I want to thank all the optometrists I’ve seen in my life for their reliability: no matter what my current glasses’ prescription was, I could always depend on them saying, “You need a stronger prescription.”
In a world awash in change, it’s comforting to count on the consistency of their verdict.
I got my first pair of glasses at age 8, when the blackboard in school wasn’t readable from where I sat in the third row. Thinking back now to the kind of nonsense the teachers wrote on it, I wonder if my myopia might’ve been a defense mechanism for my brain cells, but I digress.
At 12 I got new glasses. Slightly stronger. So it was at 19, 25, 32, and maybe some other times in between that I’ve conveniently forgotten. Those evil optometrist’s charts with the ever-shrinking print were forever looking fuzzy till the newly-stronger prescription got dialed into the eye-torture/vision measuring device. Oh, sure, I could showcase my ability to read tiny print up close, but the optometrists seemed singularly unimpressed about my feats in that department. It was my failure to read an “E” large enough to cover an elephant’s butt 3 feet away that interested them, and so they dialed up the diopters. From the 1.25 diopter correction that I had at age 8, I went through 2.5, 3.25, to 4.5 recently, with no sign that by 60 I won’t be wearing the binoculars that my local sporting goods store has on sale now for $8 plus tax. I’m sure that I could’ve had a lot more girlfriends along the way if it weren’t for the fact that my floors and bathroom were probably repulsive… because I couldn’t see the grime unless I had a reason to get up close.
I was never a docile subject in the glass-wearing department. Against my father’s exhortations, at age 8 I took off my glasses when reading (thereby saving my vision at least a little bit, for he failed to grasp the difference between distance vision and reading glasses); in school I put them on only when I had to read the inanities and foreign verb conjugations on the blackboard, and at no time did I believe my first optometrist, who’d told me to go ahead and wear the glasses all the time because “I looked good with them on.” “Uh-huh,” I wanted to tell him. “I bet about as good as you with yours on.”
At 18 I discovered something called “The Bates Method” or the “Bates Eye Exercises” – it included such things as Palming (cupping your hands over your eyes for a few minutes at a time to rest them); Sunning (letting the sun warm your eyes through closed eyelids); and assorted eye movements meant to exercise the muscles that pull the eyeball this way and that way. I thought I’d found the Truth that I had always intuited: that my eyes needed some care other than the visual crutch of glasses, and as soon as I provided that care, my eagle-like vision would return.
I did many of these exercises and practices on a semi-consistent basis – I really did. But the books didn’t do a good job of describing half the exercises, and though I did them and also took vitamins that were supposed to nourish my eye health, my vision remained on par not with eagles but with moles, gophers and earthworms.
The thing is, sunning my eyes could relax them and enhance my perception of colors, but none of the results lasted beyond a few seconds. Ditto for the eye acupressure points that I found years later in books and from yoga classes. They were enjoyable, no question about that, but it’s the equivalent of getting a pleasant caressing massage versus one where they go in and rearrange all your inner organs till you aren’t sure what’s on the inside and what’s on the outside. The first approach is nice in a milquetoast kind of way; the second one gets the job done.
And though I was still convinced that my eyes needed something other than glasses, I could never find that second approach that did the trick.
Until last week, when Dr. Jennifer Andrews of Urban Eye Care finally changed the tune of all those other oh-so-consistent optometrists’ pronouncements and said, “You no longer have myopia.”
All I can say is, I never thought I’d live to see the day. A few weeks earlier Dr. Andrews had examined me and asked me questions no other optometrist had ever asked (and I’m not talking shoe size or name of my first pet). She wondered about a correlation between the shape of my eyes and my thyroid function; confirmed that my eyelids don’t naturally shut all the way (who would’ve guessed?) and hence my long-time use of an eye pillow at night was a helpful practice; and a number of small other questions and observations that felt like she was looking at a larger picture than whether I could see the third line down on the chart or not. (I couldn’t.)
To clarify, when weeks later she pronounced me myopia-free, I wasn’t wearing any kind of correction – not glasses, not contacts, not the $8 binoculars on sale now. Oh, and just in case you wondered, I didn’t have laser eye surgery either. (The prospects of which – or, more specifically, of anything going wrong – had always scared the bejeezus out of me.)
What’s the trick, you ask?
I wish I could tell you there was a magic technique, a yogic secret passed down through the ages, or a new eye-training system, and I hope someday I can tell you that. But the trick is actually something called Ortho-K, or orthokeratology, or CRT, or Corneal Refractive Therapy.
Here’s how it works: you put in specialized contact lenses at night –
“Wait a minute!” I hear you cry. “You said you weren’t wearing contacts!”
Yes, yes. You put them in at night, you wear them in your sleep and you take them out in the morning. Throughout the day, you see perfectly.
Read that last sentence again. If you’ve ever worn contacts, you know you’re not supposed to sleep in them. They go in in the morning, they come out at night. It’s the other way around with Ortho-K: for the effort of wearing lenses tailored to the exact microscopic shape of your cornea while you sleep, you have sharp vision throughout the day that requires no further correction.
“Big deal,” the more unimpressed among you might say. “Get laser eye surgery and you see sharp all the time without further hassles.”
Maybe. Someone I know tells me that after his laser surgery, one eye can see up close and the other can see far away. “Somehow the two balance out,” he says, making me grimace, because to me it sounds like eye strain whether I look close or afar. While laser eye surgery so far seems successful for many people, I wonder if your vision gets reset… and then starts downhill again after that. I also note the small percentage of people who have assorted side effects, and the others who have truly horror stories – all of which was enough for me to think that I’d save laser surgery as an absolute last resort: for when I was 60 and did need to wear the binoculars to see past my collarbone. By that time, I figured that if I had nothing but side effects from the surgery, it’d be a step up.
Ortho-K works with your cornea in a way similar to what laser eye surgery does. But whereas laser surgery actually cuts and vaporizes corneal tissue, Ortho-K shapes it. One is permanent – and if you happen to cut and vaporize with the laser too much of the corneal tissue, even a microscopic “too much,” there’s no way to put it back. With Ortho-K or CRT, if you’re not happy with the results, you stop wearing the contacts and your vision returns to where it was before the correction.
Yes, without a nightly “refresher” to your eyes, your vision can and does return to its previous state. On the other hand, the lenses act as a retainer for your eyes, which means that in theory if I stop wearing them at age 80, or 90, or 100, my uncorrected vision should be what it is right now, as opposed to progressing, which can happen with glasses or regular contacts… or potentially with laser surgery.
That retainer effect is one of the upsides of CRT/Ortho-K; the downside is that the acuity of your vision does tend to fade towards the latter part of the day – though the person who first told me about Ortho-K claims she can occasionally forget to put in the corrective lenses and her acuity will last till the following evening. Then again, she’s been using this system for about six years now. That downside, however, has started to teach me something about my eyes, as the sharpness of my vision also fades (for me at least) when I start to abuse my eyes. Which is, I realize now, what made me myopic to begin with.
The abuse of my eyes happens because I’ve grown up in an up-close culture. I read, I peruse the internet, I type, I look at my smartphone – all at close range. If the eye is a muscle, then for years I’ve been steadily lifting five-hundred-pound weights with the close-range muscle, and lifting next to nothing with my distance-vision muscle. One is strong; the other has atrophied through neglect. Not to mention that eyes haven’t been evolutionarily programmed to handle what we do to them – name one animal in nature that stares, just stares, at a fixed point for an hour, two or more.
When you think about it, from an evolutionary standpoint, the eyes are meant to look close, look an intermediate distance, look far – constantly shifting the focus, constantly adapting to different focal lengths. And yet, of the sixteen hours that I’m awake everyday, for the last thirty years I’ve spent 10 or more hours a day looking a short distance away as I’ve played videogames, wrote, edited music, watched films on my laptop, updated spreadsheets, read news, email and websites, and generally interacted with some sort of screen-enabled computing device no farther than the length of my arm. So how could I not be myopic?
Now that I’ve been given a second chance at visual life, my eyes are teaching me through their feedback. Spend an hour staring at the computer? I notice that my distance vision isn’t quite so sharp. Do I fail to keep track of time and therefore run, stressed, to my next appointment? My right eye, which is the one that gets the most correction, starts to get snowy in its vision. Take a yoga class that relaxes me, or spend some time palming, or meditating? Everything comes back sharp, with enhanced colors and depth perception – and this time, it lasts: it’s not the ten seconds or so of before I found Ortho-K. I vary my time at the computer to incorporate other tasks – frequent breaks – and to be able to look far away in the distance while I’m thinking. I also actively seek out activities that don’t require intensive close vision: audiobooks and lectures, walking more, calling friends or seeing them in person instead of using email. I’ve also pared down significantly my computer time to the essential and stepped up something that I already did before to stay on top of my email: recording voice messages and sending them via email as mp3 attachments.
Hence, yoga for the eyes has taken on a new meaning: the eyes teaching me how to lead a more balanced life, get the eight hours of sleep I’ve always meant to get on a consistent basis, and the like. Some of the unexpected benefits are that I can make eye contact and greet strangers more readily, read name tags without violating personal space, and generally marvel each time I look around, “Wow! It’s like wearing glasses! Clean glasses! Brand-new prescription glasses!” Some other curious discoveries: in the yoga classes I teach, everyone’s eyes are on me. I’ve always suspected this, I just assumed they looked straight in front of them more than they do. Now that I can see everyone, even in the back row, staring right at me, I want to say, “Stop looking at me! You’re distracting me!”
I’ve become a proselytizer of CRT not just because I want others to enjoy this gift, but also because I was deemed a poor candidate on account of my excessive astigmatism. “Hey,” I told Dr. Andrews, “even if I’m outside what you’d normally treat, any improvement in my vision, and any prevention of it becoming worse, will be a welcome development. So what if I can’t see 20/20? I’ll take 20/30 or 20/40 if that’s the price. I can always put on glasses for those times in which I have to see perfectly.” And yet astigmatism or not, my expectations have been exceeded.
And I have a lot more housework these days. Because I’m finally seeing well enough to realize, “Oh, my God! This carpet’s disgusting! And this counter! And this toilet – has it always been like this?”
Photo credit: Ibrahim Iujaz