Seeing clearly

I have new glasses, and I’m seeing the world in a whole different way. Colors are more intense. There’s a bright prism-like outline of light around far-away objects. My laptop screen looks twice as tall as usual, with two copies of my header one on top of the other. Same with my little dogs – they look like elongated dachshunds. But if I move my head a certain way, everything is half its normal size. If I turn my head from side to side without paying attention, furniture comes to life and threatens to fall on me. And if I look into the distance, I see two versions of reality side by side.

Don’t worry, I’m not driving with these yet. The roads are safe.

Life with amblyopia

I have the insultingly named condition “lazy eye”. My left eye is extremely nearsighted, and what I see through it wriggles, and vanishes if I try to focus on it. An eye doctor once told me the reason for the latter problem was that at birth, your brain learns to interpret the information coming in from your eyes, and if there’s too much variation between your eyes, it might decide to ignore one of them. My right eye is fine, so apparently my brain made the efficient decision to only pay attention to it. It’s called suppression.

All this means that all my life, I’ve used my right eye to see, and my left eye just goes along for the ride. My 3-D vision is pitiful. They used to show me a holographic picture of a butterfly and ask me to try to grab it. I figured out the right answer was somewhere above the page, but my pediatric eye doctor wasn’t fooled. The old-style 3-D movies, where you’d wear cardboard glasses with one red lens, never worked for me, and when those magic-eye pictures were a fad back in the 1990s, I could never see the hidden image. My eyes just don’t work together that way.  (Here’s a fun article about those magic eye pictures.)

Treatment…and not

When I was a kid, I had eye surgery twice, at age 5 to correct a cross-eyed look and then at 15 to reverse a trend towards being wall-eyed. What they actually did was cut muscles, first on the inside (nose side) and then on the outside (ear side) of my eye. (I also had a stainless steel front tooth, thanks to a mishap with a swing set in sixth grade. It’s a wonder I survived middle school.)




I also had glasses, starting at about age 4. For a few years, there was a serious effort to force me to use my left eye. This was accomplished by putting a bandaid-colored patch over my right eye, or painting the right lens of my glasses with clear nail polish.

Here’s the thing. I’m a reader. I learned to read when I was four, and I liked it. Those patches and the nail polish meant that books were a frustrating blur of squirmy spots surrounded by bright prisms, with blotches of nothing in the middle. So I got really good at pulling off just enough of the patch to see under it, and learned to tilt my head so the fuzzy glasses didn’t get in my way.

Finally, about the same time as that second surgery, the adults in my life decided that if my vision was fine in the eye I actually used, I didn’t need glasses. I saw the world without a smeary plastic filter for the next three decades, until I was old enough to start having trouble with small print.

After a few years of buying readers at the drugstore, I got tired of putting them on and taking them off and spending half my time looking for them, no matter how many pairs I stashed around the house, car, and office. I went to the eye doctor for the first time as an adult, and got a prescription. Because I wasn’t using my left eye anyway, the prescription was just for my right eye, and the optician who made the glasses made a matching lens for my left eye so I’d look more or less symmetrical.


New hope

Because my left eye’s so useless, I’ve always had a little undercurrent of anxiety about my right eye. The anxiety level increased a few years ago when my eye doctor told me I had cataracts developing. Cataract surgery is pretty commonplace now, and they seem to have it down, but they still only do one eye at a time – just in case.

As it turns out, there’s new research going on about treating amblyopia in adults. I’m not the only kid who didn’t comply with the patching-and-nail-polish routine. A doctor at McGill University in Canada has been experimenting with using a stereoscopic device and video games to help adults with amblyopia improve their vision – see this easy-to-read article, or this example of Dr. Robert Hess’s peer-reviewed articles about it.

And when I had to switch eye doctors because my insurance changed, my new eye doctor suggested trying a new prescription. She showed me that my left eye vision can be partially corrected, so even if I still can’t read small print with it I can read, say, 24-point font. Which might not sound like a big deal but given that uncorrected I can only read the very top line of the eye chart with that eye, it’s pretty astonishing.

Hence the new glasses. The left lens is made with some space-age plastic that keeps the thickness down, but it still has a bit of that old Coke-bottle effect. The right lens is downright weird, though. It has a line across like the one in the picture on the left below, which is the source of my up-and-down double vision. It’s called slab-off, and it’s kind of a reverse prism to make light from the thinner right lens hit the back of the eye at the same distance as the thicker left lens. The picture on the right illustrates the different angles. Physics.

When I picked up the new glasses, the optician said to try them for two or three weeks and see if they drove me crazy. I’ve had them for a little over two days, and the jury’s definitely still out. I’m happy to have better distance vision than I’ve had with my old glasses, but I’m not a fan of the bifocal-type line. I expect I’ll get used to it, as I got used to my old progressives. The real questions are whether I’ll adapt to using both eyes, whether those bright lines will disappear, and whether (heaven forfend) my left eye will start drifting inward or outward again.

I’m hopeful. I’m wondering whether my binocular vision will improve. Even my posture could potentially get better – I hold my head and shoulders a bit crooked, which is probably partly from years of carrying bags on my left shoulder but might also have something to do with subtly turning my head so my right eye faces front and center.

On the other hand – before I had that second surgery, when my left eye tended to wander outward, sometimes people would try to make eye contact with it. It’s really disconcerting when someone’s staring off towards your left ear. I haven’t had that experience in years, until yesterday: the guy in Costco handing out $2-off produce coupons stared at my left eye the whole time he was talking to me. My left eye looks a little bigger through that Coke-bottle lens, so maybe that’s what attracted him to it.

My gift to you

I did a bit of poking around on the web to see if anyone else had any advice on adjusting to new glasses with the slab-off feature. Dr. Hess says 5% of people have amblyopia, so you’d think someone else would have posted something. I couldn’t find much of anything besides articles written for people in the business. For example, here’s a good article that explains the slab-off technique. I did find a few items about adjusting to new glasses in general. In a nutshell, the advice is to wear the new glasses, don’t keep switching back to your old glasses, expect that for a minor change it will take a couple of days but for a big change it could take a couple of weeks, and be prepared to go back to the doctor if you still haven’t adjusted after a couple of weeks. I also found some YouTube videos of eye exercises for lazy eye, and a weird one about using something called eccentric circles to train your eyes, which seems to be aimed at people with wall-eyes.

If you found this because you’re struggling with a similar problem, I’d love to hear about how you’ve managed to overcome it in the comments below. I’ll update this post in a couple of weeks and add anything I think might be useful to other amblyopic adults.



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