This is a photograph of the back of my left eye. It shows
the scaring of my macula and fovea, the areas of finest vision
of the retina; all destroyed. It results from blunt trauma called
"blow out" which happens when the eye ball is compressed
by non penetrating force and the back of the eye ruptures, like
a balloon exploding, leaving the retina ripped and torn. Modern
surgical techniques can sometimes repair such injuries.
I will never forget the pain.
An ice pick plunges into my brain and I see
pain, a red fire ball of agony, like nothing you can imagine,
even now my mind blanks it out - for self preservation. I can
remember the accident; the piece of dirt or rock - thrown by
my brother -hurtling towards my eye like a meteor towards the
Earth, blocking out the sun. The hours following the accident
are the worst of my life as I scream in pain, riding in the ambulance
to the hospital, not knowing what is happening. Finally they
give me a shot. Then a long night follows, punctuated by lights
that hover above me like police helicopters, trying to pinpoint
my struggling body. I am not young enough to forget, nor old
enough to understand. 6 years old.
Kind words and touches break the monotony
of my pain. Mostly I try to survive, while I am tied - hand and
foot - to a hospital bed, lying in total blackness, spoon fed,
bathed by strangers, my bodily needs taken care of like a baby.
They must keep me from thrashing about, tearing the bandages
off my eyes. My medical records say that I am an injured child
who is "extremely agitated". For good reason. I have
suffered a life threatening injury, my left eye is full of blood,
and if it becomes infected I could loose my eye; perhaps my life.
I am in a military hospital, in the children's
ward; this I find out later. And they are strict about visits
from family because of military regulations. Outside, the fogs
of San Francisco bay waif over the pristine Presidio Army post,
a oasis of greenery and gentility. Inside, men and women, and
children are fighting for their lives in Letterman Hospital.
No one cares about me. So I have to care,
I have to care about myself. Or I will slip into the darkness
that surrounds me.
Everything is vague, colored by drugs, no
doubt, morphine probably, other sedatives. No clear picture comes
to mind, it is like a dream or a nightmare, because I am in complete
darkness except when they examine me, an attention I could do
without. It is horrible in its clinical way, the cold voice and
hands grasping my head in a visor grip. A piercing white light
cuts into my eyes. A voice keeps asking me, "how many fingers
can you see, how many, how many?" Afterwards they leave
me alone, but I can still hear them talking about me. I am so
alone, in so much agony. Even to think about it today makes me
I have blotted out most of the memories, they
are gone, erased. Except they are in my subconscious where they
lurk, like maggots eating my brain. I have devils in my mind,
things that no one should have inside them. Memories I hide from.
And ever so often they come out of my mental dungeons to plague
me.Take a lawn, so green and pristine on the outside, and dig
down below and you will find the creepy crawly things amongst
the roots, the grubs, the earth worms, the bugs and awful looking
things we never want to see that make the lawn grow; the bedrock
So much of it is ghost like. My dressings
are changed, shots are given , I endure the intimate touch of
people I can not see. Both of my eyes are bandaged, I can see
nothing, they keep me in total darkness. Only touch and sound
reach me; even so I am alone, so alone. Untouchable. Untouched.
As an adult I have trouble with people touching me.
I am a prisoner of my mind. I am cut off from
humanity. To relieve the boredom I begin to imagine things, scenes,
places and people. I create a world and populate it with my imaginations.
It is like a movie I can play when ever I want to, with people
I create. They become my friends, the place I retreat to, where
there is no pain, this inner reality is my sole comfort. A good
place, a wonderful place I can control, people who like me. I
can trust them, they will not betray me. There no one can hurt
me. As I grow older, I sometimes retreat to my imagination, my
refuge. There I can hide from reality; as I did during the weeks
During and after the accident, I ask myself
questions. So many are unanswerable. Will I die? Will I loose
my sight? Why did this happen to me? Did I deserve it? What did
I do to deserve this? Why did it happen to me? Why me?
I want to tear out my injured eye, to get
rid of it, but I can't. They do not trust me, they are afraid
I have no self control. So I must prove to them that I can take
the pain, I will not move as they stick needles into me, as they
examine me, I harden my heart to them. Nothing will hurt me,
nothing will touch me. I will show them. It is a game I can win
by not crying out in pain. I will not let them see how they hurt
One day, I surface into reality; my care givers
think that I will no longer injure myself. After weeks of forced
confinement my hands are untied, and the bandage over my good
eye is removed, the tape pulled off first followed by the metal
shield then the gauze, and I see a ward full of sick children,
some in direr straits than I. We are soul mates linked by shared
experiences. My playmates are sick and crippled children who
have the courage to endure and not cry, we have to show our stoic
side, keep our pride intact, while the adults fawn and bawl over
us, their guilt manifest.
My lost friends
My best friends are dying of Leukemia. They
are a boy and a girl who enjoy each other's company and mine
while it lasts, each day precious. We are like voyagers on an
ocean liner, our final port is either death or life. We are dignitaries
taken care of by white uniformed servants. We are treated as
Pashas not patients. We are spoiled according to our injuries.
We are medical voyeurs. We wear our bandages with pride.
I must look like a pirate with my covered
eye. Dashing as Erol Flynn; I am shown consideration by the nurses
who have taken care of me for so many nights and days. Weeks?
Months? Now that they have taken off the bandages from the injured
eye, I know I am permanently blind in one eye, my retina has
been ripped to shreds, only a scar remains, hidden deep inside,
an invisible handicap. I only have peripheral vision; how many
fingers, how many? No doubt my injured eye looks better than
when I first arrived months ago. Was it bursting out of my head,
blood filled, monstrous, like the hunch back of Notre Dame? They
could have cut out my eye ball, but instead they tried to save
it. Only the doctors know why.
The doctors are kind, authoritive and we fear
them. Their probing hands and instruments give pain. I wait in
the waiting room and through the partially open door, I see my
doctor take a needle and syringe and plunge it into a woman's
eye. I wonder if he will do this to me next when I sit in the
examining chair? I am frozen with fear, they put drops in my
eyes, the drops feel like fire in my eyes, my irises are dilated,
and I wait for the needle.
What courage, what strange fatalism, children
show in front of adults. Children are brought up to trust adults.
Why trust adults? They see children as midget versions of themselves,
with no thoughts nor desires that they can understand. Children
are vassals, puppets, to be dressed, schooled so adults can brag
about them then ignore them. Children are admired and collected,
but mostly scorned and misunderstood. Few adults want to understand
children. Or love them.
My ordeal does not end there, guilt driven
visits to doctors follow for years, each doctor besieged to restore
my sight. To no avail. They all take the money and inflict the
pain, delivering the same advice; you can not grow back a limb
nor restore sight to a blind man. Maybe a visit to Lourdes? (Are
doctors not God like, or only human?) I made to carry my parent's
guilt, I am their constant reminder of their faults.
My damaged left eye is permanently dilated,
my pupil enlarged, I see a dark fuzzy hole in the middle and
it will stay that way for the rest of my life, enormously black
and forbidding. They make me wear sunglasses, at home and at
school. School is a release from the guilt ridden darkness of
my house. Light hurts. More pain awaits me. Now I am different
- anathema for a child. Children hate differences in other children,
and they go for the jugular if you dare to be so, cutting you
down to their size. So I become a loner, an outsider. A spectator
in my own life. I retreat to the friends in my mind, a world
I can control. My last refuge.
When I convalesce at home, after they decide
at the hospital that I am "cured", the only exercise
allowed is butterfly collecting. The winds from San Francisco
Bay blow insects up the golden hills into my net. I have lost
binocular vision, so I have to learn how to judge distances in
a new way. My hand eye coordination improves. I capture beauty,
then I place my specimens into glass jars, along with alcohol
dowsed cotton, and I watch them die. The fluttering of the iridescent
wings slows down, the antennae droop as they expire. I take them
out and strap them down to a board, with strips to hold their
wings open, until I can pierce them with a pin and mount them.
My own experience is played over and over as I create my collection.
It saddens me to see them die. Even the death
of a butterfly traumatizes me. They are like children. Helpless.
I can identify with the hapless victim. In the hospital ward,
I was surrounded by children my age and I felt their pain. I
remember talking to someone in the darkness, only to be hushed
up - for our own good - by some authority figure, a military
nurse who saw trouble in children seeking some comfort in shared
misery. There is always an adult who knows better. They do not
understand the loneliness of despair.
Loneliness hardened me. I learned how to endure
solitude. I learned that pain is part of life, to be expected.
I suffer cruelty better than kindness. I learned that someone
who pretends to be kind, who pretends to be your friend but who
is actually a hypocrite, can hurt you more than any physical
pain. And it leaves no trace, no scar, no wound, the deed is
unseen; the pain is real.
It seems to me that my accident was like a
second birth. Afterwards, I was a different person, not the one
who existed before, like a newly born baby I saw a new world
with a new vision. It led me down new paths I would never have
discovered if I had been un-injured. I had to grow up fast and
take care of myself. My childhood ended abruptly. I had to be
the adult to take care of myself.
My new status allowed me to have insights.
I understood that life is full of accidents waiting to happen.
Some accidents are good, some are bad. If you are afraid to be
hurt then you will never live. It takes courage to live, to suffer,
to reach out to others, even when they hurt you. It makes one
What did I learn from this horrible experience?
A victim blames others for what happens to
them. A survivor takes control, keeps fighting and never gives
up. A victim plays to the audience, trying to get sympathy. A
victim only wants to help themselves. A survivor helps others.
A victim grabs on to other people and uses them. A survivor reaches
into his or her depths to find something that only he or she
can give themselves. A victim blames others, is always bitter.
A survivor learns how to care for themselves and how to forgive
The final irony is that a victim blames themselves
for what happened, the mind looks for reasons why something happened,
and it turns on itself. The classic example is the rape or physical
abuse victim who feels guilty, feels that they are at fault.
A survivor understands fate, understands that life is governed
by the roll of the dice. No one is to blame. Life is like that.
I read the biography of Professor Edward O
Wilson and he describes how he lost his eyesight in one eye.
He went on to do great things, yet he acknowledges that his accident,
and how it affected him. People can endure and overcome anything
if they try and persevere.
If you want to know about how children
are abused emotionally and physically by their Narcissistic parents
and how they react later as adults, I recommend the wonderful
little book called "The Drama of the Gifted Child, The
Search for the True Self" by Alice Miller. It has been
revised and republished by Basic Books, in 1997 ISBN no. 0-465-01960-1.
She also tells how adults can overcome the damage done by parents
and how to avoid inflicting the same trauma on their children.
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© Stephen McDonnell 2001