It Hurts to Look
I stared at the red ring surrounding each blue iris. I thought of a solar eclipse. My iris was the moon. Hidden under the aqua spheres: a red sun.
For the past two weeks my eyes had been in pain. My eyeballs felt like grapes noshed between teeth. Sunlight made me shield myself like a cartoon vampire. I wore sunglasses at dusk and clamped my eyes shut against the blaring fluorescent lights on the Chicago El.
I had moved to Evanston four months earlier. I lived three miles from the city limits of Chicago, the city I hoped to call home. It had been two years since I’d graduated from a small liberal arts college in Michigan. After graduation I floated around the South and Midwest, working seasonal jobs, trying to find some stability. A former military brat, I was used to the transient lifestyle. I had lived in England, Cuba, and Germany, and—in the U.S.—in Georgia, Michigan, and North Carolina. With each move, packing up and starting anew got harder. At twenty-three years old, I wanted to both settle down and to never stop moving. My college friends had found places to establish roots and build communities. I wasn’t sure if I ever would, or if I wanted to.
My eye pain started with two weeks of dry irritation. I blamed it on fatigue. Mornings and nights I worked as an administrative intern at Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre. In the afternoons I folded clothes at the Gap. On weekends I house–and pet–sat in Evanston and Chicago. When sunlight irritated my eyes, I dismissed it as genetics. Blue-eyes are sensitive to light, I reminded myself, donning sunglasses inside the theatre box office. Coworkers inquired about my red eyes. I brushed off their concerns, explaining simply: “The air is too dry.”
Still settling into my new home, I resisted lamenting about my eye pain to coworkers and friends. I didn’t want to be pegged as weak or whiney. Growing up surrounded by military personnel, I had adopted the soldier on attitude: if you were sad, scared, or lonely you simply sucked it up and dealt with it on your own. I viewed self-sufficiency as the ultimate sign of strength. Unfortunately, this view often left me feeling isolated. When I was lonely after a new move, I kept the feelings to myself, choosing to be miserable at home rather than invite someone over. If I felt unwell, I didn’t complain or do anything about it until I was too sick to stand. I wanted to reach out to people, but I worried that doing so would make me seem clingy or dependent – qualities that wouldn’t earn me many friends. I fended for myself rather than burdening others with my worries or concerns. As my eye pain increased daily, I stayed mute, hoping the ailment would heal itself.
The first sign that my eyes suffered from more than fatigue occurred at Lifeline. I sat in the Managing Director’s office discussing that evening’s Bingo n’ Booze fundraiser. Allison sat with her back to a window. Silver light from the overcast February sky surrounded her like a glowing aura. I tried to look at her. Each time my eyes found her face they dove to a dark corner.
Following my gaze, Allison looked at the corner. I could hear her thinking: What’s there?
I asked if she minded my facing the wall. “It hurts to look at you,” I said. "I mean it hurts to look at the window behind you. Bright lights hurt my eyes recently.”
She turned to the cloud covered sky then back at me.
“I think I’m just tired,” I said, angling my seat towards the wall.
At Bingo n’ Booze, the bar’s dim lighting felt like screwdrivers tightening my pupils. I stared at the floor whenever possible. I didn’t know if tears welled in my eyes from pain or a natural defense mechanism against the assaulting light. At the end of the night, riding the train alone to Evanston, I wore sunglasses. The next morning I awoke to the red rings in my eyes.
The longer I stared, the more the red seemed to seep into the whites of my corneas. My eyelids were swollen and purple. I pulled out my laptop and searched for “eye care specialists in Evanston.” The blue light of the computer screen felt like a dryer ball shoved into my corneas. I found an optometrist three blocks away. While the number rang, I shut my blinds, blocking as much light as possible. A woman answered. I said I needed an appointment.
“We have an opening at 3:30 today and 2 p.m. tomorrow,” she said.
I chose 2 p.m. My eye problems didn’t warrant missing work.
The receptionist went through the spiel of bringing a photo ID and health insurance card. I said I was having problems with my contacts. She asked for the symptoms.
“For the past few weeks I’ve grown more sensitive to light,” I said. I felt like a hypochondriac. “It’s gotten to the point where I can’t have any lights on.”
“Oh.” Her chipper tone dropped. “Are you sure you want to come in tomorrow?”
“Yes. I have to be at my internship by ten today.”
“Ma’am, do your eyes hurt?”
“My actual eyeballs?”
“Yeah. They’re excruciating, really.”
“How long have they been hurting?”
“About two weeks.”
She told me to come in at 10:30 a.m. They didn’t open until 11:00 a.m.
I tried to keep my voice from shaking. Was this really that serious? “I wasn’t planning on calling in sick to work,” I said.
“I think you should come to the office," she said flatly.
At the optometrist’s office my fingers dug into my purse. I felt my wallet, my phone, a hairbrush, and other random items. Fingering the objects gave my fidgety hands something to do. Sweat welled in my palms. Dr. Green sat on a stool in front of me. Our knees touched.
I hated going to the eye doctor. I didn’t like the intimacy of the dark exam room or the “A or B” tests that made me question my own judgment. The exams made me think of the forced-open eye scene from A Clockwork Orange. What I hated most was the need for the optometrist. Unlike my teeth or my weight, I had no control over the deterioration of my eyes. No amount of flossing or exercise would give me 20/20 vision, and I had to rely on an optometrist in order to see. I was in the fifth grade when I got my first pair of glasses. I wore them for five years. When, during my sophomore year of high school, I got contacts, I vowed to never wear glasses again. Contacts not only disguised my need for prescriptive eyewear, but, by affixing straight onto the eyeball, contacts provided sharper focus and therefore – in my mind – less need for eye exams. Still, with each optometrist visit my anxiety increased. I worried about the day when my prescription became so bad that contacts no longer worked.
Dr. Green swung the phoropter in front of my face. He tapped the crescent perch behind the “A or B” lenses. “Rest your chin here and look straight ahead,” he said.
He shot a beam of light into my eyes. I could almost hear my pupils sizzle from the sharp, burning light.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed.
We simultaneously jerked back from the equipment – him in surprise, me in pain. Dr. Green’s eyes were wide.
“Shit,” he said again. He shook his head, cleared his throat, and looked hesitantly at the equipment. “Let’s take one more look.”
I leaned onto the chinrest again. Dr. Green counted to three and turned on the light. Tears sprang from my eyes. Dr. Green pushed the phoropter away and offered a box of tissues.
“Can you get by without your contacts?”
“Not out and about,” I said, sopping up the tears. “My glasses are about five years old.”
“You’re going to need to stop wearing your contacts.”
Dr. Green rolled to the exam room door and pointed at a poster with four picture squares. Each image contained a close-up of a green-brown iris and black pupil. The first picture showed a few small white dots in the pupil. The fourth picture showed dense clusters of white dots scattered throughout the pupil and iris, like a field of cotton. “This is your eye,” Dr. Green said, gazing at the image. “Like a galaxy of stars in there.” He turned to me. “Yours is one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen.”
I chewed my bottom lip.
“So I’ll be without my contacts for a week?”
Dr. Green stood. “It could be longer. I’m sending you down the street to Dr. Wu. He’s an eye surgeon." He opened the door and motioned for me to follow.
My voice climbed an octave. “Do you think I need eye surgery?”
“I think you need to cancel your plans for today.”
He asked the receptionist to dial the ophthalmologist’s office. I listened as he spoke with Dr. Wu. He asked about squeezing me in and used words ending in itis. “Maybe keratitis or uveitis,” he said. “It looks bad.”
The word “surgery” flashed in my head like a neon motel sign. What did eye surgery entail? Would I be put under anesthesia? Or would I watch instruments stab and peel back my cornea? Would I be blinded while I healed? I thought of everyone I knew in Chicago. I moved around so much that it took me a while to make close friends. My father had family in Chicago, but, growing up abroad, I rarely saw them. My half-sister had moved to Chicago around the same time I did, but I knew her about as well as I did my new roommates. My parents and my boyfriend were several states away. If I needed surgery, who could I ask to go with me?
Dr. Green and Dr. Wu set my appointment for 2 p.m.
“Did you walk or drive here?” Dr. Green asked.
I told him I walked.
“You should take your contacts out right now,” he said.
“Is it really that bad?”
He brought me back to the poster with the four gradually worsening eyes. He pointed at the worst one. “These white dots are small tears in your cornea.” I stared at the constellations. “How often do you change your contacts?”
“Once a month.” My mouth was dry. I hadn’t eaten, but I felt like I might throw up.
Dr. Green sighed. “Those are the worst kind.” He pointed at each white dot. “Your contacts probably had small tears you couldn’t see. Each time you wore the contacts they scratched your eye. Then the scratches became infected under the contacts.”
“Is that when my eyes got dry and scratchy?”
He nodded. “You gave yourself the infection over and over.”
I imagined myself lying in bed, eyes swathed in gauze and patches.
I thanked Dr. Green and left. Outside, I tore out my contacts and threw them in a trashcan. Tears welled. It was as if two fingers had been poking my eyeballs and suddenly released.
Back in my apartment, I burrowed under my comforter. The absence of light felt good. I checked the time on my phone. 11 a.m. Three hours until I possibly learned I would lose my sight forever.
Despite what Dr. Green had said, I didn’t blame the infection on the tears in my contacts. I blamed myself. My need to be staunchly independent prohibited me from reaching out to people. A counselor had once called me “fiercely independent” and I’d worn her words like a badge of honor. As I hid beneath my quilt, I realized she hadn’t meant the description as a compliment. Needing people wasn’t a weakness; it was necessary. Had I told someone about my eye pain, maybe they would have advised I take out my contacts. Had I complained, maybe a coworker would have suggested I see an eye doctor sooner than I did. Had I gone to the optometrist at the first stab of pain, maybe I wouldn’t be worried about going blind.
I scrolled through the contact list on my phone before putting it back on my nightstand. I still couldn’t think of a single person to call.
Dr. Wu saw me promptly at 2 p.m. His reaction mirrored Dr. Green’s.
“Can you stand any light?” he asked.
“Barely.” I recounted Bingo n’ Booze.
He prescribed steroid drops and forbade me from wearing contact lenses indefinitely.
“Once your eyes start to heal, you’ll need a new prescription,” he said.
“Contacts?” I asked, hopefully.
I filled the prescription and bought new glasses. For the next two months, I saw Dr. Wu bi-weekly to check on the progress of my eyes. I wouldn't need surgery, but the damage had been done. Had I sought help immediately, my eyes would have healed within a few weeks. Waiting a month had scarred my eyes forever. They could no longer produce the natural moisture that prevents contacts from scratching the cornea.
“It will be like dragging a rake across your eyes every day,” Dr. Wu said.
Four months after my eye pain began, I prepared for another move, this time back to a temporary seasonal position in Michigan. I thanked both doctors for their help, said goodbye to Lifeline, and drove my packed car eastward out of Chicago.
Two years later, I walked around my Chicago apartment, preparing for a day on the beach. My friend Katie stood in the dining room.
When my seasonal job in Michigan ended, I returned to Chicago, again not knowing if I would finally settle down or pick up and move within the year. In my first week back in the city I was flooded with welcome home and glad you’re back messages. The community of friends I had started to build was not only still there, but awaiting my return. Lifeline hired me as an employee, and I moved into an apartment with a good friend. I took strides to get to know my half-sister. I told her about my eye scare and she expressed concern that I hadn’t reached out. “I would have gone to the doctor with you,” she said. For the first time in years, when my one-year anniversary of moving to a new place approached, I had no desire to pack up and leave.
Katie and I both had the day off from Lifeline for the Fourth of July. I poked my head into the living room. “Do you want something red, white, and blue?” I asked.
“I’m wearing a red bathing suit,” Katie said. “So I’m covered.”
I threw on a red, white, and blue lei. “Do you think we’re going to swim?” I asked.
“The lake should be warm enough.”
“Should I wear my glasses or contacts?”
“Contacts! I’ve never seen you without your glasses.”
I went to the bathroom and pulled out the last box of contact lenses I had ordered with Dr. Green. The expiration date read June 2017. The contacts still hurt my eyes. I wore them sparingly.
Sliding the lenses out of their saline solution and placing them on my eyes felt like reawakening old muscles. I blinked, helping the contacts slide into place. I could feel them form around my eyeballs. As one adapts to a new home, I’d adapted to glasses. They no longer felt intrusive on my face. In fact, I’d grown to love my glasses. I liked the variety of frames I could choose and how the colorful rims enhanced my personality. My current glasses were oval shaped with thin wire rims that changed from blue to purple depending on the light. I thought the added color made me look artistic and inviting. My eyes also felt healthier without contacts. They rarely felt dry or scratchy, and I didn’t have to rub my eyes as often as I had when wearing contacts. Perhaps contacts had never agreed with me.
With the contacts in I stood back and looked at myself. I looked around the bathroom expecting the sharper focus provided by contacts. Instead, the pink tiled walls looked wavy. Blurred halos surrounded the light fixtures. In the mirror an unfamiliar face looked back at me: the face of the young woman who once hid under her comforter, too afraid to call anyone for help.
“Damn,” I said to my reflection. “I see better with glasses.”
About the Author: Georgia Knapp is an avid traveler and storyteller. She recently left the Chicago theatre scene and moved to the land of Flannery O’Connor. Her works can be found in The Huffington Post, Wraparound South, The 3288 Review, Heavy Feather Review, and the Georgia Writers Association’s Exit 271.