In September of 2002, two words no 23-year-old should ever have to see on his medical chart were scrawled upon mine, atop a grid showing gaping holes in my field of vision.
A week later, a CT Scan would reveal that, in fact, no such mass lesion existed. The condition, the doctor explained, must always have existed and had simply not been noticed until now. Just to be safe, he scheduled a follow-up exam for three months later.
That December, wearing my prescription eyeglasses, I could not read any letters on the 20/30 line.
Thus, began a nearly two-year period of optometrists, ophthalmologists, neuro-ophthalmologists and neurologists ordering blood work, visual field tests, CT Scans, MRIs, ERGs (electroretinographies) and even a spinal tap.
During that time, my vision continued to diminish, passing 20/40 and registering as low as 20/70. One doctor concluded that I had multiple sclerosis, while another feared I would continue losing vision indefinitely. The prospect of eventually being mostly blind was by no means far-fetched.
And then, miraculously, it stopped getting worse. The official diagnosis was dominant optic atrophy, a rare, often progressive disorder generally not detected until adolescence.
My eyesight has, thankfully, remained steady in the ensuing years. As I type this, I am 39 years old with corrected vision of about 20/60. To provide a general idea as to the level of my impairment: I can still drive (though just barely) but, when reading, need to hold a typical (12 font) text about eight inches from my face and even then it's a headache-inducing chore.
An entirely incurable disability, my poor vision is with me every moment of every day. As much as ninety percent of the information that we, as humans, perceive from our surroundings is gathered by our eyes. Knowing this, my impaired vision is not only a perpetually noticeable, physically limiting handicap, but also one that creates a "less than" mentality that, in all honesty, is often times appropriate. My detriment creates a perceptibility gap between me and those around me that consistently makes me, depending on the specific situation, at best less useful and at worst completely useless.
Through these limitations, my poor vision has shaped me as a person in ways that, as I mature, seem to snowball upon themselves. One such aspect of my persona is that I’m really not much of a “man’s man.” And not only am I not one, I’ll never know if I would have become one because, quite simply, my eyesight rendered the matter moot.
Think about it: Most manly activities require at least halfway decent eyesight. Forget riding a motorcycle or hunting, I can’t even play baseball or paintball; I tried the latter once or twice and, upon earning the inglorious nickname “Friendly Fire,” added it to my lengthy “can’t do” list. Ditto for video gaming (can’t see the bad guys shooting me quickly enough), casino poker playing (can’t see the flop cards quickly enough) and, not surprisingly, skiing (can’t see certain death quickly enough).
Spectator sports are nearly as problematic—and perhaps more of a shame, given that I’m an avid baseball and football fan who loves to talk sports with friends. Enter my alienating eyesight, which not only makes attending live games near-joyless, but also invalidates sports bars and Super Bowl parties. In each of these settings, I’m really just reacting to the crowd’s reaction, which is like hearing an audience laugh at a stand-up comedian without hearing the joke yourself. It’s just lost on me. I need to watch games up close and front-and-center, which usually translates to staying home.
The list goes on. I’m not a “car guy” because my vision isn’t detailed enough to appreciate…well… your auto detailing. Special effects in action films are far less special, and blurry boobs make for a less-than-titillating strip club experience.
Fighting, or, at least, the prospect of a fight brings an even deeper, more emasculating wound. Of course, I can see more than well enough to measure up the guy whose nostrils are flaring six inches from my face. But just before someone throws a punch, there are split-second cues that require sharp vision to perceive. Trust me. I’ve learned the veracity of this statement through experience, and the truth did indeed hurt.
Furthermore, most physical altercations take place in dimly-lit areas (when’s the last time you saw two dudes brawling at a supermarket?) conditions that, for reasons too boring to explain, further widen the gap between me and a normally-sighted combatant. All totaled, the only effective self-defense I have in a showdown scenario is a good offense, and I’m too old, and too married, and too employed to be throwing the first punch unless it’s really, really warranted.
And of course, there are the traditionally masculine careers and duties in which my vision disqualifies me from participating. I would not pass an army physical, nor be allowed to serve as an active duty police officer, firefighter or emergency medical technician. Pilot, architect, umpire… no, no and no. Career choices have been as limited by my eyesight as recreational activities.
The other manhood-mangling aspect of my poor vision is the way others react to it. Unlike, for example, a noticeable limp, my visual deficit is an invisible disability; it is not readily apparent to anyone who has just met me. Soon enough, however, a revealing circumstance presents itself, usually one involving printed text or a screen, both of which require my abnormally close proximity and that, to my new acquaintance, throws up a red flag. I basically get the guy-in-a-wheelchair reaction, albeit on tape delay.
The predictability of these encounters hasn’t, not yet at least, made them any less awkward. I start out in other peoples' eyes as an equal, and suddenly prove myself less than that, at least physically. And the only surefire means of preventing such scenes would be introducing myself something in the way of: “Hi, I’m Chris, and I have a moderate visual disability.” That, of course, would be even more off-putting that the weirded-out look on most folks’ faces when they realize I can’t see anywhere near well.
With this essay I am, I realize, presenting only a surface-level concept of manhood, and a somewhat stereotypical one at that. And besides, most curses have at least some flipside blessings; in this case, overcoming any significant disability requires at least a modicum of fortitude and resilience, both of which my poor eyesight has helped instill in me.
But past the physical inabilities and social awkwardness, what’s most frustrating, and the biggest affront to my manhood, is the control forfeited to this disability, and what that means to my concept of being my own man. My sense of masculinity, as well as my practice of it, exists in an environment determined at least as much by my eyesight as myself, and probably more so.
My visual impairment has made it a smaller world for me in more ways than one, and I think I’ll always resent that.