Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Feeling Your Way Around with Vision Anomalies

Twenty years ago I wrote in my holiday newsletter, “I’ve decided that 35 is the age of the unwanted hair.” You know what I mean, and it’s not just a dark-haired female matter. How many guys say, “I’m growing hair where I don’t want it and losing hair where I want to keep it.” Aging bodies. Wha’cha gonna do?

Another thing I wrote in that newsletter was, “Declining vision makes us more attractive to each other as we age,” which explains why I always liked older men. They were more accepting of my many imperfections. I thought I was pretty funny back then, but here I am 20 years later thinking, These statements are not so funny anymore. Getting old smells bad.

Now, I know declining eyesight is not just an old-age issue. Many of us started wearing glasses in grade school. It’s just more difficult to see as we age or when our eyes behave differently from each other or they become myopic, then, many years later, become hyperopic, but not to the same degree. First, though, I shall share an old eye story.

Imagine hearing a four-year-old boy shrieking, “Mama! He shot an arrow in Arnold’s eye! Mama! Help!” And the mother running to the door to see her horrified, sobbing seven-year-old bleeding profusely from his left eye.

That four-year-old became my uncle, the mother became my grandma, and the seven-year-old became my dad. One hot, humid July 1941 day in a small Wisconsin town, neighborhood boys were playing cowboys and Indians. Arnold played a cowboy. All I know about the “Indian” is that he was older and should have known better than to be aiming an arrow at anyone. What I don’t know is how he felt, nor what happened to the relationship between my dad’s parents and those of the boy, if there ever was one. What I do know is how important vision is.

My dad's prosthetic left eye.
As a child, I didn’t give a second thought to my dad taking out his artificial eye at night and placing it in a glass of water by the bathroom sink. Eventually when grade-school girlfriends started sleeping over, they found creepy what I believed to be normal. It wasn’t until then that I realized not all dads took an eye out at night. [For that story, see "Here's Lookin' at You, Kid."]

To test what my dad must have to live with, I used to cover or close my left eye. Seeing the world in two dimensions, without depth, caused me to misstep, nudge objects I was trying to pass, and feel off balance. My experimentation was prescient.

Talking with my age-fifty-something friend Kent in Minnesota recently, he said, “I’m scared. Since my car accident, I’m scared to drive. If I take a new job, I can’t drive too far, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do what they want me to do. I just can’t see very well. My floaters are so bad, I sometimes don’t know what’s real. I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay my rent because I can’t get a job that accommodates my vision problems. I’m just scared all the time.”

To some, his complaints might sound like excuses, laziness, or irrational fears. All I could say is, “I can relate.”

Understandably, vision problems can also lead to depression. The disability can make a person feel incompetent, ugly, worthless, unacceptable, off-kilter, even paralyzed. Do I see a show of hands here? Side effects, such as confusion, fatigue, eye- and headaches, and a foreign-body feeling in the eyes, cause a person to withdraw from social situations. A feeling similar to autism, IMO. You simply do not want to be seen. There’s always discomfort—with or without glasses or contact lenses. Uneven, lopsided vision, in which one eye sees better than the other, though neither sees well at all, makes a person feel discombobulated, as my neighbor said. Sometimes you don’t even want to get out of bed, Kent felt, because you’ll have to open your eyes and see the out-of-focus, dispiriting world before you.

Not only is it difficult to see from inside your head outward, some people don’t want to look at you, particularly when people recognize that you can’t focus. I fielded a question from a man I had just met, who asked why I was looking at him so strangely, as if I appeared incredulous of his words. Sorry, dude, but it’s what God is doing to me. Of course, the dolt was a judge and would probably run over someone using a white cane.

Folks might think, Just get your eyes fixed. Get glasses or contact lenses. Did that. Got ’em.

Kent has worn glasses as long as I’ve known him (more than 30 years) and has had corrective surgery for his hyperopia, or farsightedness, and astigmatism, but still must wear specs.

In 1994, to correct my myopia, I had radial keratotomy, eight pie cuts into the cornea of my left eye. When it didn’t correct my vision, I went back to the surgeon three months later and received eight more slices. At night, even before I take any hallucinogens, I see a 16-ray starburst, making night driving a circus ride. And now the acuity in that eye is low resolution due to aging’s progressive hyperopia and is at times so blurry, I cannot see out of it. My right eye has been legally blind since I was in sixth grade, so on days of relative comfort, I wear a contact if I want to see or work or drive. If I can’t wear the lens, life is severely off balance.

Another neighbor and I share the Distrust Disorder. We sleep with one or both eyelids open a crack. Aside from the advantage of being able to watch the ghostly spirits making their nightly rounds, the practice turns eyes into repositories inviting dust, hair, and dryness into our eyes. It’s no wonder mucous membranes work overtime leaving their residual sign. Luckier for me than for my neighbor, though, I wake up alone. I can’t imagine someone getting used to the way I look now, at this age!

Some of my spectaculars.
With all the daily changes affecting eyesight, life becomes more of an adventure. Differing sleep patterns, solid and liquid intake, bright or dim lighting, sunny or cloudy sky, windy or calm weather, high or low barometric pressure, dry or humid conditions, and stress all affect how a day will be received and, therefore, perceived. The more you stress, the worse your acuity.

And though language provides a method of describing your vision experiences and self-diagnostic perceptions to physicians, even the most articulate patient can suffer medical conditions that cannot be thoroughly understood nor sufficiently treated. Ophthalmologists may have never met, diagnosed, or treated patients with specific problems. So the patient goes home with their affliction and without answers. Until an answer is pinpointed, life isn’t whole. It’s diminished, duller, less flavorful, with reduced color and sharpness.

As for my dad: his profession of banking moved into the computer age many moons ago, so he had to retire early because his remaining eye grew tired looking at a screen for even brief amounts of time.

And until Kent and I can finally see, we’ll have to rely on feeling our way around. Now really, that’s not all bad. 

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