The last time I went to an optometrist was about four years ago. When they checked my eyes, the doctor said she saw something that she would want to keep an eye on; she also wanted to know if I had any family history of certain diseases. That was the first time I heard about glaucoma.
On Monday I talked a little bit about what’s been going on with me these past two weeks and how the stress has been a bit more difficult to manage because of certain things. I thought I would take off last Friday while Ryan was gone to give myself a three-day weekend that could be used to catch up on various projects and generally get in some extra rest and recuperation. Instead, I spent most of it with various doctors: first my therapist, then my optometrist, and finally a three-hour marathon with an allergenist where I learned more than I ever wanted to know about dust mites.
The optometrist visit is the one that’s sticking with me, though. He was really helpful and knowledgeable, and taught me a lot about my eyes. Like the fact that my amblyopia (lazy eye!) makes it harder for me to perceive depth accurately, and that I can actually corral them with prisms in my eyeglasses. And that because I’ve been dealing with it for so long, actually having both eyes focusing on the same thing is something that might freak out my brain — which is pretty interesting. But he also told me a lot more about glaucoma, and recommended that I start talking about tests and treatment with my doctor.
So, time for the definition: glaucoma is the name given to a group of diseases that damage the optic nerve, which takes the information from your eye to the brain for processing. It’s a degenerative issue, so over time you lose your vision and in some cases go blind. It’s also one of those things that just happen, so there’s really no rhyme or reason for it. Certain people, like African-Americans (check) and those with a family history (also check) are at higher risk. It’s too early to say that I definitely have it, but I’m at the age where it becomes noticeable and concerning.
I haven’t noticed any vision loss outside of the ordinary; my glasses work a little less well than they did four years ago, but that’s just how it goes. I know I have poor depth perception and favor one eye or the other when I need to focus, and when I’m drunk or tired one of them goes right into one corner of the socket and sleeps there. But these things always felt like manageable symptoms of getting older; your mind gets sharper, smarter, better, but your body doesn’t work as well as it used to.
And that’s something that I’ve never minded. I’ve often joked about being an old man, shuffling around and eating applesauce, bitching about the way things used to be. I love the comfortable self-possession of older people; they know who they are and what they want, and they have a much stronger idea about what’s important to them. They’ve lived through so much that they know what’s worth paying attention to and what can be safely dismissed. Well…the best ones anyway. I won’t deny it was a bit of a fantasy to me, being confident about what I knew, what was worth knowing and what I could simply leave as matters for other people.
This, though…this rattles me. I think this is the first time I imagined getting older and being frightened by what I saw. My vision is so important to me. I read all the time. I love watching the subtle changes in facial expressions and body language within people. I love shades of color, and the way the green on the leaves changes when clouds pass in front of the sun. A future where I can’t actually enjoy any of that is not one that I had anticipated.
I know it’s early yet; I haven’t made the appointment with my doctor. I haven’t been diagnosed with anything. But I’ve seen the pictures of my optic nerve and I’ve gone over what they mean with my optometrist. I know that glaucoma happens earlier and more aggressively in people like me. I know that it may be likely I will have to shift my thinking away from “not losing my eyesight” to “losing it as slowly as possible”.
That’s a difficult adjustment to make. It presents a challenge to my embrace of the Four Noble Truths, the ideas of attachment to the impermanent leading to suffering. It’s one thing to recognize a truth on an intellectual or theoretical level, to understand that one day your body will cease breathing and you won’t see anything any more, and to suddenly realize that truth on an emotional, personal, instinctive level. One day, I will die. Oh my God, holy shit…one day, I will die.
The failure of my body has long been an intellectual and theoretical truth for me, and it’s only been recently that it’s become a personal and instinctive one. On one hand, I can be grateful that I have lived in instinctive ignorance for 35 years now; so many other people are forced to confront this much, much earlier and with far less capability to absorb this truth. On the other, it feels like I’ve been given a bum hand. Navigating my mental and psychological issues, and the terrible habits developed by my social and economic background, and learning more about the things I’ve struggled with for so long has been enriching and rewarding and exhausting. This last thing, this new wrinkle, feels like it’s taking me close to the edge of what I should be expected to bear.
But the truth is this: the Universe doesn’t owe me anything. Nothing lasts forever. My eyesight will diminish — it may happen slowly, or more rapidly than I’m prepared for, but it will happen. In some ways, being aware of the clock winding down is a gift; it makes me appreciate what I have that much more.
I love the visual world. And this is a reminder to really engage with that love, to cherish what I see, and to have compassion for those who cannot. I will adjust, of course. I will learn to let go of the things that I hold too tightly to properly appreciate. For now, though, I just want to see everything I can and mourn that day in the future where I’ve witnessed the last thing I ever will.