The month before I turned 13, my world exploded from flat to fully dimensional, from matte to spectacular gloss, and from distant to immediate and up-close. Moving from thick-walled myopia to perfect vision in the form of two tiny disks inserted into each of my unseeing eyes plunged me into a new reality that was both breathtaking and terrifying in all its depth and color: the Real World! This realization of life in all its dimensionality, and of myself as a participant, not just observer, changed the course of my life—and has continued to do so every morning ever since.
Studious and quiet, with uneven bangs that hung to the top of glasses as thick as the thinnest sliced bread, I was the shy, solitary student with hands folded at the front of classrooms or cowering at the back of the cafeteria. Oversized and gawky, I was nearly legally blind. I hid behind pink-tinted, prone-to-breaking plastic windshields chosen for me from the rack of frames that came free with our family insurance plan. They tended to slip to the tip of my nose from the weight, making me squint even more and making it harder to see. Before long, they were taped and smeared with superglue from being periodically chewed by the dog.
Ever since I could remember, I awoke each morning to a formless world. Unlike dreams or thoughts, which were clear, reality was nothing but vague shapes and splotches. Severe astigmatism—a condition in which I have “footballs for eyeballs” rather than perfect lunar orbs, giving me double vision—made my lenses thick and forbidding. They provided enough definition to navigate but rendered the world flat. Compared with the vast, lively places I inhabited in my imagination or when I read, “real” life felt like watching events and people pass through a scuffed-up airplane porthole. Furniture, chairs, the blackboard, and faces became flatter year by year as my vision continued to worsen and the lenses grew thicker.
On the eve of my 12th birthday, my head broke the windshield in a car crash that sank me into a coma no one thought I would awake from. As I recovered, I became acutely aware of alternate worlds in which I hadn’t woken up, in which I ceased to exist, or in which any person, thing, or thought could cease to exist.
Life as I knew it was subject to change. This realization triggered a cascade of subtle choices that confounded my conservative immigrant family: I tried on shorts, made friends with boys, and wore jeans—all previously verboten. Then, nearly a year after the crash, I counted up a lifetime’s saved-up allowance and ordered special contact lenses, hoping to correct my vision in a way that glasses could not. My thrifty parents probably never considered the extra expense, given that the glasses worked for school and I was forbidden from playing sports anyway.
We traveled to the optical store in our Ford Fairmont, the car window framing cornfields and a cloudy sky casting everything in shadow. We passed office buildings, box stores, movie theaters, car dealerships, and strip malls, each surrounded by rectilinear expanses of gray parking lot. The large shopping complex floated as a fortress over an asphalt moat, rippled with tar patches, empty of shoppers. Every single thing appeared matte and flat, and nothing stood out.
At the store, I struggled to put the custom disks—made for me!—in my eyes. After more than an hour of losing them and blinking them out, I finally placed them with little effort. I stood, glasses in hand, and swayed, the red walls blaringly bright. Chairs sprung from the floor, racks of eyeglasses floated forward, and faces hovered obscenely close. Things leapt and danced as if I had dropped into Alice’s psychedelic rabbit hole. Dizzy and nauseated, I had to sit down.
I closed my eyes and felt the alien objects inside them. I wanted to tear them out but instead opened my eyes. My mother was glaring at me, impatient, so I stood again and held on to her as we exited the store. The car looked shocking and garish between bright, newly painted yellow lines. From inside, my mother pushed the passenger door open, and I jumped back as it swung, weighty and threatening.
Everything was now a Thing, an Object to be contended with, something to be maneuvered around, Real and Heavy. The vinyl seats appeared putrescent orange with dirty cracks and a thousand pinpricked holes. The roof seemed ready to fall on my head. I rolled down the window and gasped as we pulled out of the parking lot. Road, sidewalk, and building rose and fell away with startling dimensionality. Objects loomed, closer and nearer. The sky itself burned white and gray and slight blue, mottled with texture and light, and flew darkly into the distance. I clutched the handrest of the car door. I felt as if I were in a rocket ship, launching out of orbit.
The world had suddenly shifted. Previously, moving through it had been a lifeless experience, an uninteresting exercise one had to endure until the next book, like pushing a pebble across the sidewalk with a stick. Now each blink was momentous and revealing, and each new perception evoked new possibilities.
What I realized the moment I put the contacts in my eyes was that the world is colorful and real. That I am real. From that day forward, the world sang to me in all its complexity, and the song has grown more beguiling the more I pay attention.
Nearly 30 years later, I still go to bed and wake up basically blind. My daughters marvel that I can navigate dark rooms and suspect that I have evolved the capacity to echolocate, like a bat. As I have aged, my other senses, made acute by my entrapment in walls of thick, scratched glass, remain vibrant and strong. Every now and again, it happens that I lose a contact lens and cannot—between work, motherhood, and the still extraordinary cost of specialty lenses—afford to replace them. I am plummeted again into a world that is flat, fixed, and gray. After a week, I begin to withdraw. After two weeks, I no longer call friends back and turn unabashedly shy. And then, as it was that first morning, I find my eyeballs and the world appears, inviting me to dive on in.
I can only imagine what it would be like to wake up and be able to see, truly see. My eyesight is too severe for surgery, I’m told. And even if it were possible, I’m not sure I would want it. Each day is a transformation: I awake, grope for my glasses, and head for the bathroom to put on my contacts. In doing so, I move from an indistinct world that is flat and fixed to one that is dynamic and impossibly deep. It makes me wonder what other levels of depth and movement exist all around us—as if we could purchase and put in contact lenses for compassion, to help us see how it ebbs and flows. I am grateful for the insights that come from daily having to fix my eyesight, and from just being alive. Every day that I go from blind to seeing to being is a eureka moment.
About the author Sophia Tzeng is a professional organizational consultant and the single mother of three girls. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and likes to hike, bike, swim, and practice yoga.
Read the second place essay here: How a Patient Renewed My Faith in Medicine