The Accident

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 cringe inside.

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 of truth.

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.

A prisoner

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 of hospitalization.

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 me.

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.

Other scars

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 human.

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 others.

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