When I was in second grade, I began to notice that sometimes my eyes took a few minutes to adjust from writing or drawing at my desk to reading what the teacher had written on the chalkboard. I wasn’t particularly concerned; I’d look at the board and after a couple minutes the words came into focus. It seemed logical to my eight-year-old mind that my eyes would have to adjust to the distance. After all, they had to adjust to light and dark and that took about the same amount of time. My teacher must have noticed, though, and said something to my parents. My mom asked my dad, “How old were you when you got glasses?” I could have made up this recollection, but I’m pretty sure my dad’s response was something like, “I don’t recall exactly, probably about eight or nine. Around Holly’s– Oh…”
I’d been with Dad to the optometrist before. It was a clean, quiet little office in a strip mall with racks and racks of glasses, some of which were artfully perched on coral and displayed under a glass box, like they were meant to appeal to wealthy fish who like aquarium life but wished it was drier. I had never been in the exam room, before though, and couldn’t fathom what exactly happened in there or how the doctor measured my Dad’s eyes to determine that he needed the coke-bottle glasses he wore in the mornings and at night after he had “taken out his eyes.” I knew this was just his silly way of saying he had removed his contacts; his eyeballs actually stayed in his head on a nightly basis, but I wasn’t so sure that was the case behind the closed door where I had glimpsed the monstrous metal contraption sitting at head-height over the chair. For the first eight years of my life I had distracted myself from such horrible thoughts with the stack of National Geographic magazines that sat on the glass coffee table in the waiting room.
But after my teacher had expressed concern, it became apparent I would soon find out what went on behind the wall of glasses. My parents arranged it with the doctor so that I could sit in on Dad’s exam and then have mine immediately after, and I quickly realized that my fears had been ridiculous. It’s a good thing, too, because I ended up spending a lot of time in eye exam chairs when it became apparent that I, like my father, was becoming very near-sighted.
I got my first pair of glasses that summer and I hated them. I already didn’t like how I looked, and it was worse with glasses. At that point, my eyes weren’t terrible, and I could get away with not wearing them most of the time. One afternoon, Mom asked why I wasn’t wearing them. My grandparents were coming to visit and she knew they would want to see me with the new specs. I said, “No, they’ll make a big deal of it. They’ll call me Four-Eyes!” Mom and Dad laughed and assured me that my grandparents wouldn’t make fun of my glasses. They had glasses; all four of their children had glasses. I think even a few of my cousins at that point had begun getting glasses (the nearsightedness gene seems to have been dominant). They assured me it would be fine. Even so, I left the glasses inside on my dresser as we greeted my grandparents. Sure enough, everyone insisted I go in and get the glasses. When I emerged from the house, the first thing my grandmother said was, “There’s my little four-eyes!” There was no venom in how she said it, only love and I knew it, but my parents’ jaws both dropped open in surprise at the accuracy of my prediction and I gave them a very pointed I told you so look before taking the glasses back off.
For the next three summers, I made my much needed visits to the eye doctor for an updated prescription, each time marveling at the renewed crispness of the leaves on the trees when I left the office. I no longer left the glasses on my desk during recess. If I wasn’t sleeping, I needed them, and I appreciated what they did for me, but I still didn’t like them. So before I started sixth grade, my parents and the doctor determined that I was probably responsible enough to get contact lenses. By that point, I had no more anxiety about going to the optometrist. It never took long to sit in the chair and prove that I could no longer read the eye chart. That first appointment where I practiced putting the contacts in and taking them out and learned how to tell that they weren’t inside out and how to properly clean them was a long one, though. But I got the hang of it. And then, since contacts came in a six-month supply, and my eyes were clearly racing to catch up with my dad’s, my appointments became semi-annual.
I vastly preferred wearing contacts to having glasses. They suited my vanity better, and I realized that I actually really liked rainy days without lenses to get spattered by raindrops. Coming inside from the cold no longer resulted in temporary blindness from fog. I could swim without leaving good vision on shore, although I had to unlearn my childhood habit of swimming in pools with my eyes open underwater (sure, I could wear goggles, but glasses were a burden on my vanity; goggles were emergency only). And whereas there had only been one other girl with glasses when I was in second grade, by middle school, almost all my friends had glasses or contacts. But the dream was always to not need either.
Eventually my prescription got so bad that my choice of contacts became drastically limited (only a couple of brands made contacts as strong as I needed them) and my eyes were the worst of anyone I knew. I was fortunate that my poor vision was only near-sightedness and that it could be corrected with lenses. I know there are many people with much more debilitating eye conditions. But accounting for near-sightedness alone, my prescription remains the strongest of anyone I’ve met at -9.0. If you’ve never worn contacts this won’t mean much to you, but most people who say their eyes are really bad are sitting between -1.5 and -4 (the further you are from zero, the more worse your eyes are). Putting my prescription in the more familiar “20” units didn’t really make sense because I couldn’t see anything twenty feet away. I could focus on things about two and a half to three inches from my eyes.
One time, Kalen handed me his phone with an article to read without realizing I had already taken out my contacts for the night. I obviously couldn’t see his face as I held the device close enough to read, but he laughed so hard he almost cried when I scrolled the touch screen with my nose. I wasn’t being cute, though; I was being practical. The screen was already right there and using my nose kept the text close enough to my face that I could see that I didn’t scroll too far. Hold your device up to your face and try to scroll this with your nose. That’s what a -9.0 prescription is like.
My eyeballs finally stopped stretching themselves out inside my head and I began thinking about laser eye surgery. Several of my friends got LASIK. I’d had a teacher who’d had it done. My dad had had to search extensively for a surgeon willing to do the surgery on him, but he’d had it done and I had seen how much it had improved his life.
Unfortunately, my eyes weren’t exactly like my dad’s and my doctor told me she didn’t think I was a good candidate for LASIK. She said I might be able to do PRK, which was very similar except that it was more painful and the recovery time was longer. I left the office in tears for the first time since I’d been eight years old.
I spent the next several years bitterly envious when people said they were getting or had gotten LASIK, or worse, when they found out how much trouble I was having with my contacts and suggested I get LASIK, unaware I’d been told “no.” Bible stories of Jesus healing the blind seemed cruelly unfair, and sometimes when a contact lens would pop out, part of my mind would wonder if it was really “the scales falling from my eyes” and I’d look up, miraculously able to see. It never worked that way, though.
After we moved south, I had to find a new eye doctor and mentioned my interest in LASIK but that my previous doctor had thought I wasn’t a good candidate. My new doctor asked if the previous one had done any specific measurements or tests to come to that conclusion, and I realized I didn’t think she had. A few preliminary measurements were taken (none of which involved the removal of my eyeballs), and she made an appointment for me with a surgeon in Springfield, where her office referred such cases. My doctor warned me that, even without measurements, the previous doctor’s assessment may have been correct. She offered more explanation and elaboration though, detailing that PRK had a longer healing time but only by a couple of weeks, and it was “more painful” but other patients had described it as tolerable, and the pain was only for a couple of days.
The surgeon’s more detailed examination came to the same conclusion. My eyes were, aside from pretty severe myopia, quite healthy, but not a good contender for LASIK. It came down to my corneas. My corneas weren’t any thinner than average, but because I would require so much correction, they weren’t as thick as they really should be for LASIK to be the safest option. PRK, however, was a slightly different process. Rather than cutting a flap in the cornea to access the appropriate location for laser correction as in LASIK, PRK involves the removal of the surface epithelial cells before the cornea is reshaped with the laser.
Even though my contact use had thoroughly desensitized me to sticking my fingers in my eyes all the time, the thought of the “flap” in LASIK always made me shudder, so the idea of a slightly longer healing time and a little more discomfort that meant my eyeballs stayed more intact suddenly sounded much more appealing, and with the support and encouragement of Kalen and my parents, I scheduled my surgery.
The surgery itself was painless, thanks to numbing eye drops administered at the start, and took less than ten minutes. The surgeon calmly explained every step along the way, starting with taping my eyelids open and securing them with a springy device called a speculum. I fought my comedic instincts, but I wanted to say, “I’m a thirty-year-old woman, Doc; I know what a speculum is, I’ve just never had one in my eye before.” A numbing drop was applied and then a solution to dissolve the epithelial layer, which he wiped away with gauze. Then he told me to look at the green target straight in front of me, right down the crosshairs, and the laser would do its thing. After several rapid fire clicks, he washed my eye with distilled water (an enormous relief after not being able to blink!) and applied a bandage contact that would stay on for about a week and a half, and then the whole process was repeated with the other eye. The nurse sat me up and, aware of the difference I would already notice, directed me to look at the clock across the room. I could see it. Not just a vague fuzzy something, but really see it, read the numbers and see the hands. I walked into that room essentially blind, and walked out sighted.
The next few weeks were a little difficult balancing pain medication and several different eye drops, including a steroid drop that for some reason made me extra sensitive to light (have you ever worn two pairs of sunglasses at once? I have, and it still wasn’t enough). I had several checkups with my regular eye doctor, too, to monitor my recovery. I already liked and trusted her; I’d seen her for a few years at this point and appreciated both her thoroughness and authenticity, but it felt extra special that she was almost as excited about the results of the surgery as I was. She deals with vision problems and corrections all day every day, but she cheered along with me when I read the 20/20 line on the chart without any correction, something I had never before done in my life (I guess unless maybe you count the preliminary screenings we did in middle school with the chart that was all E’s facing different directions, I guess because some of us didn’t know our letters yet, but I distinctly remember standing closer to that chart in line while the kid in front of me went and trying to memorize the order of the E’s, so I might not have aced that one either). After about a week, the bandage contacts came off, and the prescription eye drops tapered off after that, along with any pain and hypersensitivity to light.
Similarly to how I discovered my appreciation for rain when switching from glasses to contacts, life without contacts revealed more hidden self-truths. For example, I always thought I was special in my ability to cut onions with no ill effects. Friends, all that special-ness was down to the contacts protecting my eyeballs, and I now know that onions are a bitch. They’re tasty, but they are mean. Oh man. I had no idea. I’m sorry to anyone I ever thought was a wimp for struggling to cut onions.
I also learned that, even though I’ve been wearing mascara since sixth grade, I’m apparently really bad at applying it. Again, the lenses provided corneal protection that I didn’t even realize, and I have poked myself in the eye with a mascara wand more times than I’d like to admit.
And I no longer have the bragging rights of having the worst eyes of anyone I know, but all these tradeoffs are more than worth it. Almost everybody I know hates going to the eye doctor, but I haven’t had any anxiety about those visits in more than 20 years. Now I go with a sense of excitement, and even five years after my surgery, it still feels so cool to read those tiny letters that I didn’t think anyone was supposed to be able to see. And my doctor still celebrates with me every time.