The Day My Eyes Exploded

Agency author Kris Hollington describes how he suddenly lost his eyesight and warns writers on the need to have the correct light screen settings.

I was sitting on a bench in the German town of Greetseil overlooking the harbour when my eyes exploded.

My laptop was on my knees. It was October 2014.

The sun was setting. Cool, grey and orange, a Turneresque evening. A fishing boat was porting, seagulls wheeling above.

We (my wife, Nina, and I) were in Germany for a friend’s wedding but, as ever, I had a book to finish and, between the ceremony (in a windmill) and a riverside reception in Frankfurt, my fingers were ablur at the keyboard.

I should say, more accurately, that it was my vision that exploded, not my eyes, although from my skull’s-eye view, it certainly looked as if something had detonated in my eyeball. One moment everything was normal, the next the world was hidden behind a thick filter of rapidly flashing neon dots that looked like a time-lapse film of rainbow-coloured dermestid beetles at work on a carcass.

On my laptop, lines of text floated over one another and bounced around the supernova-bright screen like a mad multiplayer version of pong.

I tried not to panic. The book, due in a week or so, was just about finished. I walked back to the hotel and informed Nina that my eyes were playing up. I probably needed new glasses.

I did, as it turned out, but they did nothing for the dizzying visions, which were accompanied by nausea. Work was just about possible in short bursts, as long as I kept my eyes as fairly still, turned down my screen’s brightness and sat in daylight. Visits to various eye doctors ruled out glaucoma, eye cancer, brain tumours and things I’d never heard of (pterygium, hypertensive retinopathy, uveitis and so on).

After much shoulder-shrugging by eye professionals, I turned (albeit with difficulty) to the Internet where, finally, after some serous searching, I diagnosed myself as having an odd condition known as visual snow which according to Wikepedia is: ‘transitory or persisting visual symptom where people see snow or television-like static in parts or the whole of their visual fields, constantly in all light conditions even visible in day-light.’

I’d always had visual snow and palinopsia (afterimages, sometimes called ‘tracers’ that follow, for example, the movement of one’s hand in front of one’s eyes) although to a far, far milder degree - and had just assumed it was some aberration of vision common to us all.

On top of the nearly unbearably intense visual snow, I’d also developed extreme light sensitivity, dizziness and nausea. My new hyper-palinopsia had made it impossible to drive at night (driving towards car head lights, especially those new halogen ones, was like looking out of the bridge of the Millennium Falcon when it jumps to lightspeed).

I could barely stand to look at a computer screen, let alone read one. As an author who writes and ghostwrites three or four books a year, along with many articles and assorted sundry writings (and had recently begun an ‘epic’ (i.e., long) novel), this was a real problem. I went back to Moorfields Eye Hospital and explained my predicament to a consultant who shrugged his shoulders. “We know people get it,” he said. “But we don’t know why and there’s no cure that we know of.”

I suggested to his PhD students, engaged in a group squint over my files, that visual snow would make an excellent topic for their doctorates. They did not look terribly enthusiastic.

So I tried everything I could think of: therapies physio and cranial-sacral; I rested my eyes, wore sunglasses and worked as much as I could with pen and paper (ok for the novel but not for non-fiction). I tried adjusting the colour saturation on my lap top’s screen and this seemed to help, just enough for me to be able to look at the screen for an hour or so before the lines of text started to overlap one another and turned into a Cyrillic blur.

I thought perhaps that I’d become sensitive to certain light wavelengths and more research led me to ID the chief villain as Blue Light. Blue light is part of the visible light spectrum (at the ultra-violet, i.e., sunburn end). It penetrates deep into the eye and can damage the retina, one result of which is macular degeneration (the gradual loss of central vision).

Blue light travelling in the sun’s rays can have a cumulative effect on one’s eyes, i.e., people who have lived most of their lives in sunny countries are likely to develop macular degeneration in old age.

Laptops, computers, smartphones, tablets as well as modern lighting (LED lights and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)) all emit lots of blue light. By 2020, it’s expected that 90% of all of our light sources will be LED. Blue light in these devices causes eyestrain and fatigue, and increases the likelihood of eye disease. It also suppresses melatonin, the hormone that helps send us to sleep (and keeps us asleep), and the production of melanin, the pigment that protects us from UV radiation.

Despite a number of studies which state that blue light is becoming a real problem, there aren’t many people out there attempting to do something about it, which is worrying, especially as children (big users of smart phones and tablets) are particularly vulnerable. We’re born without Ocular Lens Pigment (OLP), which is our natural filter against blue light, and we only attain our full complement once we’re teenagers.

I found three companies producing blue-light filters for smartphones, computers and tablets - one in the USA, one in Spain and one in the UK. The one in the UK, Ocushield, is based in East London, just down the road from where I live and is run by enthusiastic optometrist entrepreneur Dhruvin Patel, who spotted the problem with blue light in our e-devices while at university.

I plastered Ocushield’s filters over all my blue-light emitters and, to my genuine amazement, they worked. Something else that helped was a piece of software called f.lux, which tunes out some of the blue light from computers and smartphones and softens the overall brightness.

Today, if I put my laptop next to a friend’s screen for comparison, the difference is shocking. People immediately see that their devices are way too bright.

Months later, I still have psychedelic visual snow, but it’s calmed down ever so slightly. The real difference, however, is that I can now read the text on my computer screen again, to the extent that I can manage four hours (with breaks every hour) of laptop work with little trouble (and I’m a lot more focused now I have a medically-enforced time limit, so am doubly efficient).

Clearly, the amount of time I’ve spent staring into my laptop with a concentrated stare over the past decade or so, combined with my visual snow, means I’m an extreme example but if you work with computers (or have children that use smart phones and tablets) then see me as a miners’ canary and filter out some of that blue light before your eyes explode.

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Kris Hollington

Kris Hollington is a bestselling non-fiction author and ghost-writer of twenty books, several of which have been adapted for documentaries (including Channel 4’s Cutting Edge and ITV1’s Real Crime) and dramas.   The Interceptor: The Inside Story of the UK’s Elite Drug Squ...More about Kris Hollington