On Vision and Depression
I first realized I needed glasses because I was struggling to maintain a C in my organic chemistry class. I had never struggled so much in any class I had taken, let alone a community college course. About halfway through the course, I realized that from my seat in the back, I couldn’t see the white board clearly.
The teacher would write equations on the board and, for the first ten minutes or so, I would scrunch up my face, trying to follow her logic. Then, I would give up and doodle in my notebook, working on my latest story, letting chemistry drift in one ear and out the other.
What amazes me now is that I didn’t realize I needed glasses. In fact, I didn’t realize I couldn’t see the board. The loss of my vision was so gradual that I just thought I was having trouble concentrating, maybe due to stress or my always-there depression that tended to creep up at the least opportune moments.
At the beginning of class one day, I received a test back. Yet another C. My face burned hot with shame. I never got C’s. If I didn’t do something, I would get a C or worse in my course. I determined to push away my thoughts of my latest boyfriend and the dancing I would be doing later to concentrate on the review. I would master the material.
It was in that moment that I realized I couldn’t see the board. No matter how I squinted and leaned forward, the instructor was writing small blurs that I couldn’t decipher.
I told my roommate about my revelation. I hadn’t had an eye exam since elementary school, and honestly, I couldn’t afford one. I was a twenty-four year old stripper-slash-barista without insurance and no savings. What little money I made went to my college courses and the occasional road trip with friends.
My roommate, the type of person who lived for solving other people’s problems, offered to pay for the exam and my first set of glasses. He drove me to an optometrist and I sat in a dark room having where puffs of air attacked my eyes and my pupils were dilated.
By the end of the exam the optometrist agreed that I needed glasses, but the prescription was so minor that it couldn’t be causing me the difficulties I thought it was. -.25 in my left, -.5 in my right. The glasses would be ready in a week.
I cried the first day I wore my glasses. The world was so beautiful, so sharp. I could read road signs as we zoomed past them, without my mind having to fill in the blanks. I could look up at the green spring canopy above my head and see the edges of individual leaves fluttering in the wind. At first my tears were because it felt like I was seeing everything for the first time, and I was grateful for the experience. But soon they turned bitter. How much had I missed out on? How long had my vision been just blurry enough to keep me in a fake world, unable to see the reality others enjoyed?
I couldn’t answer. Maybe it had been a year, maybe more. See, my issue was that I felt I had been living behind a fog since I was twelve. I had thought the fog was called depression, maybe bi-polar disorder, (now leaning towards PMDD, although nailing down a diagnosis beyond general depression is difficult). But what if my fog had a simpler, more physical cause? What if it was simply poor vision? An actual blurriness separating me from others that I internalized to an emotional state?
I turned my grades around, pulled an A in organic chemistry. For months I was buzzing with joy every time I put on my glasses. It was like a secret superpower to bring the world into clarity. I felt alive and vibrant in a way I hadn’t in months if not years.
But the strange thing was that I never learned to wear my glasses on a daily basis. I wore them for driving my motorcycle on the highways, when it wasn’t so cold that they would fog up. And I wore them for classes, of course. But I couldn’t adjust to the clear vision 24/7. Wearing them for too long gave me headaches. But worse, being behind the panes of glass replaced the fog I had felt with the feeling of being separated in a cage. I started to imagine I couldn’t hear people as well when I wore my glasses, that I was really trapped in a Plexiglas box. Besides, the blur around me was familiar.
For years I enjoyed semi-clarity. Clarity when I wanted it, the safety of a blurred state when I couldn’t handle the world with sharp edges. Through two pregnancies, my vision got worse. Along with it, my depression deepened. Deepened, and reached out to grab some new symptoms. During my second pregnancy I swirled deep into the world of anxiety, unable to ride as a passenger in a car or even think about finances without my entire body raging and then, ultimately, shutting down.
After my pregnancy, when the rage didn’t lift, I finally went to a psychiatrist who put me on benzos and Zoloft. The benzos managed my rage and anxiety for a few blissful weeks, allowing me to sleep and recover, to reset. And beneath them, the SSRIs started working their magic.
Within two weeks, I started to feel a difference. My mood was lighter. I appreciated more. But what surprised me the most were the vision changes.
Vision changes aren’t even listed as a side-effect of Zoloft. But if they were, I would anticipate blurred vision. Worse vision. What I got instead was clear vision. For the first time in years, I could see the individual trees on a distance mountain without my glasses. The world was dazzling bright and ultra clear. It was amazing. Not only was I in the best place emotionally that I had been in over fifteen years, but I could also see clearly. I was ecstatic.
Whereas my entire life I had thought the feeling of being separate from others was just a metaphor for my depression, I realized in those months that, for me, there was an actual physical separation that was associated with my vision.
Then came time to wean off the drug. My doctor had me on a six month regime, certain that I was only experiencing postpartum depression. The weaning was a terrible experience, with flu-like symptoms for the entire two months I was coming down. I was determined not to go back on the drug, not because it hadn’t helped, but because I never wanted to come off it again.
Along with the headaches, stuffy nose, tiredness, and aches and pains, I lost my super vision. It was back to being its worst. Only this time it actually annoyed me. I started wearing my glasses on a daily basis, even though the old prescription wasn’t strong enough to give me the kind of clarity I had experience during those six months on Zoloft.
Recently I got the idea of contacts into my head. I’ve never liked the idea of touching my eyes before. But what if it isn’t so bad? What if I can achieve at least the clarity of vision without feeling like I’m trapped in a box?
Deep down a little hope: what if this would help my depression? After all, if my vision got better when my depression was being treated, what if fixing my vision could lift a little stress from my emotional state?
Going in for my eye exam this time was a completely different experience. For the first time I felt like a grown up. I paid for the exam on my own, made my decisions myself. I asked for contacts and left with a pair.
The first time I put them in, I felt the difference. My vision felt exactly like it did when I was on Zoloft… clear, free, unblocked. My spirits lifted.
Of course, two weeks in I am dealing with dry, sensitive eyes, having to figure out the best contacts, best solution, and a wearing schedule that will not irritate my eyes. Because nothing is simple when it comes to vision or depression. There’s no easy answer. All I know is that for me, they’re connected.