It was a Wednesday afternoon, I was six. I had just got back from school when Christopher Stone (his real name) shot me in the eye with an arrow. I say arrow, he’d broken off the rubber sucker leaving bits of splintered wood at the end of a stick, and that’s what he shot into my right eye.
It was my fault really, the last words I remember saying before it happened were, ‘you wouldn’t dare.’ As I stood there, hand over bleeding eye and still present arrow, I realised that was a stupid thing to say to an eleven year old boy with a working bow.
I was in the Middle East at the time, standing at the end of a concrete garage with the sun heating up the back of my ankles as it slanted through the door. Barefoot and clutching the arrow to my face, I ran next door to find my mum. Thinking back, it must have been horrific for her to see this. She picked me up and ran out of the door and into the car. She still can’t watch that scene in ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ (minute 39) where Dustin Hoffman runs with his injured son as it provokes a sort of Post-traumatic-stress flash-back which makes her want to take up smoking again.
Initially, the medical staff at the local hospital thought there was no damage except for a huge blister that swelled up like a repulsive alien egg on my cornea. It took a year of bumping into tables and walking into walls before my parents wondered if the arrow had affected my eyesight. I had a number of tests but as I was a jolly sort of child who kept laughing throughout, they told my mother nothing was wrong and that I was just trying to get attention.
When someone thought to look more closely they discovered the retina in my right eye was floating around following a detachment referred to as a ‘giant tear’. Immediately I was flown to Moorfields eye hospital in London. Back then, the treatment of choice was to remove the eyeball from the socket, sew the retina back on to the rear of the eye and then replace. The operation took an entire day and the retina was successfully reattached.
Unfortunately, due to the little holiday my retina had enjoyed bouncing around the inside of my eyeball, like John Travolta in a vitreous filled ballroom, it was so badly damaged I was left effectively blind. Two large blind spots right in my line of vision meant that I couldn’t see anything with any clarity. Subsequent surgery meant that my eye developed a heavy cataract and my world darkened. I find it fascinating to see how my iris and pupil are affected by these intrusions. If you look at the close up you can see an odd, petaled island of grey has blossomed out around my pupil. The pupil looks dead as it doesn’t reflect back the light as my left eye does. The velvet curtain of the cataract absorbs light into itself.
As I was so young my memories are fragmented. A kaleidoscope of images: my mother weeping and lighting up her first ever cigarette as the 7 year old me kept missing my mouth when shoving in chips as I had no depth perception; beaming from photographs in my 70’s Adidas tracksuit with my eyelashes cut off, my fringe Jadis short and my right eye a sewn-tight-shut shiny bulge, like a skinned potato; falling asleep whenever I lay down for weeks afterwards as the anaesthestic still clung to my system; having to wear a giant flesh-coloured plaster over my good eye to try and stop the squint that was developing and hating it; at 8, methodically going through the pages of my fairy tale book, scratching a lead pencil-patch-scribble on every picture of Snow White, covering her right eye.
It defined me for a bit, as childhood injuries and illnesses often do, and I was a bit of a brat – I used to show off. Many a time I got poked in the eye with a sticky finger when kids in my class wanted me to prove I was blind. I suffered a nasty squint for a while. My blind eye drifted off to the right so when I talked to people they would look over their shoulder thinking I was talking to someone behind them – this still can happen when I’m tired – but was mostly cured by botox which was injected into the eye muscles behind my eye in my late teens and 20’s. A Mr John Lee DM, MRCP, FRCS, FRCOphth, invented this technique and I was one of his first patients. This procedure was fantastically gruesome and I would often make boyfriends come with me when I had it done because they they thought I was very brave and sexily fragile, coping with such courage – or so I thought. Mr Lee died recently and I wanted to name check him here as he was such a great doctor, who stopped me looking over people’s shoulders for the rest of my life.
So life went on as normal. As I had lost my sight so early on it didn’t bother me. I adapted very quickly and never thought anything of it. I felt incredibly lucky to have such good sight in my left eye and took into my stride the number of cupboard doors that have cracked me in the face as I couldn’t see them. Friends got used to not approaching me from my right as I would jump out of my skin and hit them as I didn’t see them coming.
But at 17 disaster struck when the retina of my left eye spontaneously detached, tearing in exactly the same way the right one had. I hadn’t noticed at first. I don’t remember noticing anything until I was in the cinema with some friends from school having sneaked in to watch 9 1/2 Weeks. 9 1/2 Weeks. Of all the films to go and see with the nudity and rude sex! Well I couldn’t see it. It was as if a sheet of tracing paper was hanging over half the screen from the centre to the right. This is a classic symptom of a detached retina. This picture give you a bit of an idea of what I could see.
I couldn’t ignore this. Something was up. That was Friday. On the following Monday I already had an appointment in London booked for a contact lens check up with my optician. I thought I’d mention my failing vision then. I remember a fairly young guy chatting away but becoming increasingly silent the longer he looked in my eye. My Dad had taken time off from work to accompany me and I remember him twitching with impatience as the silence stretched tight as a weighted fishing line.
‘Any pain?’ the optician said, placing his instruments back in a wooden box and siting back on his chair. I replied that I wasn’t in any pain. I jumped as he leaped up and called my Dad to come outside. Just before closing the door his head popped back in. ‘Don’t move your head!’ he shouted, before disappearing.
‘Oh fuck, I’ve detached the retina in my good eye.’ I thought. Oddly I wasn’t frightened, just weary at the thought of all the operations that would follow. It seems strange that it never crossed my mind that I would go blind in my good eye. I suspect I wouldn’t let myself think about that possibility.
What followed was the closest I have come to a movie moment. The optician had called an ambulance to race me to Moorfields but we managed to flag a black cab before it arrived so Dad bundled me in and off we went. I don’t think it had really sunk in as my Dad kept wondering why they kept going on about my good eye. ‘Have they made a mistake and got your eyes mixed up, do you think?’ he kept saying.
‘No, Dad! My retina has detached in my good eye! Didn’t you listen?’ I snapped. I felt bad, but he was driving me mad. I was raced into Moorfields where the detachement was verified. A most ridiculously good-looking doctor called Dr Rose was in charge of me. I can still picture him with thick, black hair brushed back from his forehead but it kept falling forward. He was very romantic looking and could only have been about 28.
‘I don’t care if you haven’t got any beds!’ I heard him yelling from the next room. ‘I’ve got a girl here with a giant retinal tear and if she isn’t operated on immediately she’ll go blind. I’m not going to let that happen!’
Be still my beating heart! He was such a hero. And it worked. Within an hour I was on the operating table. This was ten years since I had last had surgery at Moorfields. Eye surgery had developed at an amazing rate in that time. Instead of the primitive ‘take it out, cut it open and sew it back on’ technique, this time I was treated with a Scleral Buckle. Invented by Charles Schepens, a completely amazing dude who not only designed something that saved my sight but was also in the French Resistance, the buckle basically straps the retina to the back of the eye like a belt. You can read up on how it works here.
When I woke up I was swathed in bandages like those images of the invisible man.
Two things were scary. One, they wouldn’t know if the operation had worked until they unwrapped the bandages – that would be after a few days to allow the swelling to come down. Two, my mother had a bit of a melt down. My dad had told her what was happening and explained I was going straight into surgery and she should come straight up. Well, she didn’t. She couldn’t. Well, she said she couldn’t. She found going through it all when I was young too traumatic and was not prepared to go through it again. My Dad apologised but said he had to go back to work. He had a Very Important Job in the city. I will write one day about the complicated relationship I have with my mother. Searching my feelings now, so long after this happened, I still don’t think I have fogiven her for not being there. Especially since I have had children myself. You’d have to kill me to stop me being with my children if they were facing blindness.
So I was left. On my own. Blind, and miles away from my family. Looking back that really, really sucks. I can’t believe my mum didn’t come up. What about me having to go through it again? But I reassured her it was fine. Don’t worry. I was OK.
I wasn’t, though, and I should have said. I lay in the dark for three days not letting myself think about the possibility that my left eye had proved as impossible to save as my right. My mum sent an audio book.
The good news was the operation worked. The most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life: the sunlit bowl of bedraggled flowers in a light-filled window, the first thing I saw when the bandages were unwound and the thick ointment was wiped away by a tender nurse; and the pin-sharp dizzying glimpse of thousands of stones in our gravel driveway the day I arrived back home. Oh and my children’s faces. Of course.
I was unbelievable lucky. The retina in my left eye was repaired so quickly – thank you Optician guy, Dr Rose and Moorfields – it was relatively undamaged. The buckle fixed it down and it is still going strong thirty years later. I was also lucky because the two blind spots caused by retinal damage are placed right at the top and bottom of my vision so I don’t notice them.
Recovery took about six months as the retina takes ages to settle itself the heck back down and everything was distorted. I saw the world as if stretched and disfigured by a fairground fun mirror. I had to stop myself from giggling when people spoke to me and their faces twisted and collapsed in front of my slowly recovering eyes.
I was in the last year of school and having to apply to university. I had an excruciating experience when the deputy head had to come round to my house so I could dictate my personal statement for my UCCA form. Remember UCCA? It was obvious he found the meeting as uncomfortable as I did. It didn’t help that to me he looked exactly like Danny Devito but with a tiny head and enormous feet. I kept watching his mouth in fascination as it kept wobbling and elongating as he spoke. My brain couldn’t process the images my crazy retina was sending it. I couldn’t take my eyes off his mouth and he ended up covering it with his hand to stop me. Ha! Like a woman redirecting a man’s gaze away from her breasts. I’ve always felt bad about getting crap A level results but it has just struck me that I spent half a year of school in hospital or at home recovering, or living in a fun mirror world so I shouldn’t blame myself. I bet the school never asked for special circumstances like we would now.
One of my favourite memories is from that time. A dear friend, Mike, got bored with me moaning about being stuck at home. After checking with my mum it would be OK, he took me out on a pub crawl with all my school friends one Saturday night. He arrived to pick me up and didn’t even blink when he saw the state of me. I was wearing a moth-eaten frock coat with tails, saggy-kneed leggings and flat (flat!) pointed winklepickers (I was in an awkward Goth stage and looked ridiculous) but what topped it off was my eye which had clearly been recently operated upon. With a flourish, Mike pulled a pair of Blues Brothers’ sunglasses from his pocket. We were obsessed with the film and I screamed in delight to see them. I immediately put them on and felt half normal as my eyes were covered.
We strutted down the street, about ten of us. It was great after so long away from everyone. I caught up on the gossip and spilled all the gory details of my eye surgery. At our third pub we were crowded in a corner chatting and laughing, feeling pretty merry. I was in heaven until a huge, shaven-headed bloke came up to me sneering, my stomach cramped and I prayed there wasn’t going to be any trouble that would ruin this magical night.
‘What the fuck are you doing wearing sunglasses indoors, you stupid bitch?’ He asked, leaning over, his breath an ashy, beery stink in my face. ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’ An absolute thrill ran through me. Time seemed to slow as I relished the sweetness of this moment. Looking up at him, I gave him a slow, gentle smile and pulled down my sunglasses.
I made sure to look at him directly in the eye. My eye looked exactly like someone had recently ordered filet mignon and stuffed it into my eye socket. Eyelashes cut off (again), no eyebrow (no, I don’t know why they have to do that) and general oily puffiness and severe bruising all the way down to my cheekbone. I was a patchwork of raw meat, pale skin and sore swelling. With tremendous satisfaction I watched the blood drain from his face. His mouth dropped open and his eyes rounded.
‘Oh fuck! Christ!’ he stumbled, ‘I’m sorry, mate. I didn’t realise. Fuck! What happened?’ He collapsed onto a nearby stool, wiping his face with a stained bar napkin. Later he bought us all drinks and spent the night apologising and toasting the health of my eye. Result!
Thank goodness and touch wood, my eye has remained stable. Both of them are crisscrossed with scars but they are mostly tucked behind my eyelids so aren’t visible. I’m pretty good at being thankful I can see most days, and am conscious how precious and fragile sight is. The adventures of my eyes has given me lots of anecdotes to reel out at dinner parties. My favorite is the story I tell about the day I returned from hospital. Even now my dad blanches when I talk about it.
Because of my dad’s Very Important Job and my mum’s fuckwittage, I had to take the train back, on my own. I still can’t believe that. I’d only had surgery a week before and everything was very skew-whiff. I couldn’t wear my contact lens and had forgotton my glasses. Moorfields had provided me with the most soul-destroying plastic, turquoise blue NHS child’s glasses. Not only were they too small they lurched at an angle as they hasn’t been properly fitted. Blinking in the light after weeks in hospital, my dad escorted me to the station.
We were running a bit late and my dad hurried my through to the platform. The train was just about pull away. I slowed down, panting.
‘Ah we’ve missed it,’ I said, stopping and trying to catch my breath, ‘don’t worry, there’s another one in twenty minutes.
‘No don’t be silly! I can’t wait, I’ve got a meeting,’ my dad said, and holding my arm, he ran with me along the side of the train. To this day, I can’t believe this actually happened…
Pulling the door open, still running, he lifted me up and tried to throw me into the moving carriage. Whirling my arms with my foot on the step of the door, I felt myself falling backwards. Three men in the carriage jumped to their feet and grabbed my arms, dragging me inside. Sweating, with my heart pounding, I collapsed into my seat. I pushed my hideous glasses back up my nose with a shaking hand. I exchanged nods with the men who had saved my life before looking out of the window. As the train gathered speed and drew away, I squinted back at my dad: he was white-faced and shouting, he still had my train ticket in his hand
Apart from walking into things that are on my right the only time I really notice my eye problem is when I go to the cinema and realise it’s a 3-D film. This is a pain as, obviously, I can’t see in 3-D. The glasses don’t work, so I just sit looking at a fuzzy screen while everyone else oohs and ahhs, dodging 3-D animations and projections. I sit there frowning with my arms crossed.
So I can’t complain. It could have been so much worse. Thanks to the amazing NHS which ensured I had free point of use care from the very best specialists in retinal detachment treatments; for funding the equipment and research at Moorfields; and paying the salaries of all the Doctors and Nurses who made sure I didn’t go blind permanently.
PS: Had to add this Twitter development to my story! How embarrassing but how wonderful.