Friday, March 27, 2015

Two Years Deep

Two years ago today I had surgery to align my left and right eyes, removing my double vision and giving me, for the first time, the ability to perceive stereoscopic depth ie, 3d vision. This blog serves as my attempt to describe in words the incredible change this surgery has been for my vision, for my quality of life, and for my experience of the world. My surgeon mentioned to me during a checkup visit that since they are not able to directly experience the outcome of their work, surgeons like herself are voyeurs, dependent on other peoples' experiences to understand what a surgery like mine really means. I've been told by many that my descriptions of life after surgery helped them appreciate something they took for granted, the ability to see in three dimensions and across the full field of vision. I also figure there are people like me who are considering doing this surgery, and crave intel on it. Scroll down and you'll find a bunch of posts from the day of surgery and weeks after, when I was compelled to try and describe this incredible experience. The posts died off after things started to normalize a few months later. But for myself, my friends and family, my surgeon and anybody else who finds this blog, I thought I'd chime in again now that some time has passed. Bear with me, this is going to be a long post, but consider it my version of Netflix releasing a whole season of TV at a time. You can parcel it out, or you can binge-read!

So, how do things look after two years?

TL;DR: Pretty damn good. They look pretty damn good indeed.

3D Delights

I am now a citizen of a voluminous world, an expat from the land of the flat. I no longer have the wild hallucinatory experience with depth I described early on. A slice of bread doesn't quite look like the Rocky Mountains anymore. Busses don't feel like they're going to tip over on top of me when they go by. And that's a good thing. My early experience with depth was truly wondrous and remarkable, but I certainly wouldn't want that to be my daily experience of the world. I would be jumping out of my skin at every turn, distracted to hypnosis by a nice head of hair or an approaching car. My experience of depth has indeed receded, to the point where I often don't think about it. I just do my thing and count on it being there without needing to focus on it. My brain uses its naturally exceptional filtering ability to pay attention to it more at some times than others, depending on the situation.

And this has revealed itself in interesting ways, like my now instinctual ability to catch a ball. Before surgery, a ball hurtling toward my face came with all the stress of an onrushing Ferrari. I would blink rapidly and struggle to keep my head from shaking. Having two fast-moving balls to deal with back then, my eyes would dart around and I would kind of freak out a little bit trying to figure out which one to concentrate on.

Now, post-surgery, a ball might come my way and I just ... know when to reach for it. It's not 100% accurate of course, but it's a dramatic improvement, and in some sort of spidey-sense way that requires no deliberation on my part. Last summer while hanging out in the backyard I made up this game for myself to pander to this new simple and irresistible joy. I'd take my daughter's kid-size (10") soccer ball, and through it as high into the air as I can with my left hand. then try to catch it with my right. I throw it up with my right, and catch it with my left. If I miss it I have to do 5 push-ups. Rinse and repeat. I could fill hours relishing this simple act with a pure childlike joy. Throw. Catch. Throw. Catch. I can't wait to play catch with my daughter, she's almost old enough. In the meantime I crave a warm summer day, to track that ball through the sky, spin around on my toe and catch it without really looking at it. It makes me feel like a goddamned superhero. I can hit a baseball pretty well now too. I'm dying to try the sports I used to avoid like the plague. Anyone for tennis?

My experience with crowds is another place where I still really notice the upgrade. Recently I went to the Extreme Beer Fest with my fellow homebrewers Sully and Aaron. It takes place in a large conference center, and is comprised of 30 or so brewers offering their oddest and most experimental suds to folks who paid to come and sample. The place was packed with people, in clusters or in lines or wandering around. And not once did I feel overwhelmed or even fazed by the masses, like in the old days. I took pleasure in keeping up with my friends, spotting them in the room, snaking and feinting through the crowd. Depth helps me see the voids - the places where people are NOT, thereby giving me clear direction where to go while I'm moving. Before, the people would appear much more packed on top of each other, like an unorganized mess of stickers on a school notebook. Now it looks like a scatterplot, empty space with stuff filling it up.

I am more comfortable running. I can turn my head to the side while I run without feeling like I'm going to fall over. I can take in the whole scene around me, innately understanding where objects and people are in space, and just relax into my environment. Things go on around me and I'm part of it.

I admit that sometimes I am a bit sad to have lost the wild visions of the early days, but I can get my 3d rocks off with my Google Cardboard any time I want. But honestly, I only play with it once in a while. I do like going to 3d movies, and am excited about the promise of future virtual tech. Part of why I like it is that it's not perfect yet, so the sensation is exaggerated, much like my first weeks after surgery.

Widescreen Dream

The elimination of double vision remains as significant a change as depth perception. I am not confronted by conflicting images every time my eyes are open, seeing the world through a narrow portal. My single broad hemisphere of vision draws me in, making me feel integrated with my surroundings in a way I didn't before. I can cast a wide gaze, taking in everything in the room, my brain making quick assessments of what to focus on.  I describe the difference as being like, in the time before surgery, looking through a toilet paper tube with a prism at the end, panning and scanning to pick out everything in front of me, unable to prioritize anything until after my eyes have darted all around. Now I'm looking through a half-dome space helmet, able to hang back and let the scene come to me. Of course, my vision is still worse in my left eye, but my eye doctor told me "it takes in more than you think it does" and I believe him. I love to stare at an object and turn my head left and right to watch the object move from my left eye, to the middle, the right eye, and back. That is endlessly satisfying. Prior to surgery it used to be that 70% of the time the object would be repeated in both eyes, so to have such a rock-solid single unduplicated version of an object is still a thing to marvel at.

You can imagine how the widescreen view improves things. I am much better on a bicycle. I don't crash into things as much. I don't bump into people anymore. Mostly. I went downhill skiing for the first time since surgery this past winter, and was amazed at how relaxed I was. I was not frantic, scanning in front of me, surprised of anyone coming up from behind. With the ability to take in the wider view, and to have my eyes able to be steady and relaxed, I really felt like time moved slower. That there was more time in each second for me to figure out how to deal with the next mini-challenge, and the next.. Or rather, I wasn't distracted by so many other things, and nervous about what I was missing. I felt totally in control. During those moments when I felt I was pushing the envelope in terms of speed, I did not panic, but figured out how to dig in with my skis and get myself under control. It was relaxing. I felt suave. I tried different kinds of runs than I would before. It rocked.

Hiking is another activity that is now forever transformed. Anyone who knows me (and especially my wife) knows that hiking and other outdoorsy activities are part of my portfolio. I've spent the most time hiking in the White Mountains, which are particularly cruel trails to hike on. In order to prevent runoff on well-traveled areas, some very dedicated and clearly insane people lined the sloped areas of these popular trails with large rocks and boulders. This creates a very jagged and unforgiving terrain to manage to get up to the views. Prior to depth and widescreen, this was always a hectic, nerve-wracking enterprise. Especially going DOWN. I never knew how far away the next step was, and used a hiking pole to tap down before I stepped. This made me a grumpy and very slow hiking buddy. Fast forward to last summer, and I'm scampering down the Beehive trail in Acadia National Park, giggling. It's that different. Hiking is now not only doable, it's a joy like I just couldn't quite appreciate before. Plus I can look around me AND navigate uneven terrain at the same time. Won't lie. It's awesome. I'm trying extra hard to keep in shape partly to be able to enjoy these new physical skills for years to come. As for yoga, my drishti gaze is getting pretty good. I still have a long way to go with balance, but I'm much more quickly able to lock into a stable position and hold it.

Shaking Things Up

My Nystagmus remains, though slowly gets better. I am able to keep an image stable for a second at a time before my eyes instinctively twitch. I know there are some other treatments I can pursue for this, but between the minor improvement and my other dramatic improvements, this doesn't bother me quite as much as it used to. Of course it's kicked in like wildfire right now since I'm talking about it, so let's move on.

Man in the Mirror

Then there's the cosmetic element. The fact that I look in the mirror and see two straight eyes staring back at me. There are some times when my left eye still looks a little wonky, oddly pointing out now, but I can quickly reset to a position where both eyes are facing the same direction. I like what I see in the mirror. I actually like some pictures of me. According to my wife I sometimes strike a dead eye pose because I am focused too much on what my eyes are doing, taking all life out of them. I carry myself with a new confidence knowing that I am not visually confusing to people (no wisecracks) in the way I was before. Or rather than my mind is quieter because I am not fretting about the oddity. I often sensed an initial hiccup in first interactions with people as they assessed my eye situation. People didn't quite know when I was looking them in the eye. As a result, I didn't give a lot of eye contact either. I dwelled on my wonky eye. I noticed that in business meetings, when I was meeting someone new and I was with a colleague, the new person would instinctively look to my colleague. Who could blame them for focusing on someone less innately confusing? Or could it be that I dwelled on it, making my interactions more challenging both for me and that other person? How about both?

But I tell you this, having two straight eyes HAS made a difference in my interactions with other people. It just has. Sure it could be all in my head, and I have definitely gone leaps and bounds in my confidence since this event, but whatever it is, interactions feel more natural. I still have horrible issues with facial blindness - a haircut or outfit change can render an acquaintance a stranger. I need quite a few times meeting someone before their face is etched into my database. But I do engage in a hell of a lot more eye contact, and that alone really makes me feel more connected to other people. The two straight eyes just makes me feel like I'm on a level playing field with others, like I've been brought up to 0 from a negative state. Plus it just feels good to have the confidence to look someone in the eye and smile, knowing that it's the same experience for them as it is for me.

Old Habits

Despite all these upgrades, there are still some old behaviors that I'm still ironing out of my system. I've only had this upgrade for 2 years, so with 40 years before it to develop quirks, it's taking some effort to completely adjust to the difference. I still squint my left eye a lot, a by-product of not only its increased sensitivity to light (due to multiple surgeries) but also in an effort by my brain to filter out the duplicate, eroded image provided by my left eye. Now that I desperately want my left eye to work in consort with my right, I make an effort to open my eyes equally. However I find that sometimes, especially when it's bright out, or when I'm really concentrating on something, that I will squint my left eye shut. If not that, I've got that eyebrow a little cocked because I'm over-compensating the other direction. Either way, I need to just relax and focus equal effort on the eyes. It's hard to not consider the left eye lesser since the vision is poorer, but I'll continue to work having a balanced and relaxed energy to both eyes as often as possible.

I still have instinctive eye contact issues. I'm not always confident in meeting someone's gaze. I used to play around with my nystagmus, just darting my eyes around for no real reason than boredom. I do not do that anymore, trying instead to steady my eyes. I'm much less clumsy than I was before, but I still have a blind spot (har) for clear objects. I've broken more than my share of wine glasses. Windows can still baffle me and I bump my forehead.  I'm still coming to terms with my new level of confidence, shaking off the feeling of otherness that came from what I felt to be a dramatic visual oddity. Again, what I FELT was a freakish aberration. Because I internalized that feeling so much, I'm still working some of that out. But I definitely feel much calmer, I have greater peace of mind, and I feel like I am still partway along the journey. 


Rarely in life do people get to experience this unique kind of positive change, especially after many decades having gotten used to a lesser experience.  I feel truly blessed to have been introduced to this miraculous surgery. I am so appreciative of the people and circumstances that enabled me to have this experience. Our vision is so critical to our experience of the world, and the human world we inhabit feels like it was designed by and for people of better than average eyesight. I now have a new realization of the level of stress I was under all those years just navigating the world on an average day. But reading those words, that doesn't make sense, because I didn't experience it as stress, but just normal life. I am lighter now, and more calm, and I want to carry that into the rest of my life. I want to shake off those remaining feelings of otherness and awkwardness, and hike and ski and play Minecraft on an Oculus VR. I'll check back in with any other interesting events, and am happy to talk to anybody considering this very simple but remarkable surgery. Thanks so much for reading, and I hope I helped provide a new perspective to a typical experience. Bee seeing you!