July 14, 2015

How I Became Visually Impaired

I think it was the summer that I was seven when I first realized I couldn’t see the stop sign at the end of the street clearly. My mom took me to an optometrist and I got my first pair of glasses.

No biggie. Kids needs glasses all the time.

A few years later, when I was 10, I noticed some little fuzzy, black dots floating around in my field of vision. This was some inflammation in my right eye. It was treated with a shot of steroids (in my eye!) and life went on.

During the summer after my freshman year of high school (I was 15), I completely lost the sight in my left eye.

Towards the end of the school year I had some redness and pain around my left eye. My mom took me to a walk-in type clinic, the doctor there shined his little pen light in my eyes and diagnosed me with “eye strain” because I had been studying for finals, prescribed some kind of drops and sent me home.

Knowing what I know now, that doctor should have referred me to an ophthalmologist. But because we automatically trust people with "Dr." in front of their name, we took his word for it.

After some period of time (I honestly can’t recall how long), those symptoms did go away and we assumed my eye was fine. Not even I knew that I was actually slowly losing the vision in my left eye.

I lived in Lake Tahoe when I was a teenager and each year there is a fireworks show over the lake on the 4th of July. We decided to go see the show that year. We got to the beach where we wanted to watch when it was still sunny. I didn’t have prescription sunglasses so I would sometimes put my mom’s Oakley's over my regular glasses when it was too bright. I went to do this and noticed I couldn’t see anything to my left.

Strangely, I didn’t freak out. I just took the sunglasses off and tested things. I covered my right eye and lo and behold, I couldn’t see a damn thing out of my left eye.

Um. What the hell is going on here?

I still didn’t say anything. I think I figured if I couldn’t see, what could my mom do about it? Besides, it was a holiday and nothing was going to happen that night anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely worried and uneasy, but I chose to keep it to myself until the next day.

My mom found an opthamologist in Carson City and we went right away. After his exam he informed us that my retina had detached. He referred us to a retinal specialist in San Francisco who might be able to help. I think we drove to SF the very next day.

The specialist said that I needed emergency laser surgery to try and reattach my retina. However, my retina had been detached for so long and the vision had deteriorated so far, that it might not work.

One of my most vivid memories of that time was all the tests they ran trying to determine why this was happening to me. A nurse pulled me aside to ask if I was still a virgin because if I were sexually active perhaps it was an STD. Can you imagine my 15 year old horror at having to discuss this?

It wasn't an STD. Ahem.

After surgery I had to lie face down for TWO WEEKS in order for the little gas bubble they left inside my eye to float up and keep my retina pushed to the back of my eye. My mom and step-dad took turns sleeping out in the living room with me to try and make sure I didn’t roll over. I ate hanging my head down. My mom was  a Nazi steadfast about it.

We did everything we could, but it didn’t take. My left eye is dead to me.

It ended up atrophying (shrinking) and looks really bad. I had to return to school for my sophomore year with an ugly eye. Because I am one of the kabillions of Jennifers in the world I became known
as the “one-eye” Jennifer. Horrible, nasty jokes were made at my expense.

I had some friends who would tell the jerks to shut up, and would even explain about my eye for me to those who asked because I did get really tired of explaining it to people. Still, all of this changed me. I no longer looked people in the eye because I was self-conscious. When I met someone new and we shook hands, I would stare at our hands and mutter my "hello, nice to meet you".

After a couple of years the retinal specialist told me I could get a plastic prosthetic eye to sit in front of my bad one. For one reason or another it never happened, probably because it involved more trips to the Bay Area.

The rest of high school went along without incident. Well, without any more eye-related incidents. And even though I still hadn’t managed to get a driver’s license (two learner's permits, though), my mom and step-dad gave me a car for my graduation....

Less than two months after I graduated high school I started seeing little grey/black floaters swimming around in my RIGHT eye. Then, the retina in that eye -- the only good eye I had left -- suffered a peripheral detachment. Meaning, a “corner” of it detached...except there are no corners in the eye. Perhaps "flap" is a better word? It was like there was a bit of a curtain covering a small part of my vision.

My mom and step-dad were away on a trip to Canada. I was going to have to call my grandmother but I really didn’t want to bother her. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe I was just being paranoid.

I did force myself to call my Grama and of course she rushed to my side. We went to my ophthalmologist who confirmed my fears. My mom must have called home (this was only 1992, long before the entire world had cell phones) because the next thing I knew they were cutting their trip short and coming home.

After having a scleral buckle surgery I had to lie on my left side, again for two weeks. But this time it worked. My vision was left a little damaged, but my retina was reattached and things were alright.

Surgery forced me to quit my movie theater job, so once I was recovered, I needed to find something to do with myself. A friend of my mom’s had recently given birth to twins and needed help. I love babies, so I volunteered.

Through my “mommy helping” I had the opportunity to spend a month in Florida the following April. My right eye started acting up again while I was there.

This time I simply noticed a change in my vision. It got ever so slightly blurrier. And again, I didn’t say anything right away. I rationalized that I was all the way across the country, and we’d be home soon enough anyway....

Close to the time we were to be heading home I talked to my mom and did give her a heads-up that I thought maybe something was wrong again, so she made an appointment even before I got back.

The ophthalmologist told us my entire retina had detached and again called the retinal specialist in San Francisco, who scheduled surgery.

The weight of this situation hit my parents and I pretty hard. We became very concerned that I might end up totally blind. It was decided we needed to take a road trip so I could see some of my favorite places in California one more time - just in case. My doctor said pushing the surgery out a little probably wouldn’t make much of a difference, so that’s what we did.

I had to be on my face again, but this time my retina stuck! However, my vision was reduced quite a bit. I was now legally blind WITH correction. The legal definition of blindness is 20/200. That’s right where I was at. That’s right where I am today.

Except for a dry cornea, my right eye has remained stable since I was 19. There is a theory that adolescence exacerbated the problem so once I was through puberty, it calmed down. Seems plausible.

I never did get to have a driver’s license. But I DID finally get a prosthetic eye before my wedding day. It’s funny to me that both my left “eye” and the left lens I wear in my glasses are totally useless, purely aesthetic, vain. Just so I look normal, balanced. It’s kind of ironic I think, given that I pride myself on being authentic. I know that’s one of the reasons it took me so long to get the prosthetic even after I was living in the Bay Area. Isn’t it kind of a lie?

So that’s the story of my bum eyes. I’ve adapted fine. I’m mostly OK with having this disability, but....not always. I do get frustrated by not being able to hop in the car to run my own damn errands. And sometimes it’s extra frustrating as a mom when my inability to drive my kids places means they miss out on something. Also, it causes some insecurities.

Considering the alternative, though, I am very grateful that I can still see at all. I’ve met a lot of blind people, and two close friends are totally blind. It’s doable, but nobody wants to have to do it.

This post was edited from one I published four years ago titled "Blind Girl", and is the third post I have recently rewritten for today's readers.
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