People often presume I would jump at the chance to be able to see again. The fact of the matter is that I really don’t know whether I would or not, because there is more to it than you might think.
I lost my sight at the turn of the century, over the course of about 12 months. For some of you reading this, that may be before you were born or before you were old enough to remember much at all. For the rest of you, think back to who you were, where you were, and what you were doing as the new millennium rumbled into life.
I was 25 when the Y2K bug was almost a thing; the last film I actually saw was The Matrix; I danced to Public Domain (Operation Blade (Bass in the Place)) and chilled out to William Orbit (Barber’s Adadgio for Strings); I had platinum blonde hair and a tongue stud; the Nokia 7110 with its spring loaded cover, was the must have phone; Windows XP was my OS of choice (on a 19″ CRT monitor); My last pack of Marlborough cigarettes cost me about £4; I could pull off Bruce Willis moves (if no-one was looking) when I played Time Crisis on the original PlayStation with the gun style game controller; and I was working for one of the UK’s first ISPs when the .Com bubble burst.
It was a long time ago, and a lot has happened since then.
My last impressions of movie special effects include the Computer Generated (CG) ship in Titanic, and the rotating slow-motion bullets and fight scenes in The Matrix. I missed the arrival of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the 3D of Avatar, and continue to miss the increasing reality of CG like the Hulk in the Marvel universe.
Tekken 3, Oddworld, The 11th Hour, and Diablo are some of the last games I remember with any clarity. The rise of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, of the WII and other motion-sensitive game controllers, and the emergence of VR, are all things I have only an incomplete understanding of.
I missed out on flat screens and the introduction of touch screens (at least in the visual sense), and will probably miss the era of curved screens as well. My understanding of heads-up displays and augmented reality devices is limited, and I freely confess I don’t really get flat design because skeuomorphism was the design paradigm when I lost my sight (though most of us didn’t know that’s what it was called at the time).
I don’t look where I’m going anymore. I don’t even really need to be facing in the direction I’m moving. The amount of visual processing required to negotiate the world is something I remember like a half forgotten dream. I remember perspective but not its proportions. I know things look smaller when they’re further away, but don’t remember how to judge distance based on line of sight.
I haven’t focused on anything in nearly two decades. I can still do it if I try, but it takes a concerted effort, and switching from near to far focus is no longer something I can do without conscious thought. I doubt I’d be able to read even if I could see. The muscles that control eye movement and focus are at best out of practice and at worst atrophied beyond repair. Oddly I can still cross my eyes though…
Other than scrawling my signature (which looks like a spider dunked in ink and left to wander across the paper), I haven’t written anything by hand in many years. Even this happens less and less often, thanks to chip/pin credit cards, biometric scanners, and electronic signatures. I remember the shapes of letters and numbers with complete clarity, but reproducing them legibly in print is unlikely to be a skill I’ll be able to summon up should the opportunity arise.
I was in my mid-twenties when I last saw myself in the mirror. I’m forty-mumble-something now. My husband is a fraction older than me, and our friends all much of an age as us. In the intervening years we’ve collectively changed our do’s (umpteen times), gathered the odd wrinkle and some grey in our hair, lost weight, gained weight, acquired glasses, stopped wearing cycling shorts and other crimes against fashion, and many other things that happen as youth trundles into middle age. In my head we all still look like twenty-somethings, full of the promise and beauty of youth though.
I’m barely a decade younger now, than my parents were the last time I saw their faces. If I regained my sight now, I’d be the one who looks middle-aged, not them. However you look at it, that’s the kind of thing that will scramble your head!
Then there are all the people I’ve never seen. All the people I’ve met since Y2K, all the people who were born after I lost my sight, so many people I’ve formed strong mental images of but on whom I’ve never laid eyes.
Have you ever listened to someone on the radio, then later seen a picture of them for the first time? Do you remember how completely wrong your mental image of them was? Now imagine experiencing that for everyone you’ve met in the past two decades!
When I lost my sight I learned how to do things for the second time in my life. I learned to cook, cross the road, use a computer, catch a plane, recognise people, identify money, write legible code, swim in the right direction, watch movies with audio description, buy clothes, and a million other things besides.
If I regained my sight I would need to learn how to do all those things again. Twenty years is a lot of time to be out of practice at looking at what you’re doing! In another few years I’ll have been blind longer than I was sighted, and most of my life experiences will have happened without sight (including sky diving).
So when people ask about regaining my sight (assuming I had the choice), I can’t readily give the answer most people expect. I daresay I would choose to have my sight back, mostly because I’m curious about how things have changed since the Y2K, and because I want to see the faces of my friends and family (some for the first time, others for the first time this century). But I don’t under-estimate the cost of doing so; and that’s the thing, I know the cost. I’ve paid it once, only this time I’d be doing it in reverse. The emotional stress, the physical effort, the fear and uncertainty, the tears and frustration, would all be just as much to contend with as they were when I lost my sight. Only this time there would be light at the end of the tunnel, and perhaps that’s all I’d really need to know.