A Formerly Blind Movie Fan On Seeing Movies For The First Time

After three decades of being legally blind, a movie geek describes the process and experience of becoming sighted - and what it's like for her to finally see her favorites.

I'm a huge Doctor Who and Harry Potter fan. I organize and run (Re)Generation Who: Baltimore’s Doctor Who Convention which takes place every March. I also run PotterVerse: Baltimore’s Harry Potter Convention which takes place every September. I've loved these properties for years.

But until 2016, I'd never really seen Doctor Who, or a Harry Potter film.

Not, at least, in a way that you’d probably recognize - unless you watched things as a kid by standing on a bookshelf with one eye two inches from the TV and constantly moving your head. I was born legally blind, and before mid-2016 I had never truly seen my own face, let alone my favorite TV shows and movies. 

But that year a very skilled doctor (Dr. Raviv at the Eye Center of NY) gave me sight for the first time by performing two surgeries and two laser procedures. (Dr. Raviv is not paying me to write this nor does he know I am writing this. I paid for the surgeries myself and thanks to donations that readers of my blog insisted on sending in to help with the extra costs.)

First, I want to explain to you what “blind” means since there’s a lot of misconceptions about what that is. It doesn’t mean that my vision was a black field of nothing. “Blind” can mean severely obstructed vision, severely nearsighted, severely farsighted, floaters, flashers – you get the idea. 

In my case, I was nearsighted worse than a -20. This means that I had microscope vision. I could tell you what angle each individual hair on my head was cut on, how many pores I had, or how many threads were in a piece of fabric, but I wouldn’t be able to recognize anyone or anything around me and for the most part always had to travel with a friend while holding their hand. I’ve almost walked into the men’s bathroom many times, gotten lost in a small restaurant, and generally gotten used to stopping and texting a friend to direct me via text message back to my table. In places that have the menu posted on the wall behind the counter I would often photograph the menu with my iPhone and zoom in to read it  – but I’ve also had my share of days when I burst into tears and skipped lunch rather than deal with it. These are the things that become normal, but it doesn’t make it less hard to deal with. 

Here is an example of normal vision (not me):

Here is what my vision looked like before surgery. With glasses:

With special contacts:

And my vision with no correction:

The best that I could be corrected to before surgery was about 20/60 with severe complications. One option was to wear the purple monstrosities that you can see below (sitting next to my current post-surgery glasses): 

These didn’t work well. The only place in focus is directly in front, as if you were looking through toilet paper tubes. There is no peripheral vision. The best part is that they can cost over $1000 depending on how much the eyeglass retailer wants to gouge. They also require a specialist and take several weeks to make. If you lose these glasses, you are totally screwed. 

My best option was to get extremely thick, expensive special-order contact lenses. These didn’t actually come in my size, so they’d slide behind my eye a lot while in use. Even when they were in front of my eye I’d have a partially obstructed field of vision. If I went to a theater to see a movie I’d have to hold my head sideways and stare into the brightest part of the screen so that my pupil dilated enough to fit in the lens area so that I could (sort of) see. The lenses also gave me lots of cornea scratching and eye infections. (The root cause of this is a deformity with my eyes that made them shaped like footballs.)

Both methods of correction aren’t good enough to drive with. I did anyway. I’m not proud of that, but there was literally no other way for me to hold down a job so that I can earn money to pay rent and buy food. With my awful contact lenses I could see people, animals, cars; I just couldn’t read street signs and always was extra careful to pull over to re-orient myself. If someone happened to be going with me anywhere, I would never be the person driving.  

When you have something like this you develop coping mechanisms. When walking I always divided the color of the area in front of me into units that I’d count so that I could walk to where I needed to go. Every place in which I existed, I’d need to memorize. I’ve walked into glass windows before. The problem with this is that everyone assumes you are stupid and not that you are blind.

That said, I did extremely well coping with this. Many people didn’t know, and I even worked as an artist for many years and reached the top of my field in several areas. If I have to tilt my head sideways to see, or work through eye infections, then that’s what’s going to happen.

In 2014 my vision showed signs of declining. Highly nearsighted people get cataracts as early as their 20s but for some reason no one ever told me this. I was developing cataracts and losing the ability to focus near and far. Vision any worse than what I described above is cause for serious alarm. For a while I thought that this was it. My childhood fear of being completely blind was threatening to happen. What would I do? How would I work?

I, frankly, lost my shit.

I needed surgery, and while normally cataract surgery is a super easy operation that people don’t worry about, I have a severely deformed retina that took this operation out of the realm of the routine into something a bit more complicated and scary. My risk? My retina could decide to sort of commit suicide during the surgery.

The best outcome? I’d have sight for the first time in my life. Most people don’t need eye correction after this surgery – I knew going in that I would still need eye correction. In our best-case scenario, I would lose the ability to focus near and far forever and require reading glasses. 

Considering that if I did nothing I’d lose what little sight I had anyway, I went forward with the surgeries. 

The Surgery

On the day of the surgery they had to destroy and remove my eye’s natural lens so that a lens implant could be injected and unfurled inside my eye. This can be done by hand but in my delicate case I ended up needing to get what’s called Femtosecond Laser Cataract Surgery to make sure the least amount of energy was being exerted on my eye. 

After a retina check, they strapped me to a table, put some disc thing over my eye that was then filled with water (very weird) and asked me to look at what appeared to be disco lights. Within a second I felt absolutely nothing and my lens was sliced up like a checkerboard. I looked like a cyborg and it wasn’t gruesome at all.

Here’s a photo of my eye. This is not Photoshop: 

The next step was to get moved to another room and knocked out under twilight sedation. The doctor then had to puncture the side of my eye, suck out the destroyed lens, and inject and unfurl the new lens. I don’t remember much of this, but I do remember talking about leprechauns during it.

When I woke up my eyes were dilated but for the most part I could see already. I was so drugged that I had a conversation with the soap dispenser and towel dispenser in the bathroom and asked my friends to come look at these guys who talk to each other in the bathroom. Yeah. That was a thing.

Within a couple hours I was able to post on Facebook and tell people I was OK. Then it was rest, another retina check, and repeat all of this for the second eye a month later.

I needed a Yag capsulotomy on each eye to clear some cloudiness afterward (and retina checks before and after each one). These laser procedures were painless and done in the doctor’s office with just numbing drops. I was warned that I would have some floaters afterward but they weren’t a huge deal – because for the first time in my life I am a -2 and correctable to about 20/25 – almost 20/20 on a good day. We hit the expected target dead on! 

What they don’t tell you is how it can psychologically mess with your mind to gain sight for the first time in your 30s.

Adjusting To sight

I had never seen my own face before. 

No, seriously. I had seen ultra close-ups of like, my eye. I’d seen blurry images of myself in the mirror. I’d seen ultra close-up on photos that I had put my eye one inch from to see, but I had never truly seen myself and connected who I am to what I look like. To this day I still get a bit shocked looking in the mirror – like a cat that thinks it’s another cat. I actually scared myself a few times and I am sure the onlookers found it to be hilarious. In stores that have mirrored walls I often think it’s another person.

It’s unsettling. It’s not bad but definitely something to get used to.

My entire life is changing. I no longer need a helper to come with me everywhere. I go more places on my own. Again – something to get used to. My friends who have known me forever still put their shoulder in front of me so that I can track to their shoulder and be led forward. I had a method where I’d use a point on someone’s shoulder area and follow it. I used to imagine it was a right-click and follow command like in World of Warcraft. Being blind also explains why I sucked at WoW and video games, but I digress.

The other thing that is hard to deal with is seeing other people’s faces clearly. Before I wasn’t always sure if someone was talking to me. I wasn’t sure if they were happy, sad, liked me, or disliked me. Now I have a much better picture of it.

This is as close to being teleported into someone else’s body that I think we are going to see until sci-fi becomes reality. That is literally what it feels like. I am learning who I am and how the world interacts with me for the first time.

This is what they don’t tell you. If you could once see, lost your sight at some point, and then got your sight back it probably wouldn’t be a thing, but to actually get sight for the first time ever as an adult – that’s some heavy shit, man. Good shit, but heavy. I’d never want to go back to what I had before, but just the same it also feels like I lost something – like a hand was cut off or something - because dealing with being blind was so much a part of me. There’s gotta be some term for this - something akin to Stockholm Syndrome - but that’s not my field of expertise.

With a bizarre sense of detachment within my own body, loss of a part of me, and absolute joy that OMG I CAN SEE I would stare at my hands or face trying to convince myself that this is me. My hands also look larger because my previous corrective lenses artificially shrunk everything. For a few weeks I knocked over a lot of stuff until I adjusted to things looking their actual size instead of shrunk and distorted. I can read street signs when driving now. This even causes me to sometimes let out a little cheer while driving. I never thought I’d be able to do that!

It’s been about a year since my first surgery and I’m adjusted pretty well, but I still have some work to do with my brain that I am sure will come naturally as I go back to work and leave the cocoon of my apartment that I’ve been in for a year. I’ve graduated from glasses only to contact lens – in the singular. Because I can’t focus near and far anymore I wear progressive glasses or simply 1 contact lens in my right eye. My right eye does distance and my left eye does close up. The best part is the lens is cheap, thin, disposable, and comes in my size.

If you or anyone you know is severely nearsighted I highly recommend looking into this surgery because it truly gives such a huge increase in quality of life and the surgery has been perfected over many years to the point that it’s a relatively safe operation. If someone doesn’t have an eye as fragile as mine the risk is super low. The only caveat is that if you don’t have cataracts it’s not covered by insurance at all and it’s called “Clear Lens Replacement” instead.

Before surgery my best-corrected vision was old, moldy Betamax in your grandpa’s basement. Now it’s Blu-ray.

Speaking of, I didn’t even own a modern TV before my surgery because – why? Why would I? But a really nice 4K TV was one of the first things I bought after surgery. One of the first movies I watched on that TV was Mad Max: Fury Road. I had - literally - never seen anything like that before! I now find myself drawn to watching more movies of all types equally, with one caveat - I sometimes get overwhelmed. Star Trek Beyond completely overloaded me with the over-the-top action sequences. I hadn't seen much of that type of VFX before and was only familiar with practical effects - or I just didn't encode stuff like that before and assumed / drew conclusions about what was happening. 

But watching movies now is kind of like having had a fever dream years ago, and then finally seeing it made real. You wonder if you dreamed it, but you didn’t. I had heard that if you close your eyes during an experience, you don’t encode those memories as easily. I don’t know if that’s true but my experience would say that it probably is. I used to forget movie plots quickly – and so far that’s not the case anymore. Just call me Captain Goldfish!

Moviegoing has changed completely. Before I never liked going to the theater; when I did I would be annoyed because it was so difficult. Now I go as often as I can and it doesn't fill me with any negative feelings. Netflix is also a revelation. I used to watch Netflix on my iPhone, moving the screen around my face to where I could best see it. I thought that was HD - "how can it get better than an iPhone screen?" Hilarious! Movies like Ong Bak and The Raid are much easier for me to follow now. I used to get a general idea of the action before but now I can more easily see everything. (Since I was involved in MMA back in the day I can now get ultra nerdy talking about the choreography.)

Strangely, some old habits die hard: I still need to break myself from using my iPhone to watch Netflix - while sitting right next to my 4K TV that's turned off. 

The thing about being blind from birth is that you don’t see it as a lack because you have never experienced better. You have nothing to compare it to. My enjoyment of TV and movies - that, sure, I wasn’t able to see - seemed just as real as being able to see it as clearly as a person with full sight, if that makes any sense. It’s only when I got my sight that I realized how much I was missing.

That’s when I retroactively felt loss and terror. Everything was moving so fast and so bright. Imagine if you got psychic powers and couldn’t turn it off. It’s good, but overwhelming and a bit scary. Which makes maybe no sense because now I can see whatever I want. It’s been nothing but a huge gain. But the moral of the story is (I guess) that change of any kind – good or bad – can throw humans for a loop.

I don’t regret one second of it. My personal experiences have also helped me make my Doctor Who and Harry Potter events more accessible and understanding of all perspectives. I feel that this hardship has made me more able to serve my community. No – I know it has.

Needless to say I now have a lifetime of movies to watch with clear vision and to see for the first time. The question is: where do I start?   

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