cataract story, part one

I have a cataract. I’ve seen six doctors about it in the last three months and they all agree: it shouldn’t have happened. Usually, I try to come up reasons to blame myself for misfortune, but not this time. It just happened.

One day I realized that it is annoying to drive and made an appointment with an ophthalmologist I’d seen a few months earlier, on recommendation by my (incredibly amazing) optometrist. He told me that I had a cataract and referred me to a specialist. I cried and walked home in shock, not sure if I should believe it or not. There are no statistics for people under forty, people like me.

I’ve always been afraid of going blind. I think everyone has a low-grade background fear in the back of their head; mine is going blind. I don’t know where it came from, perhaps it is that I am at high risk of retinal detachment. Still, it is there, and it has always been there. This is reassuring in a way: my vision is reducing but in a way that modern medicine can address. Maybe it won’t be so bad.

The first ophthalmologist referred me to a second, a corneal specialist. She called it a brown cataract. I tried to get a sense of urgency from her, she said it might get bad by Christmas. She thought my optic nerve looked a bit thin so she had the office take a photograph (not fully covered by my insurance) and send me to a different specialist. I complained that driving was annoying so she had the office schedule me to take a vision field test as well. Around this time, I stopped bothering to pretend that I was doing okay and started covering the bad eye while I drove. The bad eye’s image was doubled and blurry and would sometimes meander into my field of vision then back out. Work was fine was still things would move around at work and I had to sit at the front of the meeting rooms to be able to see.

I love stained glass. At night, the cataract makes driving annoying unless I cover it – all of the headlights and streetlights shine brightly, a starburst of light. Stained glass does the same, the light is brighter and it fills my eyes with incredible beauty. I can’t photograph what I see anymore but I want to save the intense beauty of stained glass.

By the next appointment, I had to frequently rest my eyes at work and splash with cold water to remove the bags under my eyes. They get so tired since they were trying to use the bad eye, still. The vision field test was also not fully covered by my insurance and each appointment took three hours and ended in dilation drops. This doctor wanted me to get an MRI in order to rule out MS. I have frequent body pain problems, so I was willing to believe that MS could be a thing and spent the next two weeks obsessing over multiple sclerosis.

I had multiple piercings in my ear and I cried after I had them taken out. I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. I have poor dexterity so I can’t put them back in. When I went in for the MRI, my bra strap caused interference. I lay in the tomb, meditating, existing. After he injected the contrast agent, my mouth filled up with drool. I left, in a daze. Was this real? What is real anymore?

My father was the first person I told, a day or two after the initial diagnosis. He is really good at bad news – he is hard to faze and is always able to come up with something neutral to say. It’s so nice to have a supportive but neutral response, while I work my way through my own emotional response. My mother has age-onset cataracts right now. She wants to come out for my surgery and has been very interested in all of my appointments. Almost nobody else has given me a response that was in line with where I thought our relationship was; people I thought were close have actively avoided my crisis (and, since it consumes me, avoid me) and people I thought I’d fallen away from have been incredibly compassionate.

The MRI results were normal. So I was referred to a cataract surgeon. The second doctor also performs cataract surgeries, so I didn’t understand why, but by this point I was tired and just moving along through the process. Does it matter? Does anything matter? Why is everything so hard?

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Looking at ibuprofen tablets makes me gag.

There was a day, ten years ago, when depression and desperation made me compulsively down thirty tabs of ibuprofen. I chewed them, each and every one. I remained, but with the most intense stomach pain I’d yet experienced.

After that, I stopped compulsively trying to end my life. I set deadlines and thought about how to do it. But never again would I rifle through the bathroom and sit at the kitchen table and take action.

When I was in high school, I took a photography class. (I turned out to be the complete opposite of a natural at mounting photographs.) I was left with an X-Acto blade, which I used to carve my wrist when I felt the intensity of a depressive adolescent. What could I do, other than aim for the only visible exit from that life? But I carved under my wristwatch line, so nobody would see it. In my first college dorm, this behavior bothered my roommate so I had to reassure the person in charge of the dorm that I was not suicidal and the roommate moved out.

After my DUI, I didn’t understand why I survived. My car was wrecked; the parked van was wrecked; I had a small bruise and nothing else. In the months that followed, I actively fantasized about suicide and thought about how to do it and set deadlines.

The universe doesn’t want me to die at my hand, though, and so it wasn’t important to me by the time the deadline came.

Later, I became intensely suicidally depressed. I fantasized about suicide and constructed plans and set deadlines. But it wasn’t important to me by the time the deadline came.

A few years before The Ibuprofen Incident, I talked to my doctor and tried a few antidepressants. We tried four different ones, and the side effects for each were worse than the mood disorder, so I stopped trying. When I told my mother that I was trying Zoloft, I had to reassure my father that I was not suicidal. We never talked about my legitimate suicidal ideation, but I wonder if the university called them.

I have a huge fear of ibuprofen now.

For two years, when I was eleven and twelve, my family lived in north-eastern Indiana.

I don’t remember that my three brothers shared a bedroom. I don’t remember my eyeglasses getting broken by exiting the school restroom into a fist-fight. My parents tell me about those parts.

I spend a lot of time in the bathroom. In a busy, loud world, sometimes it is the only peace and quiet. Once I sat in the school bathroom waiting for others to leave and the girls doing their makeup yelled good-bye at me. I’d wished I was more invisible.

Once, my grandfather visited us. My father, older brother, grandfather, and I went to the Indy 500. We sat in the bleachers, watching the cars go around and around. My father and grandfather drank beer and the people near us cheered.

We went to an amusement park in Cleveland, Ohio, a few times. Looking at a map, it must have been a few hour drive. My father would go on roller coasters with us while my mother stayed with our younger brothers. Later, he said that my older brother really like roller coasters. I don’t remember how I felt about them.

We drove to Chicago. I got a t-shirt from the art museum, it was covered in hundreds of artist signatures (Degas, van Gogh, etc). I think that we went to the top of the Sears Tower to look at the view.

We visited Amish country. My mother loves hand crafts and she was interested in quilting at the time. We walked around a tourist-friendly area. Later, she said that she wished she had bought a quilt. She took basket weaving classes a few years later.

We went on a family trip to Dollywood.

Once we went on a weekend trip to the Indiana Dunes. That is all I remember of that, but in my idealized memory – probably only loosely inspired by fact – it was rolling hills of sand. Wasn’t there a passage in Le Petit Prince about that?

My aunt got married when we lived there. We drove two days to get to Boston. I sat in the room with my mother and their sisters as they got the bride ready, and the stylist did my hair or makeup or something. My mother’s bridesmaid shoes were bright pink; the photos say that the dresses were, too. After the wedding, they had to explain to me that my aunt wouldn’t be living at my grandfather’s house anymore.

The weather was extreme. It was over 100F in the summer and below 0F in the winter. I would slide down the icy sidewalk to get to school in the morning.

We moved to California after that. I barely remember any family adventures in California. My aunt said that when she visited and we all drove to look at a fault line, my father yelled at my older brother and me to stop reading and look out the window.

 

I’ve lived here for five years. Some people in my building have been here for a very long time – decades – and others come and go every few years. My neighbor had been here for a very long time.

Once, shortly after I moved in, my aunt mailed me a package. It was more of my grandmother’s dishes. The delivery person left the box in the hallway, he took it out of the hall and left me a note saying that he was holding it for me since packages go missing. He came by later to give it to me, I was afraid to go over there.

I like using the freight elevator because fewer people use it. Once in a while I saw him coming or going in the freight elevator, too.

A few years ago, a garbage bin was rolled up from the basement, sitting outside of his unit. It was only there for a few days. I think he said that things just accumulate, it’s good to get rid of a few things. Another person on our floor told me she thought it was hazardous, that he was creepy. I thought she didn’t need to get up in everybody’s business.

He had a friend that called on him once in a while. Sometimes we shared an elevator. I don’t remember anything about him.

Once I mentioned to him that my apartment gets drafty. One of the windows swings open and it doesn’t seal well. He said, by the bed? I was initially horrified. But it’s a studio apartment, there are not many places to put a bed. He suggested using duct tape, which I’ve been using. It’s less bad now.

He said he was friends with the person that lived here before me. That he was here for twenty years. How long will I stay? How long can I stay?

Last June, I saw him in the elevator with a young flaming gay man, heading to pride. He looked embarrassed at his companion’s exuberance.

When I saw the legal document wedged in the door, I thought he had perhaps stopped paying rent, that he would move in with a lover. The last time I saw one, it was an eviction for non-payment. There is some kind of closure to moving out. A week or two later, the door to the apartment was open and there was a tv and other sundries in the hallway. My cat was intrigued by the musty smell.

This week, I saw my apartment manager, heading to work on the unit. He told me that my neighbor passed away. That it was good that they found him that day. That when there is no family, the city takes over for two months, tries to find family, and sells the valuables, then returns it to the owner. He didn’t have any family. That he had too many things, filling up the bathtub and the kitchen and the whole place with stuff, barely able to open the front door. That the walls were brown from years of smoke. That he had lived here for fifty years, died at seventy-eight. It was a good life.

I hope he had a good life.

Today, I saw a letter from the Social Security Administration, addressed to him (so I learned his name). The apartment manager wrote DECEASED on it, left it out for the letter carrier to pick up. You’re born alone and you die alone. Rest in peace.

Aside

my baby brother is engaged. this is hard. all family engagements from people younger than me are hard. i feel like a huge failure because i am unpartnered.

that’s never been a goal.

i’m great at eventually reaching my goals. but the vague things, like “maybe have friends” or “someone will notice if i am horribly ill”? not so much.

i talk about my brother’s engagement a lot. there are things that are easy to talk about. they haven’t been dating for an extended period of time, she has different political views than i do, she has a different faith than i do. her family is different than mine. the ways she wants to cultivate my brother seem silly to me. easy to talk about, but not substantial. i want him to be happy. he says he wants to do this; so he should do it. i deeply hope that he finds contentment in this new chapter of his life.

i’m envious that he knows how to play by the rules.

lately, i’ve been reading about people that have terrible diseases and it is only because their loved ones pushed for a diagnosis that the medical issues were eventually resolved. i live alone and have slowly been tapering all of my social connections. what would happen to me if i ended up with a brain tumor?

my brother has the brain tumor angle covered, now.

sometimes, i wish i did.

Aside

As the panic attacks increase, I remove any possible trigger from my life.

But they remain, ever-vigilant, eagerly anticipating my demise. A more loyal friend than I have ever had.

Aside