Just about everyone has something they’re squeamish about, that thing so dreadful that merely uttering its name can take them from zero to full body horror instantly. Mine is eye trauma.
It started at a young age; my parents were very strict about just about everything except what I read, and I read a lot of books that were, in retrospect,
possibly definitely a bit too mature for me at the grand old age of ten. Lots of Stephen King, which meant not just the tearing and rending of Cujo the rabid dog but also Steve Kemp and the adventures of his wandering dong. Not just a murderous clown-thing-It but also the supremely awful sewer doesn’t-seem-consensual-but-even-if-it-was-it-was-gross-as-hell group sex with eleven year olds. I dunno how a person can be simultaneously sensitized to something as well as desensitized to it; somehow I managed.
The scene that got me was short, a snippet of a book within a book, The Dark Half. Flavor text. People I’ve queried about the book who’ve read it don’t even remember the scene. I will never, ever forget it.
Machine straightened the paper-clips slowly and carefully with his long, strong fingers. “Hold his head. Jack,” he said to the man behind Halstead. “Hold it tightly, please.” Halstead saw what Machine meant to do and began to scream as Jack Rangely pressed his big hands against the sides of his head, holding it steady. The screams rang and echoed in the abandoned warehouse. …Halstead squeezed his eyes shut but it did no good. The small steel rod slid effortlessly through the left lid and punctured the eyeball beneath with a faint popping sound. Sticky, gelatinous fluid began to seep out.
Ever since, eye stuff is the way to reduce me to paroxysms of horror, regardless of context. I can’t even see a paper clip without thinking about it. Once a friend told me that his girlfriend licked his eye during sex and I almost vomited on the spot, and since then, he’s occasionally needled me about it.
Needled. Eyeballs. Hork.
I don’t even handle the eye doctor well which is somewhat unfortunate considering I’ve needed glasses since the second grade. When I was finally allowed contacts in high school, the optometrist insisted on putting them in my eyes himself, and if I thought the startling air puff of the glaucoma test was bad, someone else’s thick finger coming directly at my eyeball was infinitely worse. Solid matter being what it is, I could only recoil so far in the chair despite wanting to melt through it, onto the floor where I could make my puddly escape out the automatic sliding glass doors of the ShopKo.
But even with my squeamishness, I was determined to handle as much touching of my own eyeball as needed to wear those damn things including the soft pinching squeeze (ack!) it took to remove them. Tired of being mocked by my peers for the glasses that disguised me as the world’s youngest forty year old, I wore those soft contact lenses entirely too much, all but sleeping in them. At my next optometrist appointment, the doctor informed me that thanks to this overwear, my eyes had been deprived of oxygen and so blood vessels had begun to grow up into my cornea…
…which meant that I could only wear hard contact lenses from that point forward. I did get a pair but I never got used to them, because apparently you need to build up callouses inside your eyelid (cringe) and I could never wear them for long enough to do that. I spent most of my days working at the ass-end of Legoland where I often did not even get the breaks I was entitled to by law; there was certainly no one there to cover for me if I urgently needed to go fiddle with my eyes nor would there have been a hygienic place to do so. My parents were, of course, characteristically upset that they spent the money and I “never even tried” as if I were the one who forced myself to take that awful job and set the working conditions there. They’ve always been such experts on the amount of pain I should be able to endure.
So it was back to glasses for me for the next twenty years. And now that I was nearer to 40, and not dealing with glasses and braces and headgear and puberty all at once, I didn’t mind them so much. Did I love fumbling for them in the night or their fogging up in wintertime or the constant spritz of schmutz on the lenses? No, no I did not. But that was the price of being able to see for someone with myopia, better than the alternative. I found a style I liked that I felt worked with my round head and I stuck with it for years, clutching them ever-tighter when oversized, owl-like frames came back into fashion because I remembered how poorly they suited me the first time around.
Recent life changes have made wearing glasses more annoying. Horses knocked them off my face repeatedly and they’d loosened to the point that I’d have to take them off before deadlift day at the gym or they’d fall off as soon as I looked at the floor. (I might have become more comfortable with wearing glasses but I am not yet of a glasses-chain age and I don’t care how chic you tell me they are now, thank you very much.) Combined with covid masks providing extra slip at the bridge of the nose, I could count on dropping my glasses at least twice each trip to the grocery store. And the incessant fogging–my medical devices were beginning to interfere with my medical devices and I’d had enough. It was time to consider the previously unthinkable: lasik surgery.
Unlike in every other area of my life, I was not interested in bargain-hunting when it came to a doctor to operate the laser that slices open my eyeball…
so instead I researched top ophthalmologists in the Seattle area and found one with whom I was quite determined to make an appointment. Determination was necessary because the only person who could schedule this appointment never answered her phone and I started to gradually become convinced that she had quit her job one day and no one noticed as voicemail after voicemail disappeared into the void. I suppose I could have tried a different doctor but for reasons that only make sense to me, this felt like The One. I could wait.
The doctor’s surgery scheduler was very apologetic when she finally returned my calls–the hospital was switching to a new system and everyone and their brother are sick of their glasses fogging from their hot awful breath and they alllll want lasik but she could get me in for an evaluative exam the following week. Two days later, I broke my very first pair of glasses with an act of carelessness that still has me annoyed. Not that there’s going to be some grand awards ceremony at the end of my life where I get an extra gold star for never having broken a pair. But still…my perfect record! Agh.
The exam went smoothly, and the doctor just had a slot open up for surgery in three weeks’ time, otherwise, he was booked through the end of the year. Would I take it? I guess I would! They sent me on my merry way and scheduled an appointment for the following week to sign consent forms and order prescriptions. I felt good! Confident. At home that evening I experienced a moment of joy sitting in the backyard smoking a joint under the stars. I realized how much this surgery could radically improve my life: I’ll be able to look at the stars directly through the telescope, at birds directly through binoculars. Use a VR helmet. Have peripheral vision. See in the shower. I might not feel as vulnerable and afraid in open water.
And then at that next appointment I read all those forms and spent a good thirty minutes trying not to scream in horror while my bones attempted to flee my body to escape the knowledge. Every single time I read a reference to the flap on the cornea created by the laser I wanted to die.
“As with all types of surgery, laser vision correction poses the serious risk of complications due to anesthesia, drug reactions, or other factors that may result in serious injury or even death. A serious intraoperative complication or serious post-operative complication, like a virulent infection, could result in blindness in both eyes. While the risk of these complications may be small, it is not zero.”
“The microkeratome or IntraLase laser used to make the flap or the excimer laser used to reshape the cornea could malfunction during the procedure. If the microkeratome malfunctions, a partial flap could be created…”
“…the flap could be cut off the cornea completely, or the microkeratome could cut completely through the cornea to the inside of the eye.”
“Other flap complications include a hole in the flap (“buttonhole”) and an excessively thin flap. With flap complications, the procedure may need to be stopped and the cornea is allowed to heal for months before the procedure can be performed again. It is also possible that the microkeratome malfunction could damage the eye so that future laser vision correction is not possible, or that the damage could result in loss of the eye.”
“Laser vision correction may result in a loss of vision that could not be corrected with glasses, contact lenses, medications, or additional surgery. This can be due to a variety of causes, including but not limited to infection, inflammation, bleeding, epithelial defects, dry eyes, epithelial ingrowth and irregular healing causing distortion of the surface of the cornea. If the cornea surface becomes sufficiently irregular, a corneal transplant may be necessary to improve vision.”
“Severe inflammation may require additional surgical procedures, like a flap lift and irrigation.”
…I signed and dated and initialed it all. Full body horror or no, I was in this. Especially since I knew if I backed out now, my glasses and mask would be co-conspirators in making life miserable until at least January.
I brought up all my flap related concerns with the surgical scheduler, including the reddit post I’d seen with a woman claiming she could feel the flap move under her eyelid when she took off her eye makeup some six months post-surgery; she told me I was forbidden from doing any more late night internet research. Very well, then. I’ll just worry other normal person worries.
I don’t want to say that the day before the surgery, I went around really looking at everything and everyone just in case I never saw anything again, because that’s a paranoid person kind of activity…but that’s exactly what I did. The surgical scheduler called that afternoon, asking if I could come to the Seattle office on the morning before the surgery so they could check my refraction again, half-explaining that the doctor is very meticulous and half-apologizing for asking for more of my time. Y’all are about to cut my eyeballs, please, by all means, measure twice and cut once. I’d drive into Seattle and pay for parking sixteen times if that’s what it took to be certain!
The day of the surgery, Balthazar struck, as is his wont to complicate everything. I wore something cozy, but not fuzzy, as instructed, took a final glasses-selfie (or what could potentially tragically be known as the last photo with me and both my eyeballs), had my Seattle appointment, and then saw all the same people again thirty minutes later at the surgical center in Bellevue. I signed more forms (including one waiving my right to sue in court for malpractice, no wonder they spring that one on you at the last minute!), donned a surgical cap and booties, took the prescribed valium for the surgery, and waited for my anxiety to float away in a beautiful chemical slipstream.
It didn’t, not fully. My anxiety is a world class heavyweight champion, though, so it makes sense that it would continue to menace even after being bound and gagged in diazepam duct tape. Despite the remaining tickle of anxiety deep inside, the procedure itself was nowhere near as horrifying as I’d imagined it to be, because of course I imagined it more like an interrogation, being strapped upright to a chair while someone comes at my eye with a razor blade like I needed to tell them where I hid the priceless artifact…or else.
Instead, they had me lie on a long, rotating bed with an oval at the top to nestle my head into which allowed the doctor to sit over me. My eyes were numbed with drops, locked open with a lid speculum, and he started with the right, telling me that the left eye is “always worse for some reason”. I appreciate that he was just trying to inform me to the best of his ability as to what I should expect, but I also think I would have been a little happier without that knowledge, both for the impending “always worse” and the mystery implied by “for some reason”. The laser flap cutting was decidedly the worst part. There’s no pain thanks to the numbing drops, but there is some intense pressure. I was also under the impression that I would be able to see for the entire operation, so when the pressure began and the vision in my right eye went black, I started to panic. Roughly thirty seconds later, the flap was cut and vision returned. The doctor moved the flap to the side and instructed me to look up at the lights, a green laser point flanked by two red points. When the corneal flap was removed, the points of light diffracted into bursts like fireworks and the laser did its work. Five seconds of the smell of my eye burning later and the correction was complete. The doctor smoothed the flap back into place in a process that he described as being a bit like a carwash, and indeed when you’re dissociated from your body by the numbing, it is more like having someone mop off your windshield than the intimacy of having another person inside your eyeball. Then it was onto the other eye; I don’t know that the flap cutting on the left was worse than the right, I wasn’t a fan of it on either eye because I haven’t magically gotten more comfortable with the concept of eyeballs under pressure.
After the surgery was complete, some goggles were taped over my eyes and I was instructed to go home, pull the curtains, and sleep. I needed some things from the drugstore, so Jason stopped along the way home, which may have been a mistake as the numbing drops completely wore off well before we got there. All of a sudden, my eyes burned, burned so badly it was the only thing I could think about as I contorted in the passenger seat and tried not to cry, afraid that any squinching would shift my flap. Burned so badly that I tried pinching myself, pulling at my hair, anything to stop thinking about my eyes and what I’d willingly done to put them in this state. Try not to think of a pink elephant while it shoots a flamethrower into your eyes.
The burning sensation thankfully receded with rest and I woke the following morning able to see with my own eyes. 20/20. Maybe for the first time in my life. But if I need a follow-up enhancement surgery down the line let me make it perfectly clear that I’d be willing to pay extra to go into a medically induced coma for the following 24 hours. Think about it, guys.