My left eye is amblyopic. Amblyopia is a dimness of vision, especially when occurring in one eye without apparent physical defect or disease. Also called lazy eye. Origin: New Latin amblyōpia, from Greek ambluōpiā, from ambluōpos, dim-sighted : amblus, dim The other important fact about amblyopia is that the vision the eye is capable of is pretty cruddy, even when wearing glasses. No lens can correct it to ‘normal’.
So what does it feel like? What does the world look like, when I view it with my amblyopic left eye?
I’ve been considering these questions for a few months, now that I better understand my own two eyes and their abilities. For most of my life, I have thought of my left eye as “weak”, and I thought the therapeutic eye-patching and clonky prism glasses I wore as a child had prevented this condition. The other reason I had never thought about “me + amblyopia” is because my brain has been dutifully suppressing the low-quality data coming from my amblyopic eye (a very chicken-or-the-egg type of mind game: did my eye become amblyopic because my brain ignored the images but my brain ignores the images because my eye is amblyopic?) With vision therapy, one of the primary goals is to eliminate the suppression of my left eye, so I’ve been able to pay close attention to my amblyopic eye’s abilities the past few months.
First off, I can show you what it is not like for me:
The world looks mostly normal, to me, but less crisp…the example below does a good job. When I view it with my ‘good’ eye, I can see a crisper, more detailed image on the right. If I look with my amblyopic eye, both images look the same. All the little glints on the teeth disappear.
When I’m using just my ambloypic eye, it feels almost like I’m holding my breath: my right eye wants to take over!! It is the most uncomfortable sensation. There is a sense of urgency, like an itch you have to scratch; I have to open my other eye.
When I perform the standard “read the letters on the eye chart” routine with my left eye, it’s really difficult. I use my honed letter-guessing skills, because “reading” the eye chart is so difficult. My amblyopic eye sees 20/100 uncorrected, and it gets as good as about 20/30 with glasses (my good eye corrects to 20/20 with glasses.)
It’s not just that it’s blurry–because it doesn’t look as uniformly blurry as the eye chart example I have here. When I try to read the chart with my left eye, it’s like I’m reading letters in another dimension. The letters seem so far away, ghostly, and unclear.
At home, if I try to read a book with my amblyopic eye, it is very difficult to track the words. It looks wavy like the image here, but the odd thing is my left eye can’t take in the WHOLE page, just one word at a time. I feel like I can’t quite comprehend the words I am reading, and my eye can only keep track of one word at a time–I can’t see the whole half of the sentence, and some long words like ‘sentence’ are read by that eye as two chunks, which makes reading slower and requires so much attention. It reminds me of when I was first learning German as a second language, and the fluency and speed and ease were not there, even though the letters are the same and the text is ‘easy’. It’s hard. And I swear, my comprehension is not as good when I read with my amblyopic eye.
Another problem amblyopes have is with “crowding“–when there are lots of letters around, it’s hard to see each letter sometimes. It is easier for me to read a word I know because the letters in the word are within the context of the word. But guessing letters on an eye chart is hard, and the first and last letters in the row are easiest.
On a Hart chart like this, the letters in the middle are quite challenging to see–they blur and morph into each other and are difficult to pick out, like trying to count grains of rice in a pile on the floor while standing up…you loose your place.
I’ve been thinking about how else to convey amblyopia, so here is an activity you can do to simulate my amblyopia symptoms: channel your inner pirate! Wear a patch (sadly, I bet you don’t actually own a patch, so you can improvise–shut an eye, use your hand, etc) on one eye in a normally-lit space for 2-5 minutes or so. Then, enter a dark space. Your covered eye will have adjusted to the dark, so when both eyes are open, your covered eye will easily see the environment but your previously uncovered eye will take a bit to adjust to the dark. Your covered eye will have the visual advantage: that’s your ‘good’ eye! and your other eye is your ‘bad’ amblyopic eye…boo!
It’s pirate-style, because pirates kept one eye covered so they could go below decks and instantly see in the dark interior space of the ship.
In her book Fixing My Gaze, on page 153 Sue Barry writes
Evidence lurking in the scientific literature for at least the last half century indicates that amblyopia can be treated into adulthood. As early as 1957…a study…showed dramatic improvements in adult amblyopes after a four-week period of patching combined with vision therapy. In a [different] 1977 study…improvements in eyesight were found for all ages. Sadly these and other studies continue to be overlooked. Many doctors still believe that amblyopia can be treated only in young children.
During my 2007 visit to the University of Ophthalmology department for a routine eye exam, my doctor indicated that I had “stable amblyopia.” The end. That University offers nothing to treat or improve my amblyopia. Indeed, the three physicians I’ve seen at the U of MN must all believe that adult amblyopia is hopeless…and I guess I’ve decided that I’m not interested in being a patient in a practice that does not bother to explore all literature and studies on effective amblyopia treatments. Indeed, as an informed healthcare consumer, I’m choosing treatment option that will improve my quality of life:
Dr. Lester, an…amblyope since early childhood [learned] how to use her long-neglected amblyopic left eye as an equal partner with her right…”Suddenly, the world sparkled. I felt an unaccountable joy explode.” …Her friends say that Dr. Lester is now a changed person, more curious and eager for new adventure. p152 Fixing My Gaze
As a young child, the word ‘amblyopia’ reminded me of the word “ambulance”–a scary emergency–and my father infused a bit of danger and worry into amblyopia as well, even though he was calmly explaining why I had to wear an eyepatch. I knew that “amblyopia can lead to blindness.” I wore all those hideous tan patches as a kid, yet here I am, Strabby the Amblyope. Did the failure of my treatment regimen ever make it into a study? I sure hope it did.
It is liberating and exciting to know my amblyopia can be diminished and my ‘bad’ eye’s vision can improve…I’m already noticing changes, which inspired me to crank out this blog entry before my amblyopic eye gets any better!