I visited the eye doctor more frequently than most children because I was born with strabismus. My eyes did not look in the same direction. At two years old, I had surgery on my left eye. For many years after, I patched my right eye to help train the left. My ophthalmologist gave me finger monster toys as tokens for enduring the miserable events of getting my eyes poked, prodded, and dilated.
Gizmo, my little red friend in the bricks, is my oldest finger monster. His eyes are fading, and his limbs are thinning. I imagine him feeling just as helpless and scared as I was at the eye doctor.
I photograph with these toys because it lets me play with my vision and inner child safely and on my own terms. This practice is an excellent vehicle for therapeutic healing.
My memories surrounding the health of my eyes vary greatly, from how frightening the vision correction process was to how adorably goofy my eyes, sight, and lenses were. The images I take and the monsters themselves follow that same juxtaposed pattern. They are happy-colored toys, but their arms and faces are contorted in poses of terror.
Some of my memories are pleasant; I loved the downtown Fort Worth, Texas bridge we drove under to get to my doctor's office. And playing with the finger monsters after each visit, even with poor vision, helped me escape and brought me joy.
Sylvia, the four-armed beauty in the rose bush, represents my more lighthearted memories.
Some of my memories are unpleasant.
Being a child was scary enough without an adult forcing my vision to blur and stealing one of my primary senses without my consent. It brought on confusion, nausea, and a complete lack of safety. One time a nurse physically pinned me down to get those dreaded drops in my eyes as I cried out an obvious "no." It was violating and scary.
Petri, my blue-winged buddy in the fractured forest, reminds me of what my world looked and felt like during the traumatic times.
My first memory is waking up after my eye surgery at two years old. I was in a hospital bed, everything was blurry, and a nurse walked in. She warmly said hello and asked if I wanted an orange or cherry popsicle. I wanted cherry but couldn't muster up the answer. I was so grumpy from the anesthesia I mumbled attitude at her instead.
It's hard for children to speak up for themselves and damn near impossible if drugged up and around a stranger. Children's nurses know better; she got me a popsicle anyway. She brought me orange, and I've genuinely never forgiven her.
Ernie, the orange goober in the succulent, reminds me of the brilliance of that popsicle. When I was a kid, I wanted to hide as well as he is hidden in this image.
Fast forward to thirty-plus years later. I now see Dr. Evie Lawson at Eyes on You in Seattle, Washington. I am happy to report that visiting an optometrist is finally a positive experience! I pay the extra fee to get fancy ocular images of the back of my eye, rendering the practice of distorting my vision unnecessary.
I'm not sure if Dr. Lawson realizes that she indirectly invested in my emotional safety by purchasing that expensive machine. But, I do know she is intentionally patient, kind, and graceful when treating my eyes.
I wear corrective lenses all the time. Otherwise, I get double vision, and my left eye starts to wander. With contacts or glasses, my left eye does just fine. Still, I photograph with my more dominant right eye.
Seeing my friends' googly eyes strums a deep emotional chord. My feelings towards them are a reflection of my feelings for my younger self. I empathize with them and love them unconditionally.
When I first moved to Seattle, I visited Archie McPhee to buy one of their many flagship products, the finger monsters. It was a reclaiming act. I got what I wanted without needing to suffer. I was ready to take my new finger monster friends on a therapeutic journey rather than using them as a form of escapism.
There are blurry lines between seeing myself in these toys, letting my inner child have control, and creating art to cleanse my spirit. It's okay. I am now comfortable with blurry situations and know when to set crisp, clean boundaries.
Through this process of photographing an emotionally charged childhood toy, and exploring childhood memories, I've found peace. For example, I never needed to forgive that nurse for bringing me an orange popsicle. I needed to forgive myself. I felt guilty for 30 years for being grumpy with someone that brought me a popsicle. I felt regret for 30 years for not asking for the cherry popsicle. I have forgiven 2-year-old me. And now I practice letting go of guilty feelings for things out of my control and speaking up for myself. Each time I photograph my finger monster friends, I uncover another buried feeling and take steps to let it go. In other words, photographing finger monsters helps me heal my childhood trauma.
To see the whole collection, visit this gallery.
The phrases "Crossed Eyes" and "Lazy eye" are often used to poke fun at people. Use the medical names for these eye issues instead, Amblyopia or Strabismus. Amblyopia is poor vision in one or both eyes. Strabismus is a lack of teamwork between the two eyes. I've never heard a playground bully use the words Strabismus or Amblyopia against a child. What you say matters because it affects others. Lindy West said it best, "It costs you nothing to err on the side of care." Please read this post by The Vision Therapy Center in Wisconsin for more intel on these terms.
An optometrist is a doctor that examines, diagnoses, and treats your eyes. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who performs surgeries. An optician fits eyeglasses and contact lenses. The eye doctor is a generic title that can describe either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. This Healthline article helped me figure out the difference.