I have acute senses. I pick up on strange or unpleasant odors more quickly than the people around me. I had a boyfriend who used to routinely tell me he couldn’t even hear the music I was listening to. An allergist once told me I had the most sensitive skin she’d ever seen.
And my vision is better than 20/20. Way better. Like, whenever I get my vision tested the optometrist gets all interested and curious and adds in extra tests just to see how long I can keep going.
As a kid, I was a voracious reader. I spent as many hours as possible immersed in books. But in my late twenties, something happened. I started noticing strain and discomfort around my right eye after reading. It wasn’t pleasant. Without meaning to, I ended up reading less.
It came to a head a few years ago when my horse suffered a serious leg injury. I was spending long hours at work, staring at a computer screen all day, and my horse needed a lot of extra care. It was stressful, trying to fit demanding jobs, deadlines and clients around frequent trips to the barn.
The leg injury was bad. Bad enough that I was justified in worrying my horse might not recover. With the confinement, drugs, and complications, he grew depressed. I started taking him to this grassy area near the barn and letting him graze for an hour or so a day, to lift his spirits.
Obviously, I wasn’t going to just sit there while he ate.
I took a book.
And this is when I learned I really had a problem. Just a few days into this routine, the entire right side of my face was throbbing more or less constantly. It would be a little better when I woke up each morning, but half an hour on a computer or looking at a book and I’d have to stop.
Alarmed, I went to see an optometrist. After a series of tests (still way better than perfect vision!) they referred me to an orthoptist, which was something I’d never heard of before.
I walked down the hall, following instructions given to me when I finished my initial exam, and found myself in a waiting room full of kids. There was a playhouse in a corner and a TV set to the cartoon network. I filled out some paperwork (leaving the signature of the parent/guardian field blank) feeling self-conscious, and watched a kid wearing an eye-patch and a kid with a wandering eye share a set of plastic trucks.
In the exam room, there was a shelf on the wall full of stuffed animals and a jar of suckers on the counter.
When my doctor arrived, she expressed surprise at my adultness. She had to adjust all her equipment so it would fit on or over my head. One set of plastic cards she used in her tests had Sesame Street characters in the corners.
But she had no trouble diagnosing my problem. Convergence Insufficiency, was the verdict. My eyes don’t focus correctly on objects near my face. I asked how this was possible, what with my perfect vision and all. She said my case is very mild, and I’m able to override it, but it strains the muscles around my eyes when I do this for long periods of time. Hence the face throbbing.
She said in all likelihood my profession and all the time on a computer plus stress and a decrease in time looking at distant objects have combined to make this into a problem for the first time in my life. She gave me a set of wedge-shaped prisms, told me to look through them for fifteen minutes at least once a day, and report back in a month.
I did what she said, and my face stopped hurting. Elated, I kept it up. I went back for my review, happy to report I was pain free. She was thrilled. My horse got better. Happy ending.
Except, not quite. A few months later, I had another stressful period at work. When I picked up a book to try to unwind one night, my face started aching again.
I returned to my routine with the prisms. It didn’t help as much as it had the time before. The orthoptist suggested I wear an eye-patch when I read. I ordered a custom made one. But you know what? Even wearing a really nice eye-patch just sucks. And if you’re doing something like sipping a beer or a coffee while you’re reading, well. Let’s just say having TWO eyes is a crucial part of depth perception.
The thing is, if I don’t read, I’m fine.
I stopped reading.
It wasn’t a conscious choice. I was just sick of the pain. Without reading, my eye held its own. I listened to audiobooks. My husband read to me sometimes. I told myself it was no big deal. Every now and then I’d pick up a book and push through it, reading as fast as I could to keep the discomfort to a minimum.
For Christmas last year, we got a Kindle. While I appreciate the theory behind ereaders and ebooks, in practice I find them unrefined. I miss pages, I miss typography. I miss page numbers and the feel of a book in your hand. I played with my Kindle a little, but I didn’t give it much of a chance.
Then a friend of mine wrote a book. It was only available on Kindle. I downloaded it, and started to read.
Within twenty minutes, my eye was bothering me. I’d misplaced my eye-patch, but I wanted to read the book. I monkeyed around with text size, making it larger, then larger still.
I ended up with the text on the second to largest setting. I had to turn the page every few seconds. But my eye wasn’t hurting. I read that one book, put the Kindle down, and forgot about it again.
More time passed.
A few days ago, Iain Banks died. I wanted to read something he’d written. I went to our library’s website and saw they had none of his audiobooks. But they did have Transition… in ebook format.
I sent it to my Kindle.
And wow did I get sucked in. The booked grabbed me, the way books are supposed to.
I didn’t come up for air for hours, and by then my face was throbbing. I took a break, did some work with my prisms, and pushed on. But the spell was broken. The pain in my face was disrupting the magic that is getting lost in a book.
Trying to sleep that night I was sick with this sense of loss. I had literally forgotten what it was like to plunge into a story. I didn’t want to lose it again.
The next morning I picked up the Kindle. I blew the text up in size, once again until it was on the second to highest setting. Why hadn’t I done that right off? I can’t really say. It felt like giving in somehow, like accepting defeat. For someone who had always read, and read a lot (I was the crowned Bookworm of the second grade, with the stuffed animal to show for it!) it was a blow to the pride. I had read Litte Women at the age of 8. I’m only in my 30s. I shouldn’t need large print just to read a book.
But I blew up the text anyway.
I fell back into the story.
When I finished the book, I looked up with that same delicious sense of coming back to reality after a protracted escape I remember so well from my earlier reading days. My face felt fine.
The next day, I started another ebook. And since then I’ve been spending my evenings curled up with my Kindle instead of staring at a computer screen.
Is it a perfect replacement for the books I love? No. Not even close.
But I’ll take it.