When I was five, my mother took me to see an ophthalmologist. At that time, I thought my vision was fine because I was able to see and read everything clearly without squinting or wearing glasses.
But something did not feel quite right. During the car ride, I asked my mother whether the reason I had to visit the ophthalmologist was that I had a vision problem. Even though she replied it was time for my annual eye exam, the frown on her face suggested there was a major issue at hand. Once we got to the clinic, my mother asked me to wait in the waiting room while she spoke to the ophthalmologist privately. Although I could not hear what they were talking about, just by peering through the glass window and seeing my mother’s anxious look, I could tell my mother was requesting him to look into a serious problem.
“Could you focus your gaze on the light?” the ophthalmologist asked as he shone the penlight into my eyes two feet away. He then covered my left eye, asked me to look at the largest letter on the Snellen eye chart as he searched for any shift in my right eye, and repeated the test on my other eye. For the final test, he asked me to cover one eye, read every letter on the Snellen eye chart, and repeat the test with the other eye. Initially, I felt confident about my visual acuity, as I was able to read every letter correctly without hesitation with my left eye. However, as soon as I shifted to my right eye, my confidence sank, as I was only able to read the first three rows of letters from the top. I could not believe my visual acuity could be so drastically different in both of my eyes.
“Well, doc, how did the exam go?” my mother stood up and asked longingly. The ophthalmologist nodded and said I had amblyopia and exotropia in my right eye.
My mother looked horrified. “You know, I was afraid this was going to happen. When I saw my daughter tilting her head whenever she was watching television, I suspected something was wrong with her vision. I just don’t want her to become blind in her right eye or have surgery,” she replied.
“Have you considered glasses for your daughter? I know they don’t provide immediate results, but given her age, it might not be too late for her to try them out,” the ophthalmologist said, consolingly.
My mother agreed. I was taken to another room filled with displays of frames of all shapes and styles. For a while, I was upset I had to be stuck with glasses for a long time. However, after the ophthalmologist said I could become blind if I do not correct the visual acuity of my right eye early on, I decided to settle on a pair of glasses that matched my style—a pair of dark blue frames with snowflakes and stars on the arms.
As soon as I started first grade, my glasses became my mortal enemy. Whenever I walked into the classroom with my glasses on, my classmates called me a “nerd”. Some boys even said I looked ugly. I also noticed how much more energy I had to put in just to get my eyes to align properly. I experienced more headaches and became tired after reading for ten minutes. About a month later, I felt that not wearing glasses would solve all of my problems, since I could still see clearly with my left eye. And so, I decided to not wear them.
But new problems emerged. A few seconds after I took off my glasses, I could feel my right eye turning outward and felt the slightest bit dizzy. I noticed the people around me could not concentrate on what I was saying because they did not understand why I would not look at them properly. I dreaded having my picture taken when the time for yearbook photos arrived and felt a knot in my stomach whenever I asked for someone across the room only to have them looking around to figure out who I was talking to.
For months, I struggled to find a balance between my desire to correct my condition and the symptoms that came with having to spend more energy to align my eyes properly. I started to speak up less during class and played by myself during recess. In order to avoid any uncomfortable encounters, I looked down at the floor whenever I had to talk to someone. I began to hate myself whenever I looked at myself in the mirror and thought how unfair it was for me to have to suffer from this condition.
The following year, when I went for my annual eye exam, my mother was mortified when she found out the visual acuity in my right eye declined from 20/70 to 20/100. As soon as we returned home, she came to my room and asked, “Have you been wearing your glasses at school?” I stared down at the floor and stayed quiet. I could not bring myself to tell her I had been lying to her all this time and that I only put on glasses whenever she and my father were around. My mother then sat down next to me and told me to be honest with her. I cried and told her how the boys at school would say I was ugly whenever I wore glasses and the fatigue I felt after reading for ten minutes with glasses on. I also told her about how self-conscious I felt whenever I had to talk to others and the debilitating effect my condition was having on my self-image.
My mother hugged me and said, “Did you know I had strabismus when I was your age?”
I looked up and stared straight into my mother’s eyes. “But now it looks like you did not,” I said, enviously.
“That’s because I wore glasses all the time when I was young.” She paused and said, “I know wearing glasses is difficult, but if you do not wear them long enough, the visual acuity in your right eye could get even worse and you could become blind in that eye. Do you want that to happen?” I shook my head profusely.
“But why can’t I get surgery? Doesn’t that make my problems go away? And did you ever hate yourself for having strabismus?” I asked.
“Even if you get surgery, there is still a chance your eyes would not be perfectly aligned. And yes, I did hate myself for having strabismus when I was young. However, I’ve come to accept myself for having that condition because there is nothing I can do about it and have worked on trying to minimize the contrast in visual acuity between my eyes. You shouldn’t let what other people think of your condition affect your self-esteem. And you will see some improvement in your right eye once you put in the effort,” my mother replied.
What my mother said really struck a chord with me. I realized my real problem was allowing my condition and other people’s perceptions of how my eyes appeared to cause me to feel a sense of unworthiness and self-doubt about myself. Since then, in order to regain a sense of control over my life, when I was at school, I decided to wear my glasses proudly and tried really hard to get my eyes to focus whenever I am reading or doing my homework. I also tried different eye alignment techniques whenever I am not wearing my glasses, such as holding my index finger out and slowly bringing it toward me while my eyes focus on the nail of that finger. I started to treat my glasses as fashion accessories and asked my mom for two more pairs that matched my style so that I could wear a different pair every day. Instead of being my mortal enemy, my glasses became my companion and shielded me from any uncomfortable moments whenever I had to interact with others. Gradually, the visual acuity of my right eye improved from a 20/100 to a 20/40.
However, even though the visual acuity of my right eye improved, I could still feel my right eye turn outward whenever I was talking to others without having my glasses on. Just like my mom, as I grow older, I have learned to accept my condition and treat it as a quirk. Instead of feeling depressed about my condition, I work on trying not to let the visual acuity in my right eye worsen and continue doing vision therapy exercises at home. While my condition has taken a toll on my self-confidence and my relationships with others, I am grateful it has taught me to not ruminate on it for too long and focus on other things that really mattered in my life. As an aspiring ophthalmologist who has experienced the psychosocial effects of strabismus and amblyopia at a young age, I strive to encourage children to get screened for any vision disorder and receive treatment at an early age. Not only would early screening prevent children from having more severe visual impairment later on but also it would help them avoid any damage to their wellbeing and improve their quality of life.
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Bio: Megan Yu is a medical student at the UQ-Ochsner School of Medicine. She has long-standing interests in ophthalmology, narrative medicine, and bioethics. She hopes to combine these interests as she pursues a career in ophthalmology in the future.