Being Nice

Learning the hard way the importance of sticking up for myself

After spending a couple of years abroad, I’d fallen behind with the routine matters of healthcare. I had ignored dental cleanings, eye exams, and annual physicals. Yeah, I know, not good for a woman in her fifties. Dealing with an abusive marriage left little energy or time to address mundane things like my health.

Once I returned to the United States, I began the onerous task of finding and then making appointments with a myriad of healthcare specialists. New appointments soon overran my calendar.

Slowly the list of medical issues sported a pencilled checkmark next to each entry as I completed appointments with various healthcare professionals. After several months, my medical needs were up to date and addressed — all except for vision.

During one of my weekly dinners with two of my adult sons, I asked for the name of their optometrist.

“Get Lasik done, Mom,” my oldest son urged. Both of them had had the corrective surgery and were thrilled with the results.

Curious to learn more, I made an appointment. After a vision check with the technician, I finally met the doctor. A middle-aged woman entered the room and introduced herself. She was polite, but her demeanor was cool. All business. She discussed my dry eye condition. “You’ll need to stop wearing rigid contacts and move to glasses now that you live in a dryer climate,” she said and then gave me an updated prescription for glasses.

She then stood and made to leave the room.

Puzzled the appointment was ending so soon, I asked, “Shouldn’t I be checked for glaucoma? I think my sister might have it.” A long-time wearer of corrective eyewear, I was familiar with what went on in a typical eye exam. My field of vision hadn’t been tested, nor was the internal pressure of my eyes taken, both usually standard practice.

The doctor paused at the doorway of the room. With a wave of her hand, she replied, “If you are planning to see an ophthalmologist about corrective surgery then that doctor can check it.” She opened the door and walked out.

I was speechless. It took me a moment to collect myself. Why the brush off? What was the hurry? Didn’t she understand I have a family history of this type of disease? I gathered my things and left the room.

A few hours later, I sat across an optician who fitted me with a new pair of glasses. Knowing that the shape of my eyes was still changing since I’d been wearing rigid contacts for over forty years, I negotiated the inclusion of a second set of free lenses.

“I’ll schedule another appointment with you in about six weeks,” I said to this young female optician. “I know my vision will need to be checked again.” She agreed to let me come back in for a second check. Rigid contacts are notorious for contouring the eye to their hard surface.

Just as I expected, my vision continued to radically change, making my new glasses useless within a few weeks. I made a second appointment to update the lenses.

Once again, I sat across an optometrist for another vision exam. This time with someone new. After completing the full spectrum of tests, the doctor sat back. He looked serious. “It appears you may have the start of glaucoma.” He then opened several enlarged images so that they filled the computer screen.

“This is a photo of your retina, and here’s your optic nerve,” he said, pointing to various parts of the picture. “See that black spot? That’s cell loss where the nerve is being damaged. And here’s where it’s spreading.”

The size of the black spot on the photo shocked me. Visual evidence that I might be going blind. My mind went blank as I tried to take in this information.

A few minutes later, I left the office with a handwritten referral to an ophthalmologist who specializes in this type of eye disease. For the rest of the day, I said nothing as the news settled in.

Then it hit me. What if I hadn’t needed a second lens prescription? How long might I have gone before getting another eye exam?

A horrifying thought.

Over the past few years, life has been handing me lesson after lesson on the importance of self-advocacy. Gone are the days when someone else kept an eye out for me. Time and again, I’ve seen the evidence of what could have happened if I hadn’t asked the right questions, even dumb ones.

How much more proof do I need to know no one can read my mind and know where I have gaps in my knowledge? It is all up to me to figure how best to protect myself. An important part of this task is to ask questions. Sometimes lots of them. I must do whatever it takes to feel comfortable that I got enough details.

Most people seem to do a fairly decent job of self-advocacy. It seems to come natural to them, but that’s not the case for me. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to be unpleasant. That I’m afraid asking too many questions will make me seem like an annoying person.

I don’t want to be a bother. To be “one of those kinds of people.” You know, the kind of person other people roll their eyes about or talk to in a patronizing voice.

I hate appearing stupid. I act as if my questions are being rated and critiqued. Like I’m standing in front of a panel of judges who will determine the validity of my inquiry. I imagine them murmuring among themselves. “That’s one a good one — a solid ‘8!’ Ohh, why did she have to follow it up with that stupid question? Now she’s fallen to an overall score of ‘5.3!’ Dumb move…too bad!”

I know at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. This is my body and my life. I must live with the consequences of my decisions. It’s not those imaginary people who might go blind. It’s me.

But it’s been hard to let go of this people-pleasing tendency. To cope with the subsequent social shame when I’ve over-extended other people’s patience.

I saw a glaucoma specialist this past week. It turns out the shape of my optic nerve is odd, causing distortions on the images. My retina is intact. Both of my eyes received a clean bill of health. I’m not going blind.

I got the message, though. No one is going to ride in on some white horse and rescue me. The quality of my life is mine to protect and defend, and I need to start doing a better job now, or the next time I might not be so lucky. And it could cost me something valuable, like my vision.

Dr. Kerry McAvoy is a clinical psychologist, mother of three grown sons, writer, and author of the devotionals: Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Bringing Hope and Healing, Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Healing Without Limits, and Pain as a Starting Point.

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