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We all talk about adaptation, usually in the joking sense of a frog in a pot of water that is steadily heating. What we often don’t realize is how much we do it ourselves on a daily basis.

I knew I was getting older. Shoot. I can read the calendar. And when my vision started to change about eight years ago, I started getting new prescriptions on a regular basis. “Your eyes are getting older,” the optometrist would say.

Here’s where knowing something misdirected me. My eyes were getting older. That didn’t explain the change in my astigmatism correction (it was getting bigger) but when I noticed those large numbers and questioned them, I heard again, “Eyes change as we get older.”

Well, I’d worked in the field, in fact had half an optometry degree myself as my former husband went through optometry school while we were married. I listened endlessly and with fascination to all he learned, and then I worked with him for years.

So when I heard, “Eyes change as we get older,” I heard presbyopia. Presbyopia is a thickening of the lens in the eye which makes it increasingly harder for us to focus at near range as we age. That’s normal, it happens to everyone, and depending on how much we read, we’re apt to first notice it in our early forties.

What I didn’t hear was the other answer, the one not mentioned: I was getting cataracts. I feel rather silly now for not reading the code correctly. Most doctors won’t mention this in the early stages simply because no insurance will pay for surgery until vision is sufficiently diminished. There is no point in making a patient worry about something that they cannot fix yet, and that might not need to be fixed for many years.

So I adapted. And I didn’t really think about the adaptations I was making. I stopped driving at night two years ago because lights were an ugly smear. At first I’d see four tail lights or headlights where there were two, then they just blended. Well, I’d always had night myopia, so once again I didn’t make the right connection.

Then my myopia began to lessen. My prescriptions started getting weaker. I was starting to toss my distance correction in favor of my reading correction when I drove. My instincts should have gone on high alert: I was experiencing what is sometimes called “Second sight” when the eyes of older persons start to “improve.” Once again I didn’t make the connection. I was too focused on presbyopia or the possibility that I had a lousy eye doctor. After all, nobody had said otherwise.

Then I started seeing two images in broad daylight when the contrast was sharp. Two images with a single eye. This, I knew, was not presbyopia. Indeed, I started to think those increased corrections for astigmatism were causing the problem. I mean, I’d never had much astigmatism in my life.

So off to the eye doctor again, and things had finally gotten to the point where somebody told me the truth: you have cataracts.

Tomorrow one of my cataracts will be removed. I’m scared and excited all at once. But the thing that most stuck we me from my meeting with my surgeon was something he said, “You have absolutely no idea how well you are going to see. None at all. Because you have absolutely no idea how badly you are seeing right now.”

Really? But as I thought back to all the changes I’d made, like the frog in the pot of boiling water, I began to realize he was right. I can’t read small print. I’ve been asking others to do it for me. I stopped driving when the light was bad. I got a Nook so I could magnify books enough to read. I turn on more lights. I magnify my computer screen. I go down grocery aisles with my daughter or partner in tow saying, “I can’t find the X…” and it’s right there. Little by little, I’d been adapting, partly by giving things up (like painting and driving) and partly by asking for help. And I was blaming it all on getting older.

Well, it did have to do with getting older, but not in the way I thought. Now that I know I’m in the hot water, I’m looking forward to getting out of it.

But now I have to face adaptation again. Because my brain has been fudging things for so long, building clearer images when it could from familiar things, I will now have to adapt to seeing again. They say it will only take me a day or two. I hope so.

But the thing that struck me most from all of this is that we really are an adaptable species. The temperature keeps going up, and we keep making changes, most of it without really thinking about what’s behind the “big picture.” It’s natural to adapt. Unfortunately, as a society we’ve been doing a lot of adapting for too long.

And now we’re looking at our current political and economic mess through cataracts we can’t ignore any longer. Eventually we’re going to demand surgery.


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