So You Wanna Have Perfect Eyesight?

Since the age of ten, I have had bad eyesight. I wore contact lenses for four years until I somehow got eye ulcers from them; I had to go to Moorfield's Eye Hospital to have them scraped off, and thereafter I wore glasses most days. When I was fifteen, my parents got me green contact lenses as a Christmas present. But my eyes got worse and worse, and by my sixteenth birthday I could barely see as far as my arm and had to go back to wearing glasses again. I hated glasses, and always forgot where I left them. I sat on them so often my opticians used to lay in extra supplies, and eventually gave up their no-fee replacement policy all together.

When I heard about eye surgery, it was through my mother, who told me about a new technique involving cuts on the eye itself. This was in the very early days, when the Russian Method (cuts made with a knife by a skillful surgeon) was still extant. I made inquiries, and was told I should wait until I was twenty-one, when my myopia had stabilised. And that was it, I thought.

The years pass. As my twenty-first birthday approaches, I think laser-eye surgery is a good idea in roughly the same way I think about learning to play the piano. I am told by my mother that it takes place in a darkened room where you sit on a comfortable couch holding a teddy bear. A nice touch, I think, remembering the stupid reassurance of my own personal piece of stuffed cloth back when I was young. I look at the literature in an odd hour and think it sounds too good to be true, like a fairy tale: the magic optician waves his laser wand and bing! I am almost accurate here, although I miss hints given such as "You should not attempt any work for the next two or three days." which should have given me a clue.

Things happen. An appointment is made. Money is transferred from one account to another. I do not know how these things happen, but they do. I know that soon I will have new sight, and I will never see things in the same way again. I sit way back when watching television and try to imagine images in the riot of colour there. I have lived like this so long I am wary of being made different. Will I still be myself when the first thing I see in the mirror is a face instead of a blur?

I wake up at 8'o'clock to have an optician give me an eye-test and ask me about my eye-ulcers. I tell him the records were lost, but there should be some big white scars on my right cornea. He looks and finds nothing. The scars have healed themselves, something I thought was impossible. He says I have a slight astigmatism, new to me, and recommends a trial surgery at no extra charge. The image that immediately pops into my mind is the government trying out new drugs in the film FireStarter, specifically the bloke screaming with tears of blood coming from his eyes. I say sure. There's always some risks, but it can't be riskier than the myopia operation is, and the cuts won't be deep.

I am led into a room with an extremely heavy and complicated piece of machinery, black and shiny to my blurred eyes. Something about it nags at the back of my mind; I put it off. No miscellaneous thoughts here. This is a Life Changing Operation. With my luck, the surgeon's going to lean on it too hard and the whole damn thing is going to go through my head. I hope I get a teddy bear to hold.

"Lie down, please."

I get under the couch and start as the coach moves upwards with a hum and the machine (from my excellent vantage point underneath it) starts to flash and whir internal points. The nagging sensation gets stronger, and I suddenly realise exactly what the machine reminds me of: it is Darth Vader's torture droid straight out of Star Wars, and I am Princess Leia. I want my teddy bear.

"We're going to put some anaesthetic droplets into your eye. They may sting a bit."

Ow. Just a bit. Feels like Head and Shoulder's. Extra Strong. I hope this doesn't go on too long, 'cos it's making my dizzy and whoa. Where am I looking? My eyes swing from left to right, a second after I look, and I realise I could be upside down and not know it. I can't focus. Where am I? What the hell am I doing here?

"Has it started to work yet?" says a huge looming presence that reminds me of my mother, back when I was an itty-bitty baby and I was crying and my eyes were all blurry... Erm.

"Yeah. Sure. What now?" I say, in what I hope is a normal voice.

The machine snickers. Maybe it's my imagination. It has a green eye that winks at me. Gritty red moire patterns of laser light appear as I wink back at it.

"We're going to roll your eyelids back and swab your eyes. You shouldn't even feel it."

The nurse takes my eyelid and literally rolls it around a thin metal rod, holding it in place with a clip. Hands move around me and I head a voice say "There. That wasn't so bad, wsa it?"

The doctor takes a little cloth and dabs something over my eye with a little white piece of cloth. I feel something pressing, but no more. I stare at the blinking green light. It stares back.

I hear a keyboard typing.

"Keep looking at the green light, please."

I look. I try not to blink. It doesn't make any difference, my eye is held back, but I mustn't blink or look away. The torture droid hums and gets closer to my head. The green light goes on and off, on and off. The red pattern completely surrounds it, until it's everywhere, everything, my world a laser beam. I try to tell myself I'm not afraid.




I feel something pushing into my eye. I stare at the blinking green light. I try not to think about what will happen if I don't stare at the blinking green light. The light blinks, comes up, blinks, comes up IN A DIFFERENT PLACE no it didn't, it was just there before, relax, don't think about what will happen if you look away because you'll look away while you're thinking, oh my god.

There's a burning smell. It smells like burning hair and spit. But I know the burning smell is me.


The laser draws lines across my cornea. Each runk means the laser turns a bit, just off centre. It will go twice round, once for astigmatism, once for myopia. I keep looking at the blinking green light. I keep looking at the blinking green light. I keep looking. I won't look away. I just wish it wouldn't blink like that.

It takes a full minute, but I count them in years. The nurse dabs something over my eye again, something to clear away the bits of charred keratin and epithelium. She drops some liquid over me, my eyeball, my world. Then she unclips my eyelids and sticks an eye-patch over it, removes the patch from my other eye, and asks me to sit up and be careful of the machine.

The nurse gives me drugs; codeine and paracetamol. No heavy stuff. She tells me I can take the eye patch off after 24 hours. I look in the mirror. The same blurry me looks back, with white stuff over one eyeball. The burnt smell still hangs around the room, and I think it's gone into my clothes; true body odour.

I open the door and walk out where my sister and father wait to take me home. I hear a woman gasp and hope the smell hasn't carried to her -- she moves about in short staccato bursts, highly agitated. The feeling behind my eye-patch is an itching, telling me something is there, something is there. We walk to the car and drive off.

My eye starts hurting half an hour after the operation. I take a pill. I take another pill. My nose starts dripping; I realise that my eye must be weeping and the water going into my nasal cavity. My face creases up and I wait for the pain to stop, but I know it won't. Sand rubs back and forwards under my eyelid. A sewing needle goes dip-dip-dip and pulls thread from one end to the other. I have never had such constant, unremitting pain, more painful in its whole than a brief moment of agony. I once had chilli powder thrown in my eyes as a child. This is worse. Much worse. It never goes away, it grinds at me. I don't rub my eye. If I do, I think I could rip my eye apart.

30 milligrams of codeine, 300 milligrams of paracetamol. Two every four hours. Every four hours means I lie in bed and curse myself and my pain fourteen thousand, four hundred and forty times while I beat my head against the pillow and clench my teeth. Then I take two tablets. This happens three times until, eventually, I sleep.

There's orange juice and toast waiting for me when I wake up. I know this because I can smell it, but I don't open my eyes because I'm afraid the pain will come back. So I eat toast in bed with my eyes closed. I ask what time it is and my sister's voice tells me it's mid-day and my face was so white she thought I was dead when she came in. She asks if I'm okay. I don't know what to tell her. Would 'no' be a good answer?

Later. I hear my father tell someone on the phone that I'm delirious. I'm mildly amused, but I object to the word delirious; I'd say I was rabid. The constant pain is giving me a foul mood and the most interesting thing I can do is listen to the radio, which I tune by scrabbling blindly at it until I find a station. Forget about watching TV. I feel squeamish about trying to open my eye, let alone focus.

Twenty-four hours have passed, so I can take off my eye-patch. I try to look out of my left eye, but everything is too bright... and raw. My eye can't take even the wind from turning my head. I keep it open for three seconds and do an hour's penance for my sin before the pain gets down to tolerable level. I'm running out of pills. I have then neatly arranged by touch of the table by my bed and there are only fifteen left. I need fifty. I need a bucket full of codeine and then I'm going to wash it down with a fifth of Smirnoff and some orange juice, and then I'm going to go out to Primrose Hill and stare at office buildings in New York.

The pain gets less and less. My eye stops weeping -- I know this because I don't have to blow my nose all the time and I even manage to keep my left eye open for a bit. Mostly though, I hold through life with one eye closed, which is a vast improvement over nothing and cheers me up more than the lack of pain does.

Out of my new eye, things are sharper, yes. And brighter. The lack of blur is nice, but not earth-shattering; after all, I can't read anything yet and it's not like I've never seen my bedroom before. I go through a fairly boring day with a fairly annoying pain being fairly cross and irritable.

The next day. I have normal eyesight. Sort of. I can hold my eye open for maybe thirty seconds. I discover to my horror that I am longsighted when I realise there's an area which is too close for one eye and too far for the other. After some hasty winking and waving of leaflets, I find that this will go down sa the eye heals. I check for all of the bad things that could have happened. There's no halo around lights. There's no 'plastic bag effect.' In fact, the only thing I can say was wrong with my eye is that everything looked slightly squished -- a correction of astigmatism. I laughed myself silly when I found out I needed Dad's reading glasses, but it's since healed up to the point where I don't even notice a difference.

The main effect I had was of a photograph. Having radical things done to your eye makes one acutely conscious of what the eye really does; it projects a camera image into the brain. With the new surgery, I could stand still and imagine I was seeing a badly taken photograph of a parking lot, or a sofa. I imagined a video camera whenever movement entered the scene, and I wondered why I didn't become dizzy.

And now?

This morning I walked down to Optimax for the prescription for a contact lense in my other eye. I followed the road signs, looked up the appropriate street names, then I conducted an experiment. I tried finding my way with one eye closed. And wondered how I'd ever coped all those years.

But there was a point where I stood and watched in awe as I saw detail upon detail in the fractal figure and form of the trees and their branches; or when I woke in the middle of the night and suddenly saw for the first time the gray shadows on the wall move and shift like dancers in a cave unaware of their audience, silently working their twirls and pirouettes in their own private darkness to the sound of the wind. I sat in silence, and wished I'd never thrown away that stupid teddy bear.