I remember my youth as clearly as though I were still crunching through the Northfield, Minnesota snow, or wending my way along a trail through the fragrant woods around Cades Cove in Tennessee. I remember, but often don’t feel, the intense emotions of those years, the often tumultuous mix of rushing feelings all merged together. It’s not that I want to go back to that time in my life–life is mostly good right now–but I don’t want to literally or figuratively dry up as so many middle-aged people do.
A few years ago I started to suffer from dry-eye, or–to use the lovely medical term–keratoconjunctivitis sicca. Really, it started when I was quite young. In my late twenties, I had just discovered soft contact lenses for the first time. Because I was a Type I diabetic vulnerable to eye infections, my ophthalmologists had never prescribed them for me before, but new varieties didn’t create so many problems. It was revelation time: the world so bright and clear, so unobstructed by the frames I’d worn since fifth grade. I remember walking down a street in State College, Pennsylvania, where I was newly in grad school. I had never seen anything like it–the tiny, gritty pieces of glass sparkled in the sidewalk, and I could see how the fall wind just barely deformed the cheek of my lover as we moved arm in arm. Unfortunately, within the year I had also gone on the Pill.
The Pill is one of many factors that produces dry-eye, and as soon as I started taking it I could no longer tolerate the lenses in my eyes. It felt as though the sidewalk sand had blown up and coated my eyeballs with grit. Soon my eyelids were so inflamed I could hardly bear to blink. Though it took months for me to finally read somewhere that this was a common effect of the Pill and to put the timing all together, I gave up the contacts immediately.
Later, in my forties, my eyes started to feel the same way again, only there was no reason I could find but aging and long hours using my eyes for close work. After a few hours of writing or reading, my eyes would burn. Sometimes when I would wake up in the morning, my eyelids would stick when I tried to open them. I wondered if I might not accidentally peel off a piece of my cornea. Writing, reading, and closing my eyes for sleep were not things I could stop doing.
My ophthalmologist recommended that I start buying and using artificial tears, which I did. But I also started trying to find home remedies, and on one website I read that dry-eye is frequently cause by clogged tear ducts. “Tears,” it notes, “are essential for good eye health.” [http://www.allaboutvision.com/conditions/dryeye.htm]
I also read about all kinds of home remedies–drink water, use hot compresses to steam your tear ducts open, eat fish, eat tamarind seed extract, scrub out your eyes with baby shampoo. I even read about Restasis, a new prescription product that makes your eyes produce more tears. About the latter, I was determined not to try any more new drugs. The FDA has just let us down too many times, and I have a low trust level when it comes to medications that have been on the market fewer than fifteen or twenty years. So I marshaled on with the bottles of tears that I always misplaced and the conscious blinking to try to increase lubrication.
One evening last year, when I was watching some tear-jerker movie on TV, I realized that my eyes felt wonderful. And I realized that all the remedies are about producing more tears without crying. How absurd. No wonder we get dry-eye as we get older. Yes, there may be hormonal changes that contribute to this, but most of us also simply cry less. We gain control over our emotions.
I flashed back to a moment during my college years, when I was sitting outside in the spring Minnesota sunshine, blubbering to a friend about some boy that had treated me wrong. “You look so beautiful,” she said. “With those tears in your eyelashes, you look utterly a picture. You should have no trouble at all finding a new, better boyfriend, looking like that.”
We both laughed, but, though I knew she was trying to comfort me, I was so miserable in my loss that I couldn’t comprehend what she was talking about. Looking back from the perspective of a dry-eyed woman, I saw in that moment the way that beauty and sorrow are linked by their intensity.
I resolved right then and there to let myself cry naturally whenever I felt like it so I could take advantage of my body’s own natural resources. Tears, I remind myself, are essential to my health.