visible to the outside world, many people face chronic conditions that don't have externally visible signs or symptoms—also known as invisible illnesses. In mindbodygreen's new series, we're giving individuals with invisible illnesses a platform to share their personal experiences. Our hope is their stories will shed light on these conditions and offer solidarity to others facing similar situations.

It was just like any other Friday night: After a long, busy workday, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni went out for dinner and drinks to welcome the weekend. When he woke up the next morning, he immediately noticed some blurry vision. “I thought maybe some gunk had worked its way into my eye overnight, or maybe it was the extra glass of wine,” he shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. As the days went on, the blurriness remained, and Bruni headed to the eye doctor to finally check it out—maybe he could snag some eye drops. 

“My eye doctor tells me that it looked like something serious and that I should go see a neuro-ophthalmologist,” he recounts. “On that visit, I was told that I had probably had a stroke of the optic nerve, that I would never see normally out of my right eye again, and that I was going to live forever more with the significant risk of the same thing happening in my left eye...I woke up with strangely blurred vision, and five days later, I was basically told I might go blind.” Technically, he was diagnosed with nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION), and it happens to roughly one in 100,000 Americans. 

As he grappled with this diagnosis, Bruni learned to reshape his own priorities and gain wisdom from others going through similar invisible illnesses—as he shares in his book, The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found, nearly going blind actually helped him see more clearly. Here’s how Bruni learned to manage his condition: 

He started thinking, Why not me? 

“The speed with which you can transition from why me to why not me is the key to not only surviving a very scary juncture like this but to thriving afterwards,” Bruni says. See, many people struggle with some sort of complex, hidden health issue—it might not be visual impairment, specifically, but it might be rare and distressing all the same. 

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“Almost all of the difficulties we deal with are not visible to the naked eye,” he adds. “But if you look around you and do that investigation, you realize that whatever just happened to you, it puts you in robust company.” Only then, he says, you can start to mentally heal. “When you take that self-obsession and self-pity out of the equation and end up saying, why not me? I think you've made an enormous step toward the healthiest future.” 

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He embraced new skills.

With a loss of eyesight, it’s natural to feel, well, loss. However, Bruni says it was just as important for him to reflect on what he had gained. Take this small yet powerful example: “I was never able to consume audiobooks,” he shares. “My attention wandered, and I did not understand how people could remain attuned to an audiobook. Once [my diagnosis] happened and physical reading became a little more difficult, I made a renewed effort to [listen to] audio books.” 

Now, Bruni is an audiobook expert: “Two of every three books I consume I consume through my ears,” he says. “I remember the content in them as well as or better than I remember the content in [written] books. That, to me, is a metaphor—there's going to be stuff I can't do in the future, but it actually may open the door to something I didn't do before that comes to feel like its own wonderful experience and opportunity.” In short: Rather than ruminating on the past, Bruni shifted his focus to the future. 

He found solidarity. 

If you’re struggling with an invisible illness, finding a community of support is so crucial. It’s why we created our Invisible Illness series in the first place—so we can shed light on these conditions and offer solidarity to others facing similar situations. Even virtual connections count, says Bruni: “The Internet does allow you to connect more quickly and efficiently than you otherwise would,” he shares. 

For instance, when he wrote about his condition in a New York Times article, he received a flood of emails in his inbox from individuals struggling with similar emotions. “There were exchanges where I realized other people in my situation have [my] exact same fear. You feel immediately less alone,” he says. Facebook support groups can also be helpful—he mentions the NAION support group run by the Global NAION Support Hub—if you’re looking for ways to connect. 

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The takeaway. 

Bruni faced a scary diagnosis, and he is not alone—many people face chronic conditions that don't have externally visible signs or symptoms. If you are currently struggling with an invisible illness, it may take some time to reckon with your diagnosis and any accompanying lifestyle shifts. But according to Bruni, you can—and will—come out on top. “We are so nimble and adaptable as a species when we're called on to be,” he says. “And when you see that in action in the people around you, it removes so much fear from the equation.”

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