The other morning on the subway, I tried to ask someone a little older than me if he wanted the available seat nearby. He looked over his shoulder. I asked again: “Would you like that seat?” Rather than answering my question, he looked over his shoulder again. I shrugged and sat down.
The gentleman in question was not being rude; he simply did not realize that I was looking at and addressing him, because even after three excruciating rounds of surgery, my eyes do not line up in the same direction. One of them still wanders slightly, which becomes especially noticeable when I am tired. It’s not the end of the world now that I’m older and my eyes are significantly better aligned than they had been during childhood, but I still feel a bit stung whenever someone asks, “Are you speaking to me? I thought you were looking over there,” or if they’ve figured out I have an eye problem before I’ve mentioned it.
At sixteen months old, I gave my mom quite a shock when she went to pick me up out of my crib one morning to find me cross-eyed and staying that way. Shortly thereafter, an ophthalmologist diagnosed me with a disorder called strabismus. This condition entails a lack of eye muscle control, and as a result of the muscles not working in tandem, each eye looks in a different direction. In my case, I could focus strongly with only one eye at a time. That eye would turn in drastically toward my nose while the other appeared “normal,” with the iris correctly centered. The doctor said that I simply hadn’t focused hard up until that point, and that's why my eye didn't turn prior to that fateful morning in 1977.
Mom confessed that she freaked out at the time, and who could blame her? She had no idea what the hell had happened overnight, and how it could be that suddenly her baby girl’s appearance was drastically and irreversibly altered. But she and my father--who had also required eye muscle surgery in his youth--were incredibly supportive of me and always told me how beautiful they thought my blue eyes were. Both of them have coffee-colored eyes, which my sister inherited and which presented no such problem in her life. (Bitter? Who, me?)
At age two I got my first pair of glasses, and after age three I stopped wearing eye patches after my visits to the ophthalmologist--it turned out they weren’t helping at all. That was okay with me. I mean, I know it’s cute when you see a little kid resembling a pirate, but it wasn’t really the look I was going for even back then.
My first corrective surgery, at age five, didn’t make much of a difference in my alignment; the surgeon explained that he had to be careful not to overcorrect because as I aged, my eye would begin naturally to drift outward. But we didn’t know how long that would take, so for many years after that first operation I looked as cross-eyed as ever. Prior to the surgery I had experienced occasional double vision, and despite the procedure my depth perception continued to be limited, which made me even worse at team sports than I am now.
Regardless, I didn’t take too much time out of my youth to pity myself. In fact, when I was very young I didn’t even see or understand what was different about my eyes.
But as we all know, kids can be so damn mean, which is why I always say that the best thing about childhood is that you only have to live through it once. I grew up the butt of endless childhood jokes, accumulated awful nicknames, and endured cruel teasing that followed me all the way to high school, though my second surgery--when I was 11 years old--did result in a marked improvement. It enabled me to at least retire my thick bifocals, although I didn’t magically gain any social grace or popularity as I finished up sixth grade.
I underwent what I decided would be my final operation when I was 25. Entirely elective and no less painful than my two previous surgeries, it involved blood, sweat, and tears (literally--there had been blood in my tears after each surgery, horrifyingly enough). My recovery, though thankfully not too lengthy, was highly unpleasant, and I swore that I was finished attempting to “correct” my eyes.
Still, I continue to work on loving what I see every day in the mirror. I feel self-conscious whenever I need to make direct, extensive eye contact with anyone--which is often required of me, since my job involves conducting counseling sessions and support groups--and I still prefer to be photographed from a 2/3 angle or when wearing my fabulous cat-eye sunglasses.
It’s true that I winced when that guy kept thinking I was talking to someone behind him--some old hurt came up. But god knows that I’m not the person I used to be. Years of ongoing efforts to cherish both my body and my brain have been working: I embrace not only the ways in which recovering from past trauma and illness contributed to my resilience, but the ways in which I still look significantly different than the girls with whom I went to high school.
If I love the decision I made to cover myself in beautiful tattoos, to rock the punk-femme wardrobe I would have killed for when I was 15, to appreciate the curves I spent years criticizing, then surely I can someday believe that having eyes resembling those of a Siamese cat (someone I dated once made that comparison; it was the first time I’d ever heard a positive take on my misalignment) is yet another asset rather than a liability.