Jun
15
2009

Optical illusions, part one

Today’s adventure was a trip to the optometrist. You may be tempted to snort, but trust me, it’s a great deal more harrowing than it sounds.

First, a bit of history:

I’ve known my eyes were unusually bad since I was seven years old. I got my first glasses in kindergarten, a social stigma that was seared into my five-year-old brain. I don’t remember anything in particular about the next couple of years, but the story my parents always told was that my eyes were changing too rapidly; I needed a new prescription every three months. When I was seven, the optometrist convinced my parents to put me into hard contact lenses (the original, non-permeable kind), on the theory that the rigid lens would help my eyeball hold its shape. It wouldn’t stop the development of myopia, but he said it would slow things down.

I don’t know how well this worked; I was only a kid, and not following the details closely or with much comprehension. I do know that it was always expected that my eyes would stop deteriorating when I ‘stopped growing’. I suppose that’s how it happened with my parents, and how it works with most people.

My father was extremely myopic as well, though amazingly no one caught on to this until he was in high school. (I don’t know what age exactly, but I had two old photos of him; in the senior photo he had glasses but in the sophomore photo he did not.) I remember two stories he told about getting glasses. One was how he was surprised to discover that trees had leaves, ones that people could actually see! He’d thought everyone saw the same green blobs on brown sticks that he did.

The other was about playing tennis. He was on the tennis team at his high school, and I gather he was quite good at the game. However, once he got glasses he couldn’t hit the ball for anything … because he kept being distracted by being able to actually see it. Apparently up until that point he’d been reacting based on sound alone. He had to completely retrain himself to play tennis based on sight.

My father had glasses like the proverbial coke-bottle-bottoms. He had a deep permanent groove across the bridge of his nose from years of bearing the weight of them. His eyes were large and brown, but hardly ever visible — behind their lenses they were smaller than dried pinto beans.

Now, my father’s prescription topped out at around -10 diopters, where it stayed for his entire adult life until his forties, when presbyopia dropped him back into the -9s. I passed that mark — in high school, I think, or maybe college — and kept right on going.

All the way through my twenties I kept waiting for the promised plateau, where my prescription would level out. Didn’t happen. I started to wonder if maybe there was some predetermined level of myopia I was destined to reach, and wearing hard lenses all my life had slowed down the journey without changing the destination.

I tended to only go to the optometrist on the rare occasions when I had vision insurance to pick up part of the cost. So about two years ago, when I found a new doctor, it had been something like five or six years since my last exam. I had managed to maintain the same pair of contacts for all that time, without loss or breakage (though not, as it turns out, without a large number of scratches).

I picked an office near my then-job, based on a referral from my then-boss. This optometrist was an older guy, in the business 25 or 30 years (I forget), and he’d only seen a handful of people in all that time with myopia as bad as mine. ‘Pathological’ myopia, he called it, which I thought was darkly funny. That’s me all over, you know? I can’t just be plain old myopic, I have to be pathologically myopic.

But I brought that phrase home and presented it to the Internet, and a number of things became clear. Pathological or ‘degenerative myopia’ never stops. The eyes just get longer and more out-of-whack forever — or until the strain on the whole system causes the retina to detach altogether. Boom, just like that, you’re blind.

I’m a fucking graphic designer, I make my living with my sight. You can imagine how much this news thrilled me.

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