What It’s Like to See the World through a Lazy Eye

From Harry Potter to the Lion King, pop culture equates people who look like me with ugliness and eccentricity

portrait superimposed by several eyes
The Walrus

Being lazy eyed has been a blessing and a curse. It’s been my identity. My party trick. My cheap laugh and my not-so-hidden shame for all of my twenty-four years that I can remember. I’ve milked my misaligned eye for humour—my Twitter bio says, “Lazy-eyed optimist. One eye looking up, one eye looking forward”—but it has also left me angry and in tears. Asymmetrical haircuts come into and go out of fashion. Asymmetrical faces? Not so much. It often feels like it’s me against the world.

Now that I’m trying to enter the full-time workforce in journalism or communications, I have become more self-conscious about my appearance. I’ve struggled to turn casual work into full-time employment in New Brunswick, my home province, and while I’m not blaming my lazy eye for my employment barriers, I have this nagging doubt: Do employers really want me to be the face of their operations, their eyes on the world? When meeting new people, I often feel I need to crack wise about my eye to help others see that it’s okay, that they don’t need to tiptoe around me. But I worry these small remarks have added up and I’ve somehow let the jokes overwhelm me. Let them affect who I am.

So I’m seeking to destroy the thing that has shaped my identity and hoping realignment surgery sticks this time. I’ve been on the wait-list for this cosmetic surgery for almost two years. And there’s no guarantee it will stick; after three childhood surgeries that didn’t take, the idea of, once again, letting someone cut my eye muscles, potentially while I’m awake, makes me want to hurl. Sometimes I wonder if wearing an eye patch would be easier.

But even the pirate look won’t help me take on the world, start the lazy-eyed revolution: most of the bullets would likely curve to the left anyway. And who would be in my army? Ed the dim-witted hyena from The Lion King? Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter? Igor from Young Frankenstein? Popular culture equates the misaligned with the imbecilic and the insane.

Still, I’m conflicted about my decision to put my name on the wait-list. Will others see me as somehow inauthentic after I receive cosmetic surgery? Will my operation be something I hide from people I meet? Will friends actually prefer old lazy-eye Joe? My parents taught me to play the cards you’re dealt, and I’ve carried that mantra with good humour all my life. But now, as I step into the world of real adulthood, where even the best people might unconsciously judge me for my looks, what’s wrong with asking for a reshuffle?

Strabismus is a blanket term covering all eyes with abnormal alignments. Some eyes point inward—a trait known as esotropic. Other eyes are like mine in that they point outward, i.e., they’re exotropic. Some point up, some point down. We lazy-eyed folk come in many shapes and sizes.

My strabismus first showed itself around age two, which is around the age when the condition often chooses to manifest itself, though my orthoptist thinks, in my case, it was a reaction to chemotherapy from childhood leukemia. My left eye once pointed inward, but after two early corrective surgeries, it began drifting out. The folks over at Guinness World Records could immortalize it as the longest, saddest game of Pong ever played.

Navigating life behind my eyes is like being a cameraman with two lenses to shoot with. I only see out of one at a time but can quickly switch between them. While the eye I’m not looking through remains on, receiving stimulus, my brain filters that information out.

Not all lazy eyes, however, are made equal. Some people have less severe misalignments that are more difficult to spot; others experience chronic double vision. And the reasons for realignment surgery vary. For young children, there’s often a chance that, if the strabismus is caught early enough, the brain could learn to use both eyes together—and vision therapy (patching of the strong eye to strengthen the other) is another common treatment. If an adult develops strabismus, their brain can’t learn to ignore one of their eyes. The resulting double vision can prevent patients from working, so surgery becomes necessary.

That’s not the case for me; though my eyes are also considered mildly amblyopic, since vision in my left eye isn’t as strong as in my right, I don’t require the surgery to get through life. (In ophthalmology, the term lazy eye actually refers to amblyopia, although colloquially it’s used to refer to a misaligned eye.) I’m also mildly colour blind, but that’s from an unrelated curse from the men on my mother’s side. To say I perceive the world differently than most is an understatement.

I remember being on vacation at Canada’s Wonderland, as a ten-year-old excited to soak up SpongeBob SquarePants 4-D, a theatre-based ride. I begged my parents and even bought a stuffed Patrick Star plush in preparation. But when, in the opening scene, a pirate jumps out towards you, leaving his usual picture frame, I looked left, away from the screen, wondering why others reacted with such surprise.

I can’t see 3D. I just hadn’t realized it until then. While it’s difficult for me to understand exactly what I’m missing out on, I don’t have depth perception, which compromises my hand-eye coordination. My hand tends to end up drenched in ketchup under condiment dispensers. Learning to play catch with my baseball-obsessed father was a field of nightmares. And, from a young age, I was told by health care professionals to strike careers such as airline pilot or surgeon off my list. (And, honestly, if I end up on the operating table with an eye surgeon that looks like me, I’m out of there.)

None of this will be fixed by surgery. I’ll still be a klutz. I just won’t look like someone hit me with a shovel. I just won’t be constantly flashing a beacon that doesn’t exactly attract a lot of women.

My parents were told after my third childhood operation that another couldn’t guarantee results—it was better to let me make these decisions later. And so I never knew hope was an option until I brought it up with my doctor two years ago, after being told that my friend’s mom underwent a similar operation later in life. The knowledge had stirred something deep inside. My eyes were suddenly wide open.

Before then, I had always believed I had no choice but to accept how I looked. It was only when I learned change was possible that I began obsessing over how people viewed me. My anxiety over my appearance began to skyrocket. And it was only this year, as I searched for details on the surgery, that I realized how many lonely, lopsided, lost souls like me were out there.

I found a whole community of YouTubers with the same anxieties I have. They discussed dating, wearing their hair to cover one eye, their frustrations with being photographed, and the fear and anticipation surrounding their own upcoming surgeries. Scrolling through the videos, I felt like any other internet surfer finding others like themselves.

Growing up, I was the only person I knew with misaligned eyes. Eye contact feels like an activity that requires two full sets, and when I try to engage in it, I feel like a pretender, some outsider improperly adopting the customs of the locals. I’m usually the first to break it. I don’t know where to look and worry the person across from me also doesn’t know where to fix their gaze. I often fear I’ve caused someone to feel awkward just by looking at them. What’s more annoying is when people can’t tell if I’m talking to them because they don’t know where I’m focusing. “Joe, are you looking at me?” is a phrase that has followed me my entire life.

In some small way, the videos I watched made me feel less alone. Less different. Less alien.

They also helped cement my decision to have surgery.

“This was the best thing I ever could have done for myself,” a woman says in one of the postoperative videos I watched, her two eyes fixed directly on the camera. “It’s making me feel more value and self-worth.” Less than a minute later, she looks towards the sky as she breaks down in tears.

Not all of my research led to positive reinforcement. Around the same time, I also joined a Facebook support group for any and all problems related to strabismus. I was searching for information about alignment surgery to see if those with the condition believed it to be worthwhile. Comments there only confirmed what I had already suspected: eye surgery can be tricky and unpredictable, and people who have it done react differently. In some cases, only time will tell if the eye stays in place.

But there I also found echoes of the shame of having a lazy eye that I’d often felt—a mother concerned about why her daughter, embarrassed by her looks, hid her yearbook photo, a cashier frustrated by customers trying to use their phones to record her eye turning inward. “Last thing I want is to be in a video that has gone viral,” she writes.

Commenters tell her to wear sunglasses.

The well-intentioned tend to tell you about the lazy-eyed overachievers. Some researchers suspect a walleye perspective—and resultant ability to see in both 2D and 3D—helped shape Leonardo da Vinci’s advancements in the art world. (He also drew plans for flying machines, but luckily, they never got off the ground, to my knowledge.) And who knows, maybe Jean-Paul Sartre’s severe exotropia steered him left. Ryan Gosling has a slight lazy eye that somehow makes him look even more intense and mysterious, putting him squarely on top of the lazy-eye pyramid.

But I haven’t found any hidden powers or the ability to look deep, dark and distant with my lazy eye. (Okay, my peripheral vision is apparently above average, but the Avengers haven’t called about that one.) Regardless, the science doesn’t suggest genius is an attribute associated with the lazy eyed. Studies that polled matchmakers and headhunters have shown we’re likely to be perceived as significantly less attractive, less intelligent, and less likely to find employment than people with no facial anomalies. Those sicko researchers once even made a lazy-eyed doll and gave it to kids to play with. The results showed even sweet, innocent children don’t like how I look.

Everyone who has cosmetic surgery has reasons for getting it, but on some level, I think we all want to be seen as the person we were meant to be. I suspect we all have these feelings: seeing fullness in others but never feeling quite whole ourselves.

Still, I worry that once I get the surgery, others will think I’m weak, shallow. That I couldn’t handle looking like who I was. Who I am.

I’ll admit that living with an eye that points too far left most of my life has had its blessings. (In university, I learned the guilty pleasure of waiting for someone to finish a rant before telling them they were looking at the wrong eye.) But I don’t want to look blessed in some sort of concussed zen way. I want to make eye contact with someone and not feel like a fraud. I want to feel beautiful.

About five years ago, I interviewed for a position as an expeditor in a restaurant and got the gig. But then the call for training always seemed to be coming the week after next. I eventually gave up. When I later asked a friend, a server there at the time, what happened, he told me the manager thought my eye would mess with the establishment’s aesthetic. I can’t forget the burning sensation in my cheeks, that acidic red blend of rage and humiliation.

I’ve since graduated from my undergraduate program and had a few good journalism stints in Yellowknife and my home province of New Brunswick, although none panned out in the end. Those jobs ended for a variety of reasons—competition is fierce in an industry that has become dependent on contract workers and summer positions. To be fair, I’ve never heard anyone in my workplaces suggest that my eye made me unsuitable for television news, but I do know that my appearance has steered me towards print media. Regardless, being the lazy-eyed optimist I am, my eye is looking forward to doing a graduate program in journalism at Carleton University in September.

Still, knowing you’ve been rejected for appearances never entirely goes away. You catch yourself thinking about it when you least expect to and suddenly find yourself frustrated, wanting to punch the nearest tree. As a young writer, rejection has become like a friend I invite in for coffee. I think I’ve come to understand when it’s fair—based on skill and the quality of my work—and when it’s not.

The tale of this modern-day cyclops came to a head last November, on a road trip through Maine and New Hampshire with a friend, his father, and my dad. We have been taking these rock ’n’ roll road trips since I was eleven.

This time, we were catching Joan Osborne’s Dylanology tour. Maybe I got too “Tangled Up in Blue” or maybe I got too tangled up in Pabst Blue Ribbon, but back at our Airbnb, years of self-loathing escaped and so did a Saint Lawrence River’s worth of tears. Something came over me, and suddenly I needed to talk about that restaurant job. Being told I probably wouldn’t have been a good expeditor might have contributed to my emotional breakdown.

I was mad at my friend’s dad for saying it, even though he’s like a second father to me. I was mad at his son for being good looking. I was mad at my dad for not standing up for me.

I was mad that they were wrong; I was mad that they were right.

I wanted to say so much that night, but my silver tongue felt leaden in my mouth. What I was feeling, though, was that this cockeyed look of mine was crushing my dreams.

Mostly, I was mad at myself. No one in that room made me feel how I feel. These are just the feelings you have when you don’t recognize your face in the mirror. Truth is, when I’m home alone, I don’t feel lazy eyed. Don’t picture myself that way. Only when confronted with my appearance do I remember what I am to others. When the dysmorphia catches me off guard, I feel the joy and laughter drain out of me. Like a joke with a bad punchline. Like I’m the only one not in on the gag.

I woke up the next morning feeling like garbage and later vomited out the side of the car. From that moment onward, unsurprisingly, life got better. I already knew I was going ahead with surgery, but until then, I hadn’t realized how much I needed it.

A year ago, I sent my orthoptist photos of my eyes going straight after I became exhausted—a phenomenon that’s apparently not common among people with strabismus. She asked if she could use them for a presentation. It was only after I signed the release form that I asked what, specifically, the presentation was on.


Not the look I’m aiming for. I don’t believe my orthoptist meant to offend; I’ve known her most of my life. But perhaps appearing somewhat stunned, even when my eyes straighten out, is simply inescapable, and I’ll have to instead hope “concussed” is the next “in” look. Regardless, I wasn’t dissuaded from having the operation.

More recently, she told me my surgery may be scheduled earlier because I’m moving to Ottawa. I don’t remember much of my last surgery at age seven, except that my tears, according to my mom, were the colour of blush wine. Blood in my tears. How metal is that? I’m not going to lie: I’m shallow enough to be excited for the Instagram possibilities.

Then again, I think I’m tired of using my eye as a comedic crutch. Just like I’m tired of looking more like English comic actor Marty Feldman (who played Igor in Young Frankenstein) than Ryan Gosling. And maybe I’m just a little scared who and what I’ll be after the bloodstained tears dry.

No doubt, my look helped make me the class clown, the goof who makes you laugh, whether with me or at me. And, as Shakespeare observed, often it’s the fool who sees the most, sees the absurdity of it all. But is it foolish or absurd to want to be beautiful? To look more like Gosling than Igor?

When I first told my friends and family I wanted the operation, they were against it.

And those objections might say more about their need to classify or stereotype, even if their concerns come from a good place. It’s difficult for others to watch those they love change. Those around me know the Joe who jokes about his appearance. The funny guy with the wonky eye. The good-natured twentysomething trying to make you smile. I appreciate that those closest to me say they don’t even notice my eye most of the time. But just because they like spending time with me doesn’t stop me from feeling like I was rescued from the Island of Misfit Toys.

And, I mean, there’s no guarantee my eyes won’t start playing Pong again soon after the surgery. My previous three operations have caused scarring that only makes the outcome of this one less predictable. But that’s not the point. Even if the surgery does change what people see—the facade others will be stuck looking at, even if only temporarily—it’s ultimately for me.

The Beauty Conversation

Appearance shapes the way the world sees us. But what does it say about who we really are?

It’s not just about feeling confident enough to look someone in the eyes at a job interview or ask someone out on a date. It’s about wanting to be seen as I see me. My eye isn’t the window to my soul. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I fear no one can behold what I see. The Joe hidden beneath the waves. The Joe who sometimes feels like he’s drowning.

For me, beauty isn’t some passive quality flowers possess or even the seductive sister of vanity. Beauty is what connects the outside to the world within, the harmony found when the two match. The clarity that alignment brings. It’s something I assume many people take for granted. And I yearn for it, even if, when all’s said and done, I’m still perceived by the world as good old lazy-eye Joe.

Everyone wants you to love yourself. And I do think I love myself. I’m just not sure that self is the same person everyone else sees.

Joseph Tunney