What it’s like to finally see millions of colors.
What would you do if your perception of the world changed in an instant? How long would it take for you to accept a new normal? Would your brain acquiesce, or would a part of your mind yearn for the way things were? This isn’t a common crossroads, but this is where I found myself just a few months shy of my 36th birthday.
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In my hands were a pair of EnChroma glasses that would let me, a colorblind adult, see in full color for the first time. I had no clue what the world would look like after I put on the glasses. I didn’t know if the room would suddenly explode with color like an orchestra hitting a crescendo. I didn’t know if my brain would be overwhelmed by the rush of new (and very unfamiliar) colors. I didn’t know what to do in the days and weeks after. I couldn’t shake my nerves.
I first learned I was colorblind as a teenager, after my brothers and I took an Ishihara test at the eye doctor’s office. The exam revealed two things: I was red-green colorblind — and so were my siblings.
Color blindness is genetic; it’s carried recessively on the X-chromosome by women. That’s why my brothers are colorblind, but it is not a guarantee that my children will be. My mom isn’t colorblind, which means this “gift” came from her father, my grandfather, a man whose clothes only matched during his years in the Army. His color blindness was never confirmed, but we have our suspicions. We also have our jokes, as he worked as an optometrist.
What the World Looks Like When You’re Medically Colorblind
Red-green color blindness is the most common form of color blindness. To me, red looks greenish, and greens, yellows, oranges, reds, and browns all look similar, especially in low light. Red and black are a nightmare to tell apart, especially when red text is against a black background. My world is slightly duller and more muted than yours.
I’m well aware of the fact that partial color blindness is not the most debilitating condition. I could have it much worse. My color blindness does not keep me from living life to its fullest. It doesn’t make me a poor husband, father or co-worker… but it does pop up in nagging and surprising ways.
I’ve never been able to match clothes, ever. (My wife is a saint.) I can’t tell the traffic colors apart on Google Maps. (Is it green or yellow?!) Sometimes my childrens’ art looks like it was done in invisible ink. (Who draws with red marker on black paper?!) The indicator light on our kitchen water filter will never help me know if it needs to be replaced. Annoying, yes. Life-changing… not really.
Someone with regular color vision can see upwards of 1 million colors. Those with color blindness can only see about 2 to 10% of those colors. It sounds terribly dull — like a musical without the orchestra — but remember, before the glasses, I didn’t know what I was missing.
Then I put the glasses on. And I smiled, and laughed. And I teared up. Then I didn’t take the glasses off for days. It’s hard to fully explain what the transition was like, but here’s my best effort: suddenly seeing a full spectrum of color is like being madly in love with someone, but feeling unwilling to commit. Then suddenly you work up the courage to tell them how you feel, only to realize you can’t live without them.
As with all relationships, there were some bumps at the start. Seeing in color was a lot for me to take in. My brain would get tired processing all the new colors. And there were very noticeable twinges of sadness whenever I’d take the glasses off. I went nearly 36 years without seeing in full color, and I was mourning all that I’d missed.
I’ve now been wearing my colorblind glasses off and on for the past few months. The fear that existed before I put the glasses on, as well as the sadness that came after, has completely melted away.
I wear my glasses while reading and cooking, when I pick my children up from school, and while catching up on work email. I wear them on hikes, bike rides and car rides both long and short. I’ve worn them long enough to make peace with the world I once saw. I’m now comforted by the fact that I can toggle between two ways of seeing the world. (It’s like my very own superpower.) I have the world I’ve known for most of my life, along with this new one, which reveals itself to me like a page-a-day calendar for color.
Who knew moss could take on such deep and earthy shades of green? I never thought a rushing stream could look as clear as the daytime sky. And now I know why people comment on the colors of my family members’ eyes. My older son has my wife’s beacon-like green eyes, and my younger sons both have my bright blue eyes. But I didn’t know that until recently.
That’s why I’m so incredibly moved by viral videos of completely colorblind individuals seeing color for the first time. I know what the tip of the iceberg feels like, but for people like Jonathan Jones, they’re going through so much more. The transition from no color to color must be immense. Jones stopped by The Dr. Oz Show on June 19, 2020 to share his story of color blindness and how corrective glasses have changed his life. If you’d like to help Jonathan’s cause, visit his GoFundMe. Now that he has his glasses, he’s using his platform to raise money to purchase EnChroma glasses for people who can’t afford them.
Welcome to the world of full color, Jonathan. I’m now right there with you.