Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A New Set of Eyes


I wanted something somewhat goofy for this selfie, because I am, in fact, feeling odd about what happens in about 48 hours: lasers will reshape my corneas, and for the first time since I was six years old, I will be able to see the world without corrective lenses.

Unless you knew me in my youth, chances are you've never seen me in my glasses. I got my first set of contacts in 1982, when I was 21, and since then, I've rarely worn glasses in public. I have this week in preparation for Friday morning's LASIK procedure, and it's got me feeling slightly nostalgic for the bad old days when looking up (and over the rim) meant not seeing anything clearly. Only slightly, though; there are many things about both glasses and contact lenses I will not miss in the least.

Let's start with blindness, which I define not as the absence of vision, but the inability to function visually in the world. I can see without my glasses, but what I see is distorted to the extent that I have to feel my way around the house when I'm not wearing them. Without glasses, I cannot drive, ride a bicycle, or even walk in an unfamiliar place without risking injury. I can usually tell what objects are, but that's mostly because of a lifetime of storing information about them while wearing glasses or contacts: my brain compares the general outline and color of of what I'm looking at with previously viewed objects, and draws a conclusion. Looking over the top of my glasses at the Christmas tree in our living room, the conical shape plus the fuzzy colored light dots tell me what it is. If I'd never seen one before, I wouldn't know it was a tree.

If you've got normal vision, or are only mildly near-sighted, you've got no idea what I'm talking about. Apart from setting a zoom lens to macros and then looking at distant objects, it's really not possible to simulate my degree of myopia. That means you take for granted the ability to see things at a distance greater than a few inches. I can't afford to. If I forget where I put my glasses before I stepped into the shower and there's nobody else home, I have to grope my way around the room until I stumble upon them.

Contact lenses were incredibly liberating when I first began to wear them. It was 1982, and there was a new kind of lens called "extended wear." Supposedly one could wear these lenses for an entire month without ever having to take them out. It would be almost like having normal vision! I remember waking up the first night I had my contacts in, and gaping at how clear my bedroom was. It was magical.

It was also a lie. It turned out my eyes were not suited for extended wear lenses, and I was far from alone in this regard. I nearly ruined my vision with them, as they cut off oxygen to my corneas, causing small blood vessels to begin growing into them, a condition that could have eventually left me genuinely blind. I switched to daily wear lenses, and have been using them for 31 years.

Contact lenses simulate normal vision, but they do so at a cost. There is the literal expense of the lenses and the solutions needed to clean and disinfect them every night, but that's just the beginning. There is a convenience factor that non-wearers don't realize, but which I have just taken in stride over the years. Every night, I have to take my contacts out and put them in a cleaning solution, where they have to soak for at least six hours. I have to be careful to put the vial in which they soak in a place where it won't tip over--it uses an effervescent solution, which means it has to have a small vent in the cap, so if it falls on its side, the solution leaks out--and keep it warm enough to be sure all the hydrogen peroxide in the solution is neutralized by the time I put them back in. If I don't follow these rules--if it's been less than six hours, if the solution was in too cool a place, or if the neutralizing disk in the vial has run out of oomph and needs to be replaced--putting my contacts back in is like squirting peroxide in my eyes.

That's just the cleaning issue. Here's another that normally sighted people never have to deal with: get a speck of dust or an eyelash under a contact lens, and the irritation can be excruciating. There are techniques for shifting the lens around and using it to shovel the offending particle away, but these don't always work. Sometimes the only answer is to take the lens out and rinse it--something that can be impossible to do if one is driving, skiing, bicycling, backpacking, or any of the other active things I do. It also means having a bottle of saline handy and, if one is paying attention to proper lens hygiene, washing the hands before touching the lens; and really, once it's out for rinsing purposes, it's not supposed to go back in until it's been disinfected (six hours), but nobody I know follows that rule. It's a wonder we don't all get pink eye. (Which is another situation necessitating wearing glasses instead of contacts.)

This is how I've lived since 1967, when I got my first set of glasses. It was summer, I was about to start first grade, and it was clear that I wasn't seeing well. When I put on that first pair of horn-rimmed glasses, I was in awe at how much clearer the world became, how much more I could see; so it's very likely I'd been having vision issues for quite some time before that. I had the same sense of wonder when I rode the bus home with my first pair of contacts: there was so much more to see now, a world that didn't go blurry on the periphery when I allowed my eyes to look past the edges of my glasses.

I expect it's going to be much like that after Friday morning. For the first time since those few months in 1982 when I was turning my eyes into a failed optometry experiment, I will be able to focus at night. I'll be able to get out of bed and wander around the house without first groping for my glasses, or just groping in general. I expect I'll be in awe over what I can see.

That awe is not going to go away, either. One thing I've never been able to see is an unobstructed night sky. Camping in the high desert on a summer night, sleeping without a tent, I've only been able to see the stars through glasses. That will change this summer. I can barely wait.

There is one thing I'll be giving up, something that's almost a superpower for me, the only benefit to myopia: macrovision. With my contacts out and my glasses off, my focal point is approximately one inch in front of my eyes. This has come in handy for doing close work, like threading a needle or constructing dollhouse furniture. But I'm not called on to do that kind of work often, and a pair of reading glasses will compensate more than adequately for the loss of this ability. In fact, it'll be refreshing to put lenses on to see something up close, rather than have that be the only time I take them off.

It probably won't make much difference to anyone's perception of me. As I said at the beginning, there are few people alive who remember me wearing glasses, and most of those people have had much longer to get used to me wearing contacts instead. But for me, it will be like I've stopped out into a whole new world.

I can hardly wait.

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