This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The single greatest asset we freelancers possess is our own good health.

Without it we can’t work. If we can’t work, we’re in big trouble. No paid sick days for us.

Therefore, it makes good sense to maintain as healthy a lifestyle as possible and to monitor and safeguard our most precious asset to the very best of our abilities.

Spending so much of our work day in front of a screen should make our vision health a priority, and yet it’s probably one aspect of our health too many of us take for granted. I know I did.

Until recently.

It was during the editing of my last column, about anger and creativity, when I first noticed it. Bright flashing lines at the edges of my vision.

I looked left, the flashes were on the right. Looked right, they were on the left. Up, they were down. Down, they were up. Uh oh, Houston, we have a problem.

At first, I tried to ignore them. I was probably over-doing it, I thought. I’ll get a cold wet cloth and put it over my tired closed eyes as soon as I get through editing.

The next morning, a Saturday, they were more frequent and brighter. I typed the symptoms into Google.

Google. Your best friend and worst enemy. If you trust Google to give an accurate medical diagnosis you had better prepare for the worst, even if it’s usually not true.

In my case, it suggested a detached retina. Which could be serious.

I needed a more reliable opinion. So I called 811 which almost got me put on hold for 40 minutes. But when I told the operator I had a “suspected” detached retina I was suddenly put through to a senior public health nurse who advised me to get to my local ER Right Away. Without Delay.

And so I did.

Which ultimately lead me to an eye care specialist. And repeated visits to monitor my gradual recovery. I’ve never felt so grateful for Canada’s public health care system, imperfect as it is.

Long story short: It wasn’t a detached retina. It was something called PVD – a posterior vitreous detachment. The goop at the back of my eye was changing shape and shifting. Not as serious as a detached retina – which untreated can quickly lead to blindness – but which offers an annoying array of similar symptoms including additional “floaters” – those annoying shapes which float in and around your vision – and yes, flashes of light, as the goop shifts and resettles.

I’d never heard of it.

Curiously, when talking with a busy freelance colleague, he nailed it. While awaiting my results he predicted it would be a PVD. He’d had it and knew several other bespectacled screen-dependent freelancers who had had it as well. While there is absolutely no hard evidence that being stuck in front of a screen for hours can lead to it, it seems anecdotally many of us may end up suffering from it. Of course, it could simply be we are more aware of its symptoms, being in front of a screen for so long.

Fun Fact: PVDs are not uncommon and some folk never even notice the symptoms.

My new ophthalmologist posited the human eye is only designed for optimal use for maybe 40 odd years. Anything after that is bonus time. And PVDs and retina detachments as well as other vision issues like cataracts become increasingly probable as we age.

What I have learned

* In general, pay attention to your vision, and treat your eyes as the amazing light-sensing instruments that they are. Don’t take them for granted.

* If you spend your days and nights in front of a screen, take a break every half hour or so. A few minutes away from the screen, readjusting your eyesight to the non-digital world, is A Good Thing. Keep your non-digital world well-lit.

* A temporary fine misty haze upon awakening that quickly disappears is most likely the result of “dry eye”. This can be mitigated by drops available at your local pharmacy. If it continues, seek professional advice.

* Insure you have glasses or contact lenses if you need them. Some writers I know have a pair of glasses for distance, another for reading, and a third pair for computer use – somewhere in between the first two. While not everyone will need three pairs – or one pair with progressive lenses – eye glasses will definitely reduce eye strain.

* Wearing protective eye-wear when engaged in problematic activities – like some sports, or using some power tools around the house, or anything that might endanger the physical safety of your eyes – is recommended.

* If you have a private health plan to supplement our public health system, familiarize yourself with its eye care coverage and use it if needed. Most coverage at minimum includes a fixed percentage of the cost of a check up every two years and new eye glasses.

* Seeing an optometrist every two years or so is recommended. Yes, you can buy “readers” off the rack at your local drug store but a trained professional can insure you get the best prescription. Things like astigmatism, the incorrect focusing of light in your eyeball due to an imperfection in its curvature, can only be detected by a professional. You also need a professional to give you warning if anything more serious is amiss and you need to investigate it further with a more highly-trained specialist.

* If you notice any persistent visual disturbances, contact your medical professional. Do not rely upon Google! If you do not have immediate access to such a professional, call 811, assuming you have such a service where you live. Things like an abundance of new floaters, and flashing lights – like I saw – could be Nothing To Worry About or could be Something To Worry About.

* If your vision begins to narrow or if you notice the peripheral edges of your vision going dark, go to your local ER right away. It’s a key warning sign of a possible detached retina. Which might have been caused by simply aging or maybe by a recent hard bump on the forehead when you hit your head on a kitchen cupboard. You can never be totally sure until you have a professional investigate.

The takeaway

I’ve worn glasses forever. I used to think that alone would guarantee me a lifetime of trouble-free vision. Nothing more to think about, and certainly nothing more to worry about.

My recent discombobulating experience has taught me otherwise.

Some of the horrendous eye injuries and deteriorating eye conditions I observed while sitting in various waiting rooms made me truly appreciate the vision I have, imperfect as it may be, and how much more vigilant I must be in order to preserve it.

If this post inspires you to prioritize your vision health too then it will have served its purpose.

The second greatest asset we freelancers possess is the capacity to share and learn from each other’s experiences – the good, the bad, and most especially the discombobulating.

Disclaimer: No slight is intended to any working freelancer with permanent visual-impairment. Your experience is uniquely your own and outside the scope of this column. Please consider this an invitation to let us know about the special challenges you face.

POSTED IN: Features