In recent months, I’ve gone through some difficult phases. My outlook on life, my creative practice, and my self-image have all been radically reshaped by some rather challenging circumstances. To quote The Legend of Korra, “when we reach our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”
In 2021, I developed a condition called Dry Eye Disease. Several months later, I discovered it was a more specific version known as Meibomian Gland Dysfunction. I’ll spare you from excessive medical details, but I would like to explain how this condition has impacted my life, and how it is far more than just dryness.
The glands surrounding my eyes no longer produce the necessary oils for healthy tears. Generally, humans have a tear film that constantly protects the surface of their eyes. But my tear film is very low-quality. Therefore, my eyes are exposed and unprotected at all times. One might think this would only cause issues in the case of dust, pollen, or irritants. But anything can harm unprotected eyes, including the air inside my home.
All in all, I’ve been suffering from debilitating chronic pain in my eyes for over a year now. On most days, I wake up with severe pain, use my doctor-recommended treatments until the pain is bearable, then try to have a somewhat enjoyable/productive day (while avoiding environments that could worsen the pain). On certain days, the pain is much less. But on other days, the pain is excruciating, and I have to keep my eyes closed for hours.
Since 2021, I’ve cycled through various treatments, coping mechanisms, and attitudes toward the condition. During certain months, I masked the pain and endured the elements carelessly. During other months, I stayed indoors and often slept my days away to avoid facing the pain.
Learning to live with pain that lacks a definitive end has been a rollercoaster. And accepting my incapabilities has been quite the process. It wasn’t until November 2022 that I acknowledged how much of my self-worth was wrapped into my productivity. I have prided myself on creative accomplishments and prolificity for as long as I can recall. My months are defined by how many stories/films I publish, and the years of my life are marked by how many projects I completed. Granted, storytelling is my passion. It is a source of joy and fulfillment. But I never realized, until recently, how I used it as a measurement of my success and worth.
Due to my eye pain, I cannot write peacefully for long periods of time. Nor can I spend hours filming outside without consequences. I have found helpful treatments and temporary solutions (such as the goggles pictured above), but nothing that stops the unpredictable pain. So, I’ve had to accept that my work schedule is largely out of my control. My body is making decisions for me, and my mind has limited input.
But let’s talk about the mind. While I can’t simply will the pain to go away, and perseverance only goes so far in moments of crippling hurt, the mind is far from powerless. My lack of productivity initially made me feel depressed and helpless, but I have learned to accept my situation, and not value my worth based on what I can create or contribute.
Joshua Luke Smith, my creative mentor and comrade, told a story about his dear friend. After severe health complications, she was lying in a hospital bed, in critical condition, unconscious and unable to do or say anything. When Joshua visited her, all he could think was She has never been more loved than she is in this moment. By telling this story, Joshua illustrated one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the last year of my life… We are not less valuable when we are less capable.
I needed to deeply understand that, despite my condition, I was still loved by my closest family, my truest friends, and the spiritual/universal forces I’ve always believed in. But most importantly, I was still deserving of love from myself. I started to ask myself a critical question… How would I treat a loved one if they were suffering from a painful condition? Would I shame them for their lack of productivity, and force them to live life “normally”? Or would I care for them like a sick person, with warm meals, considerate gifts, and cozy company? The answer was evident.
At the start of 2023, I began an initiative of self-compassion. I redecorated my apartment to make it much more cozy and fun. Now, whenever my pain confines me to my home, I’m surrounded by artwork and colors that make me happy.
I started devoting more time to cooking delicious meals. My past self would’ve hated extended time in the kitchen… he always thought there were “better things to do” than spend an hour on a meal that would be consumed in minutes. But the simple act of making something for my own pleasure has become a significant gesture of self-love.
I bought myself a slew of stylish new clothes. I’ve always resisted changing my signature style (which is just black sweatpants & a black hoodie). Any fashion beyond these casual garments made me feel like I was trying too hard to impress people. But now, I get dressed up for my own enjoyment. Looking in the mirror and seeing myself in a unique and colorful ensemble gives me a subtle contentment I’ve never before experienced.
I’ve also been surrounding myself with loved ones during moments when company is needed. I’ve been seeing a therapist once a week, to unpack my emotional baggage. And, most importantly, I’ve been practicing acceptance of what I can and cannot do. Last month, I did not release a single film or written story. Instead, I wrote a poem as a means of coping with my pain, I brainstormed projects I will create when I feel more physically capable, and I dreamt of future adventures that will ensue when my eyes are more manageable. Essentially, I transformed my desolation into joyful anticipation.
This struggle with my body is far from over. My eyes may never return to their original state, but I will find a way to live without frequent pain. There are new treatments and tools on the horizon, and at least one of them will work. Of this much, I’m certain.
In addition to self-compassion, my greatest takeaway from this journey has been a deepened sense of empathy. I find myself navigating the world with much more awareness and consideration. It may sound like a cliché, but everyone is enduring something. Plenty of people in my immediate life suffer from their own health issues. Nearly everyone in the world is living and coping with some inhibiting mental and/or physical hurt. Now, having experienced the struggles of a truly restrictive condition, I am committed to being more accommodating to others. I want to be a person who makes others feel seen, understood, and cared for.
Interestingly, self-compassion and empathy are the two major outcomes of this internal conflict.
How beautiful and strange that such sincere love was forged by such severe pain.