This week my weekly blog is taking the form of story time. I’m always interested to hear about the life experiences that have shaped people I know, the stories that lead to life being the way it is for them, and I guess that’s what I’m going for here. If I was a vlogger this would be one of those “sit down vlogs” where I hold my mug of tea and ramble on about a particular topic, but you’re getting words on a screen instead, I hope that’s okay…
On Eyes and Sight
My eyes are pretty special to me. I have two of them, but one of them doesn’t work so well. I was born with a condition that means I see little through my left eye, and my brain prefers not to bother using it much. It doesn’t affect my day to day, I can still drive, and do any activity I fancy, but when I get tired my left eye wanders all over the place and makes it hard to concentrate on things close-up, especially in low light. If you meet me it’s always best to trust my right eye over my left.
One thing that my sight problems has left me with is a massive respect for eyes and sight. Being poked in the eye or damaging an eye is one thing I am very squeamish about, sight is so precious and it needs to be looked after. The thought of an eye being stabbed, bleeding or similar makes me feel physically sick; if we’re watching films that contain any kind of eye emergency or injury, I have to look away until I am confident it is all over.
I was born with my left eye very misaligned. As a result of this I needed an operation when I was just nine months old to straighten the eyeball in my socket and then to correct a squint. While that meant I looked a little bit more normal, with my eye pointing in the right direction (most of the time), I have very little vision in my left eye.
What Do You See?
It is impossible to answer the question “what do you see?”, but to try and give you some indication, if I cover my rather excellent right eye up I can make out shapes and shadows, which means I am not officially partially sighted, but there is no detail. I would be unlikely to recognise you in the street, and while I could navigate around my own home and probably office, I would be in real trouble anywhere I didn’t know very well, and there would be no point trying to look at my phone or television screen. I can normally make out the top letter on an optician’s eye chart, but in all honesty I generally take a punt and hope for the best, and my optician knows that.
The fact that I have any sight at all is down to some great doctors, who looked after me from birth until I was discharged when I was about 10 or 11 years old, and some amazing parents, who did everything they could to make sure I had the right care and attention.
In all I had three operations, two at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London and one at the Plymouth Royal Eye Infirmary in Devon, and had to visit each regularly for tests and check-ups (which always involved a couple of sets of eye drops – yuck!). I had lots of patch therapy when I was very young, which I will admit was horrible, and have been in and out of glasses since that first operation at nine months old.
My Favourite Colour
I distinctly remember the morning after my final operation at age eight, which didn’t exactly go to plan thanks to the anaesthetic wearing off a little bit earlier than anyone would have liked (maybe a story for another day), looking out the massive bay window from the beautiful rocking horse that was in the children’s ward there (a highlight of my visits!), and realising how colourful the outdoors was. All those greens! Apparently green wasn’t just one colour, it was hundreds of colours, and they were all so vibrant and beautiful! It may well be that this is why I feel both so alive and at peace when I’m in woodland these days. And it’s almost certainly why green is my favourite colour.
The miracle is that while doctors were hugely unsure how long their interventions in childhood would last, there has been very little change in the quality of my eyesight since I was discharged in the early 90s. At one point I was told I could be blind by 40, but I haven’t even needed a new reading glasses prescription for the last few years, and at my most recent check up the doctor said that it was now very unlikely I would see any deterioration linked with my original condition. None. Ever. Which is rather wonderful, I have to say.
Why is Your Eye So Wonky?!
What I do have these days is a very lazy left eye which doesn’t always look in the direction I want it to look in, most noticeable when I’m tired. Thankfully no-one bullies you in adulthood for having a lazy eye these days… I also have poor focus in low light conditions or when the contrast isn’t brilliant, which means I get tired quickly (and move slowly!) and have to be mindful of making sure I have enough light when I’m working on anything that needs concentration. But that’s not so bad, they are minor inconveniences and they don’t stop me doing anything that I want to.
I do have a few memories of the not-so-good things about all this. The patch therapy was certainly one, which seemed to make people stare at me with a weird expression of either confusion or, worse, pity on their faces. As a teenager, I would often be asked why I wasn’t looking directly at someone, people would actually say: “Why aren’t you looking at me, that’s rude!” They might as well have pointed at my eye and said loudly: “Why is your eye so wonky?!”. I would answer that I couldn’t help it but my right eye was looking at them, but I admit it cut deep. Oh, and going back to school after appointments that involved heavy duty eye drops without being able to see enough to write my name on the work sheet was also a bit of a pain, but in fairness my primary school teachers were ace and would let me sit and listen without doing the reading or writing bits on those occasions, but it did make me feel singled-out.
Learning to Catch
The fact is the brain is just incredible. Mine has never known any different, and so has found ways to use the signals coming from both my eyes, one good one, one not so good, to present me with a good enough picture that is in focus, in colour, and has the all-important depth you need to function in a sighted world. When I am using both my eyes, my brain is able to make some sense of the random signals it gets from the wonky side, and do something amazing with it.
One great example of this is when I learnt to catch. And I mean learnt. A lovely teacher in primary School spent ages chucking a ball my way in PE lessons and at break times so my brain could work out where my hands needed to go in order to catch it. Slowly but surely, my brain worked out trajectory, depth, movement, and everything else that you need to catch a ball.
I wouldn’t say it “just clicked”, because it took more time and effort than that, but I have no doubt that the patience of my teacher played a huge role in that part of my development and subsequent enjoyment of sport. I was then able to coordinate properly and had lots of fun playing netball, hockey, football, and other sports that involved reasonably fast moving objects, although tennis has always eluded me but I suspect that’s because I’m just a rubbish tennis player! Who’d have thought a simple game of catch unlock something in my brain that allowed me to enjoy sport growing up?
I also found that, potentially thanks to that training in my early years, I am now able to “see” the path of a ball, arrow, or the like; my aim is not bad at all. And I’m rather proud of my accuracy when it comes to knowing if something is straight or not, perhaps not quite as good as a spirit level, but it’s pretty close.
I’m reliably informed that it is very unlikely my brain will forget how to make those signals into a usable picture. I just need to be extra careful that I don’t bang my head hard…
I have often thought about what would have happened if the doctors weren’t able to help sort my left eye out, if my parents didn’t have the means to get me to all those appointments, or if the NHS didn’t have specialist eye doctors. I mean, with no left eye at all I would most likely have been considered officially partially sighted, may not have been allowed to drive or ride a motorbike, and probably wouldn’t be able to sit for hours at a computer doing the things I enjoy these days. Would I have needed a white stick? A Guide Dog? Would I have needed to learn Braille? I started once and it’s hard! I don’t know. But I’m grateful I don’t have to worry about those things, and that I most likely never will.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my very special left eye has had a hand in shaping me into the nearly-40-year-old I am today. I don’t feel like I have been particularly disadvantaged in life thanks to this thing I was born with, it’s so minor in comparison with many other people’s difficulties. In fact, in many ways I feel like I’ve been given an amazing opportunity to make my life as special as my left eye. My life is not defined by my wonky eye, but it’s always there, reminding me every day how fortunate I am.
I mean, this girl with a wonky eye was chosen to carry the Olympic torch, has ridden her motorcycle in the Sierra Nevada in the USA and in Spain and doesn’t reside in either country, and even featured in a television programme on hiking.
I guess what I’m trying to say in this rather self-indulgent story time style weekly blog is, when life hits you with something that could be seen as a curse, choose to look past the apparent difficulties, and use it to become a better you. These things will shape you, but you can choose how. It might not be easy in the beginning, learning to catch is worth the effort.
And while I’m here, if you are moved enough to offer other children born with similar issues some help, please consider donating to the RNIB (support and community for those with sight issues) or to Moorfields Eye Hospital Charity (research into sight conditions). Both to amazing work and research into issues affecting the eyes, and could do with some support if you can.