Anxiety at the DMV by
(194 Stories)

Prompted By The Eyes Have It

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My eyesight was worse than this photo when I took the DMV vision test with cataracts.

I consider myself fortunate that I had excellent vision for about the first 50 years of my life, except for being slightly farsighted. No glasses, contacts, correction, except for wearing sunglasses. In 1975, after a few months in graduate school reading 17th-century English texts on gray paper, I had a terrible case of eyestrain. My excellent ophthalmologist gave me some muscle exercises, which solved that problem. In my late 40s my farsightedness increased, and I began to use drugstore reading glasses.

As I drove home, I noticed all the lights blurred with huge halos, and, although I knew where I was, I couldn't read the freeway signs ...

All was well until at age 53 I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition that required prednisone, which accelerates the formation of cataracts. Within a couple of years I needed prescription reading glasses and computer glasses. My optometrist kept watching a small cataract in my left eye, but it remained small.

During the spring of 2013, when I turned 60, my partner Dick had a massive heart attack and had to stay in the hospital for 10 days. I did a lot of driving back and forth, and later I realized for those days I’d been driving in daylight. A couple of weeks after he left the hospital, Dick came down with pneumonia and I had to drive him back. He was readmitted, but we had to wait for a room for hours, and by the time he was situated and I could leave, it was 1 AM. As I drove home, I noticed all the lights blurred with huge halos, and, although I knew where I was, I couldn’t read the freeway signs but instead had to look for large landmarks for confirmation.

Distracted during Dick’s long recovery, it wasn’t until early the next spring that I went to the optometrist for a routine exam. In the middle of one of the tests, she stopped the moving boxes I was looking at and asked how many I saw. “Four,” I replied. “Hmm, there are only two. You have a huge cataract in your right eye. This cannot be corrected with glasses. You will need cataract surgery.”

A month went by before I saw my ophthalmologist and cataract surgeon, and we scheduled the surgery for the following month. A few days later I got my driver’s license renewal notice. No big deal, I normally renewed by mail. To my horror, I was required to come in person and take a vision test, and I had to do it before the surgery. Without the surgery, and without glasses to correct my vision, could I drive? I already tried not to drive at night. What if I couldn’t pass the test?

When I entered the DMV for my appointment, I took my assigned number and a good look at the boards of letters for the vision test behind each clerk. There were many people ahead of me, so I had time to experiment, walking near the boards, backing away. I attempted to memorize entire lines of what I could see, and I could see quite a lot. When I got to the clerk’s desk, he gave me a card to cover my right eye. I easily read the letters with my left eye. Then I had to cover my left eye. It was more difficult, but with my right eye I still could make out even the smaller letters. I breathed a big sigh.

After I finished the DMV business, my anxiety returned. I knew I wasn’t seeing that well, but if I passed the vision test, what about people with worse vision who passed and were driving around? That was a scary thought.

Shortly after, I had the cataract surgery on my right eye, which went fine. The haloing and blur disappeared. A few years later, the cataract in my left eye finally “bloomed” and I had surgery again in February 2020–luckily just a few weeks before the COVID shutdown. Because I chose lenses for far vision, I use reading and computer glasses, and due to some other issues, I use glasses for driving, but I am grateful for the amazing technologies that make cataract surgery so easy.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Night vision is a big problem as we age, I agree! I was convinced the haloing and glare was caused by cataracts, even though my doctor said my cataracts weren’t really that bad. I still had both eyes operated on several years ago, but didn’t really get the relief I sought. It turns out, my dry eye is the culprit, but I can’t stop and blink, blink, blink all the time. I try to limit my night driving.

    It’s great that you got a good result. Interesting how everything looks different at night, isn’t it?

  2. OH Boy! Not easy to read any of these stories. You made me sweat as you walked around, looking at those letters so you would be able to pass the vision test. I had very successful cataract surgery in 2017–so successful that I needed no correction and could see better than any time since I was 6 years old, and no longer carried reading glasses in my pocket (which I used to use over my contact lenses). But then was diagnosed recently with myopic degeneration. Maybe I’ll write about it. Oy.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Yet another cataract success story, Marian. Congratulations! But this week’s prompt is sure “harvesting” a flurry of these aging eye problem issue stories. How could this be happening when we are all so young?

  4. Your title was the hook, Marian. Been there, done that. I am in the glide path to cataract surgery and have been for several years, including the last time I had to renew my license. I was more than a bit concerned. However, in New York State, and probably elsewhere, if one has had an eye professional administer a test within six months prior to your renewal you can bring a certificate of those results. So I did. I presented it to the clerk who said, “you didn’t have to do this; why don’t you just read the third line down on the wall chart back there?” Gulp. Guess I did well enough.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    Glad you aced the test and your eyes are doing well now. It must have been harrowing caring for Dick, driving back and forth, and discovering your eyes weren’t working well enough see safely at night. You have had a lot of medical issues to deal with, and still hold things together. Kudos.

  6. Suzy says:

    Those halos on the lights at night made me really uncomfortable about night driving, but fortunately they went away after the cataract surgery and now I have no problem driving in the dark.

    By the way, the first time I went to the California DMV, in 1974, they wanted to see if I could pass the vision test without my glasses. So they had me take them off, and then look in the little machine (they didn’t have charts on the wall at that time). They said “read the letters” and I said “what letters?” because all I could see was the white background.

  7. So glad that all is well now Mare, and both cataract surgeries went smoothly. And yes indeed the innovations in medical technology have made life easier.

    And like John’s confession in his funny RetroFlash, it seems ‘you did a bit of DMV eye chart cheating – but no worries, your secret is safe with us!

  8. Laurie Levy says:

    Ditto, Marian. I still am filled with dread about going to the DMV this summer because I have mono-vision. Last time I was tested, she let me do something when looking in the machine so I could use both eyes together. What if I get a stricter clerk? Also, I have to take the road test and, although I am a safe driver, I feel very anxious about that. On the other hand, there are plenty of drivers out there who are pretty bad, and they passed.

    • Marian says:

      Laurie, I feel your pain. In California, as long as one eye passes, you pass the test (?!). Dick took the road test right before COVID and I was praying he’d fail (not just my opinion, his kids agreed that he was never a good driver). He passed, and then had a bad accident. Not great for confidence in the DMV.

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