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08 January 2015 @ 12:34 pm
LJ Idol Season Nine: "On The Periphery"  
On The Periphery
idol season nine | week 32, #2 | 1437 words
The bystander effect

x-x-x-x-x

I was visually handicapped for the first eight years of my life, and no one knew it.

My mother suspected, but couldn't be sure. I was the toddler who always got hit in the face with a ball instead of catching it, and who always hid when new people or unexpected visitors came to the house. I was certain all that talk of there being a mountain at the end of the pasture was a prank, and my parents thought I simply misunderstood what mountains were, or that I was looking at the wrong thing.

When we were in the car, my mother sometimes asked if I could see a particular thing, and I eventually always did. But there was always a lag between the question and the answer.

The reason for all this dancing around is analogous to trying to prove a negative: if you have poor vision from a very early age, how can you possibly know that your version of the world isn't the same as what other people see? It's like asking someone born with chronic pain whether something hurts. They have no reference point for what "not hurting" feels like.

As a child, I just assumed there was some sort of trick I hadn't figured out. We would go to the eye doctor, and he'd ask me to read the letters on the wall. From what I could see, there were no letters anywhere in the entire room! I always hung back until my younger sister went first, and I would memorize the sequence of letters as she said them and then repeat them back when it was my turn. If I picked the wrong line to recite, the doctor just thought it was an honest mistake.

That was how I made it to the third grade with an arsenal of coping mechanisms that kept my problem from being discovered. They finally caught me when the school eye exams started using the multi-directional "E" charts, where you were supposed to show the orientation of a randomly-selected "E." I flunked that test so badly that I got even the giant "E" wrong!

I was a genuinely shy kid by temperament, but my vision was the biggest factor in why I waited on the sidelines instead of jumping into things. Trying to decode what is happening based on sound and large motions can be really tricky, especially if it's something new to you. I couldn't really see people's facial expressions unless they were really close, so I relied on tone, wording, and general body language to decide whether people seemed safe or friendly. As a young child, I couldn't sleep during naptime, so when the boredom became intolerable, I'd climb out of my crib and spend up to an hour sneaking around and listening to the grownups to see if they seemed to be in a good-enough mood that I could ask whether I could get up yet.

I used a similar method to figure out new people, and unexpected visitors? If it's someone your parents already know, the identification rituals tend to get skipped. I'd have to listen and see if I recognized the voice, unless someone eventually mentioned the person's name. Why didn't I just ask? Are you kidding? When everyone else knows who the person is, you are obviously an idiot if you don't.

Not wanting to appear stupid made this much harder than it had to be, but I think that's pretty common.

Even now, I can identify people at a distance by how they move. As a kid, whenever we had recess or large gatherings, that was the only way I could recognize someone who was more than twenty feet away. I built up habits I wasn't even aware of, and they stuck around even when I no longer needed them. Once, I found myself irritated because a coworker had changed his clothes at lunchtime. That was such unreasonable thinking that I tracked it down to the realization that I memorize what people wear each day—because again, that's another way to identify them from a distance. I have not needed to do that since I got glasses at age eight, but my subconscious still collects that information anyway.

I can also find my way through any part of the house in the dark, though I will not be happy if something got moved since the last time I looked at it.

Some experiences were not so harmless. During a second-grade trip to a city park, I was daydreaming on the swing set and didn't hear the teacher announcing it was time to leave. She must have decided I'd catch up eventually, and would pay more attention next time. By the time I realized everyone had left, they were completely out of sight. I walked back along the park-to-school route as best I remembered it, running up to every large group of people in the hope I'd found my class. By the time I did, we were two blocks from the school, and I was frantic. I never felt the same way about that teacher afterward.

Transportation arrangements to an after-school Girl Scout meeting became unclear when we hit a surprise early-release day. After waiting around at school for half an hour, I decided no one was coming and started walking to the leader's house. I'd only ever gone there by car before. When you can't see streets or landmarks very well, it makes for a very long, vague journey. I actually made it to the right house, but I felt stranded and forgotten all over again.

Meeting up with people outside of their office or home was incredibly stressful for me up until about ten years ago. I always worried that I was somehow at the wrong place, or they were, that they hadn't seen me or vice versa, or that they were expecting me to signal them but never relayed exactly how.

Sometimes, I feel as if that's still a metaphor for my life.

Some of the early information I missed out on never got absorbed. Not just my depth perception, which is poor, but also some of the subtleties of interpersonal communication. When I was able to see people's faces as well as hear them, the visual part still didn't fully mesh. Sometimes the visual input is more of a distraction, given that I'm much better at vocal cues. That also means that when people stop talking—when they become irritated or uncomfortable, and they shut down—I may not even realize what's going on. Vocal input is direct communication, but the lack of it can be indirect communication of something else… and I may be utterly oblivious. This has been a problem for me off and on as an engineer, where my coworkers tend to be more reserved and I may be clueless as to what they're really feeling.

When I finally got glasses, the world had so much more detail than I'd realized. The mystery of why telephone poles were so tall was finally solved (I only ever saw the cables going into the ground, and couldn't believe such large "location markers" were needed!), and who knew the cursive alphabet was on display above the blackboard? I'd been flunking penmanship all through third grade, and been really peeved that no one had told me I needed to memorize the alphabet the one time I'd seen it in a book at the end of the previous year.

But the extra information, while often beautiful and amazing, can also overwhelm the things I'm supposed to notice and don't. After years of developing more confidence and initiative, I'm now expressing things more often and more bluntly than the people around me would like. I had occasional blurting-out blunders growing up, but mostly I just watched and listened and rarely spoke. It's funny, but if I still had those earlier social handicaps, I'd fit into my workplace much better than who I've finally become.

So, my mission for this year is to become more easygoing, from the perspective of my coworkers. That means fading back a little and staying more on the sidelines rather than expressing so many opinions and ideas. The task of becoming less of "myself" at the office is a hard one, and it seems I'm struggling with what other people have already intuitively learned.

I worry that all this was lost in those missed formative years, and I'll be forever stuck trying to solve the mysteries of human interaction with a faulty decoder ring.

What if that's really all I've ever been doing anyway?


--/--


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kick_galvanic, zagzagael, skull_theatrebleodswean on January 8th, 2015 11:05 pm (UTC)
Wow! This is so revealing and you've really presented the psychological/social aspect well. I can relate to this - same! I got glasses in the fourth grade and I was just STUNNED. Trees had leaves??? I had been living in the foggiest world and I think its one of the reasons I am the way I am, drawn to the things I'm drawn to, why I became a professional photographer and why I tend to write visually. Why I'm so tuned into dialogue. Thanks for giving me so much food for thought with your own experiences!!!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 9th, 2015 06:48 am (UTC)
It was kind of sad revisiting some of these things-- that perpetual disconnectedness, and the feeling that I never really knew exactly what was going on.

My mother has always blamed my bad eyesight on my father, but about 15 years ago I found out that his "terrible" eyes needed only about a 20/70 correction. That's nothing! My third-grade prescription was for 20/600 vision, with significant astigmatism. Really, the number of things that just "didn't exist" (as opposed to seeming blurry) was extensive. Letters in particular were just invisible from a distance. I couldn't read street signs unless I was standing right next to them, so getting lost was really scary.

It's neat to find out that you've had so many of these same experiences! I was shocked to find out that I'm primarily a visual thinker (about 86%), because I have so much tied up in audio. My first career was as a musican!

When I think of writing fanfic, I need to hear the characters' voices in my head in order to really capture them. Sometimes that's really limiting, but otherwise they sound like vague sock-puppet versions of themselves. I have no idea how other people handle characterization without relying on the voices, but I think that's more common than my approach!

I'm glad this resonated so much with you. It makes me feel much less alone!
Donnellejexia on January 9th, 2015 07:17 am (UTC)
Hahaha, "Trees have leaves?" was exactly what I was going to type as a comment!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 9th, 2015 07:23 am (UTC)
My dad went through that too, and he was only mildly nearsighted!

I always thought leaves were only on the very bottom of a tree-- i had no idea what went on up above.

But there was so much that simply didn't exist for me until I got glasses. Whole things I could not see at all, and didn't even know they were there!
cindytsuki_no_bara on January 9th, 2015 05:57 am (UTC)
i'm amazed and kind of impressed that you made it to eight without anyone catching on that you couldn't really see. those are some coping strategies! it's fascinating how those coping strategies sometimes turned into giant distractions, tho, and the various ways in which they stuck with you.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 9th, 2015 06:53 am (UTC)
I didn't do myself any favors by hiding that problem so well, but I honestly had no idea that other people weren't dealing with exactly the same thing. It's different if your vision changes later in life, but when it's from the very beginning, how can you know?

There was so much more that I didn't go into here, but getting lost inside my own head got me in trouble more than once, and I was much more prone to that before I could really see.
adoptedwriteradoptedwriter on January 9th, 2015 06:26 am (UTC)
I had no idea you were VI. Wow! Coping skills are a great help. My kid does a lot of this even now with reading issues. AW
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 9th, 2015 06:58 am (UTC)
I was lucky in that my nearsightedness was treatable, but it was so bad so early on that those beginning years required all kinds of compensations.

By the time I got contact lenses at age 11, my uncorrected vision was 20/1000. It got worse and worse, and I honestly thought I might reach a point where it could not be corrected. The doctors always said not, but I never quite believed them.

My Dad may be a little dyslexic, and his 3rd-grade teacher taught him to try out words and see if they made sense with 'd' instead of 'b,' or 'q' instead of 'p'. I think he's probably gone through that "verify and autocorrect" protocol ever since, without even thinking about it. It's honestly not a bad way to handle something you can't really "fix."
Donnellejexia on January 9th, 2015 07:19 am (UTC)
I could relate to a lot of this - I got glasses at seven and it was a revelation. Thank you for sharing your experiences.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 9th, 2015 07:31 am (UTC)
It's so surprising to find out what other people are seeing, and how very different it is from the way the world has always looked to you. A lot of things make sense for the first time, when you can truly see them.
rayasorayaso on January 10th, 2015 09:18 pm (UTC)
Knowing you, and these events, still makes for painful reading. I can't imagine adults abandoning children in their care. Perhaps this is one of the reasons you are so good at identifying actors by their voices, and may have contributed to your musical talents. Plus, as always, this is so well written!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 11th, 2015 08:18 am (UTC)
I can't imagine adults abandoning children in their care.
It was such a different time, and children were assumed to be more capable than they're usually given credit for now. If you didn't know that the child couldn't see well, you might think that was reasonable? It's hard to say. I'm told I was one of that teacher's favorite students, but I never trusted her after that. Nowadays, it would get her fired.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons you are so good at identifying actors by their voices
I hadn't thought about that, but I sure had a lot of practice in those early years when random people would come to the house and I had no idea who they were until I'd deciphered their voices and movements.
alycewilson: eyealycewilson on January 11th, 2015 12:35 am (UTC)
I didn't get glasses until fourth grade but don't remember a stark difference in my vision. Of course, if my eyes then had been like my eyes now, I definitely would have had a similar experience to yours!

I enjoyed this revealing personal piece.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 11th, 2015 08:21 am (UTC)
I didn't get glasses until fourth grade but don't remember a stark difference in my vision.
I think this might be one of the differences between being mildly and very nearsighted, but also perhaps of not losing your vision until later? If you have no memory of ever seeing clearly, that first time is a real shock. But if you had good vision for years, and it gradually slipped away, it would return to something you knew.

We watched our kids for signs of problems, and our son would sometimes squint with one eye but also randomly blurt out things like, "Look at that bird in the tree!" and the bird would be in the top of the 40-foot palm tree across the street. By second grade, he'd drifted into needing glasses, but I know the transition was not quite such a jolt for him!
alycewilsonalycewilson on January 11th, 2015 12:58 pm (UTC)
I know that our son will need glasses! With my husband and I both being nearsighted, there's little doubt.
i_17bingoi_17bingo on January 11th, 2015 06:59 am (UTC)
I was visually handicapped for the first eight years of my life, and no one knew it.

This was me, but I was hearing impaired, and my family spotted it sooner. Your ability to fake your way through--mostly through ignorance and old-fashioned adaptability, is staggering, and a fascinating case-study on human resilience.

And it reminds me how my mother cried when I started imitating the sounds of cars as I played.

I was the toddler who always got hit in the face with a ball instead of catching it...

This was me too, but I was just clumsy.

I am not sure what else to say about this, except that I loved it.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 11th, 2015 08:26 am (UTC)
It's so different if you have a solid foundation in seeing or hearing well before it starts to go. But if you've never had it, there's no way of knowing how the world is supposed to be. If everyone else is managing easily, a child will tend to think that the problem is that they're not smart enough, or not trying hard enough. Plus, the vagueness of such a world is a little scary.

And it reminds me how my mother cried when I started imitating the sounds of cars as I played.
Is that because your hearing loss got treated? And she knew you were reacting to something that had been missing? I can see why she'd be moved by that.

I'm so glad you enjoyed this. Revisiting all of this, and how hard some of it was to deal with, brought back some troubling memories. But it wasn't until recently that I started to think about what social clues I'd missed out on in early life, and how that might still be affecting me even now.
fodschwazzlefodschwazzle on January 11th, 2015 07:43 pm (UTC)
"I'll be forever stuck trying to solve the mysteries of human interaction with a faulty decoder ring."

The good news is this: even if the decoder ring worked, the very best messages about human interaction would always feel empty. Like "Try to open up more" or "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine." That you can express your history so openly here indicates to me that you're likely more awesome than you give yourself credit for.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 13th, 2015 04:55 am (UTC)
Thank you for such kind words.

This is an issue I've struggled with again and again at this job, which sometimes is as focused on personality as other talents and mainly seems to want a personality that just isn't me. It tends to make me feel like a defective human being, really, in that all of this effort doesn't seem to be improving anything. :(
Laura, aka "Ro Arwen": Arwen - Behind Blue Eyesroina_arwen on January 12th, 2015 11:02 pm (UTC)
That's very interesting and thought provoking. A friend of mine went through something similar - she has horrible vision, and has since she was very young, but she kept changing schools early on, and if one school did visual testing in 1st and 3rd grade, and the other in 2nd and 4th, she was always in the wrong school in the wrong year! I think it was 4th or 5th grade before the school caught on and she got her first pair of glasses.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 13th, 2015 04:57 am (UTC)
My husband kept asking why I tried so hard to get around being 'discovered,' but it was because I had no idea that I wasn't working with the same toolbox as everyone else. That's the disadvantage of having it happen so early in life-- it IS your reality, and you can't know that it isn't everyone else's too.
crisp_sobrietycrisp_sobriety on January 13th, 2015 12:22 am (UTC)
Oh, wow. I can't even imagine what the transition into actually seeing things must have been like. Wow.

I had a teacher once who...well, she demonstrated a lot of bad behaviour actually, but the final straw with the school (which had mostly looked the other way) was when she got bored of us in the middle of the day and released us out onto the street. That was a weird day.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 13th, 2015 05:00 am (UTC)
she got bored of us in the middle of the day and released us out onto the street.
Oh my gosh. WOW. That's just scary.

My teacher didn't intend her results to be so terrible, but that was a really inappropriate choice and it was far worse than she ever realized.
grunge on January 13th, 2015 12:38 am (UTC)
oh man i relate to this so much. my eyesight is so bad. i was five when i realized i couldn't see like other kids in my class and i was convinced i was going blind. *hugs*
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on January 13th, 2015 05:04 am (UTC)
When I got glasses at age 8, my vision was already 20/600 with a lot of astigmatism. By age 11, I'd gotten contacts, but it was about 20/1000 by then. I honestly was worried for a lot of the time growing up that it would get too bad to be corrected.

Boy, those earlier years just got more and more confusing and difficult. I felt like I was just flailing. :(
grunge on January 14th, 2015 01:17 am (UTC)
D8 *hugs* i have astigmatism too and it's the devil tbh. i'm so sorry to read this and ik exactly how it feels, ugh it's so unnerving really D8