“I read with my glasses on.” – Alexis Gosselin
I recently read an amazing book called The Wounded Storyteller by Arthur W Frank. It’s about why people tell illness stories and the different forms which illness stories take. It considers illness as a social construct as well as a personal affliction and draws on theories of identity and personality in relationship to the onset of diseases and conditions. Near the end of the book, Frank wrote about surgeons and surgery. Patients and surgeons alike believe that surgery will fix things. Surgery does correct problems but it’s not a magical cure-all and it cannot automatically address every problem or make everything better.
I have worn glasses since I was two years old. I have a hereditary condition called strabismus, which means that my left eye and right eye do not align or work together. I can see out of both eyes, but my left eye is visibly lazy. I’ve been told it’s more evident when I’m tired, but nobody has ever asked me about it – or made fun of me about it to my face – the way people ask me about my physical impairment. I decided to have corrective surgery when I was seventeen or eighteen; I was told that there was an eighty percent chance that my eye would eventually ‘go back’ to what it was before. I chose to have the operation anyway even though I knew it was for purely cosmetic reasons. It wouldn’t correct my vision at all. I had the surgery and healed fairly quickly. Today, my eye is the same as it was before the operation. I’ve accepted it and I don’t let it interfere with my life. It serves as proof to me that surgery isn’t an all-powerful permanent ‘solution’ to any physical problem.
I considered having laser surgery on my eyes so that I would no longer need glasses. I mistakenly believed that laser surgery would magically heal the other problems that are tied to my vision: my balance, proprioception, depth perception, and my inability to see in the third dimension. My optometrist informed me that the surgery would help me see as well as I see with my glasses on; it would not enhance my sight beyond that and it would not help me develop better balance or depth perception. The news made me sad but motivated me to use exercise to strengthen those weaknesses in my body.
Surgery doesn’t – and can’t – make everything better. It can certainly improve things but it can’t solve everything. I set myself up for disappointment when I believed that doing everything I could to make my eyes the best they can be would also help the rest of my body. I had corrective surgery on my leg when I was eleven (this is common for children with cerebral palsy). It drastically reduced the number of falls I suffered, but it also caused problems for me later in life: my left leg is now shorter than my right and it has led to further imbalance in my body and – for the last four years – chronic back pain. There is surgery available to shave down my right femur bone so that it’s the same length as my left leg, but the process is risky, invasive, painful, and doesn’t guarantee that every problem caused by the first surgery will automatically be fixed. The same is true of the surgical scar I have on my hip (from my leg operation): it never healed properly and I have painful scar tissue present at the site and under my skin. If I reopen the incision to remove the scar tissue, I will further cause more scar tissue and pain when it heals.
In Landmark Education, we learn that ‘fixing things’ doesn’t work; they tell us ‘whatever you have fixed becomes the next problem.’ I believe that this struggle proves the point nicely. I’m not against surgery at all; I would definitely have my right femur bone shaved down to match my left if there weren’t so much risk involved. It’s just that addressing problems with surgery cannot be counted on to heal the body of everything that an illness, condition, disease, or disability involves.