A boy with a shaggy head of brown hair sat at his desk. Crayons were strewn about, and he examined the black and white picture in front of him. A house sat upon a wave-battered crag, and gulls drifted motionlessly in the sky. He picked through the crayons, and found what he was hunting for. That deep tone that looked cold and calm like an icy glass of water. With little care for shading or consistency, he filled the sea and sky with rich lines of blue. As he scribbled, a classmate looked over his shoulder and asked,
“Why are you colouring the water purple?”
He stopped, looked at his classmate, back to his picture, and then back at them. “It’s blue.”
“No, that’s purple.”
He turned the stubby crayon over and read the label: Purple. He dug through the box and pulled out what seemed like a lighter shade of blue.
He took both, and coloured side by side. There was almost no difference; the purple was just slightly darker.
In that moment, he realized that he saw things differently.
Colourblindness is a gene found only on the “X” chromosome, and it skips generations. It most commonly manifests in males, since females possess two “X” chromosomes. This makes it harder for females to be colourblind since both chromosomes need the gene. The gene passes from mother to son, who will then pass it to their daughter, and the cycle continues. My grandfather on my mother’s side was colourblind. My mother has six siblings, five of whom are male. Since my aunt only has daughters, I’m the only case of colourblindness in this generation. The condition, due to its varying severity, can go unnoticed for a lifetime. However, I find that once you’ve noticed, it is impossible to stop noticing.
Discovering that I was colourblind was an odd experience. None of the other kids in school were colouring oceans purple; I was special. My sight was only a detriment, but it felt like something to brag about. The superpower of not knowing the difference between blue and purple.
Young and already thrilled by the idea of being unique, I soon found out that I didn’t enjoy the self-imposed spotlight. Once you tell someone you’re colourblind, the next words out of their mouth will be:
“What colour is this/that?” as they point to some random object.
When I was young, I would say what I actually thought the colour was, and this would garner two different reactions. If it was green, but I saw it as yellow, they would laugh and remark on my unusual sight.
If I actually got the colour correct, then they would look at me quizzically as if I was lying. Some colours I can see fairly accurately. I have also learned which colours I often mix up. Once I explain this, the follow-up question is always,
“What colour do you see it as?”
Contrary to popular belief, I do not have a catalogue in my head of what colours actually look like. When I identify one, I’m not considering how I see the colour, as I have no reference point. I know what other people call it: The sky is blue, green is go, stop is red, and so on. But I have no words for how I perceive colour. It’s the same as giving someone a colour never before seen, and asking them to name it. Most likely, the response won’t make sense to either party.
These days, if people ask me what a colour is, while I might know what it looks like to them, I will usually respond with “neon purple.” I can’t see purple for the life of me.
Growing up colourblind is not all that different from choosing what hand you use to write. You get used to one way, and stick to it. It’s something you adjust to. By the time I reached high school, it was a part of who I was, and not a superpower. Living with colourblindness is no different than having regular colour vision. My friends became as bored of my condition as I was.
For any Canadian with maple syrup flowing through their veins, street hockey is a year-round tradition. My friends and I played a game in the middle of winter, and a giant mound of snow gathered by the plows sat in the middle of the street. My friend’s stick slashed high, and caught me in the eye. It hurt. I couldn’t see, and there was a temporary fear that I may never see from that eye again. My vision came back in time, but a gash remained. My father told me I should see the optometrist, and I did.
The doctor performed the standard vision tests, which include testing for colourblindness.
I sat in the waiting room with my father, waiting for the results. The doctor came out wearing the most serious look, as though they were about to drop the world on me.
“Stephen,” they said.
“Your eyesight is fine, but I’m afraid you are colourblind.”
“Yeah, I know.”
There’s a moment of doubt that I imagine most colourblind individuals experience. This moment is less of a sudden flash, and more of a lingering doubt that creeps into every thought, and fosters a haunting suspicion. What if I’m not really colourblind?
There were times when I’d sit and stare at a pile of pencil crayons. I’d pick one up, turn it over, and guess the colour. The label proved me right. I did this again, and again, and again. Right every time.
I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just been really stupid as a kid: maybe developmentally stunted in colour recognition. What if my condition was just block-headness?
One time, someone asked me what colour a certain object was. I knew the actual colour was green; looked pretty green too.
“Red,” I said.
They laughed, and told me it was so cool.
It didn’t feel good. Somehow, being colourblind felt like my only defining feature.
Another thought came to me. What if colourblind individuals see the world as it’s meant to be? Perhaps people with normal vision are just delusional, and pass off their insanity as fact. This was a weak theory at best.
Twenty years of colourblindness. Like most oddities, physical or otherwise, you learn to live with it. I get colours wrong on a daily basis, but it’s all so inconsequential, I may as well see neon purple everywhere.
Most of the people in my life—family, friends, and co-workers—are aware of my minor condition, and have already exhausted any interest my eyes may have held.
Then I heard about a company called Enchroma. The company says they give colour to the colourblind, and a short test determined there was a 75 percent chance I could see colour with their glasses. After much deliberation, unsure if regular colour was worth the steep price, I placed an order.
After weeks that crawled by, the glasses arrived. I had to wait until we gathered the entire family before I put them on for the first time. I never imagined I would be that excited to see colour, but the box stared me down until the day finally came: my father’s birthday.
It was mid May, and the trees had started to bloom along with a rising anxiety in my chest. I had read up more on my condition, and from my understanding, the world would appear richer.
I closed my eyes, put on the glasses, and opened up to a world hidden in plain-sight. I didn’t understand at first. Nothing seemed shockingly different. Leaves were green, and the sky was blue, but I developed a new understanding of vibrancy.
“So, what do you see?”
“I don’t know… It’s weird.” We took a walk around the neighbourhood, and I was finally aware of what certain colours actually were. Deep reds were no longer off-browns, bright yellow wasn’t interchangeable with green, and purple was not blue.
Today, I don’t wear the glasses all the time. I figure I’m sort of a dimension-travelling individual who is lucky enough to see the world in two unique perspectives. On a bright, cloudless day, I’ll wear the glasses outside, and drink in the richness of the world. On darker days, or while indoors, I remain colourblind. It is the life I know, and the one where I belong.
Steve is a second-year student of Algonquin College’s Professional Writing program. He spends most of his days dwelling in the depths of a restaurant’s kitchen. When not slaving over a hot stove, Steve can be found hunched over a keyboard, pounding out a review of Germany’s latest post-ambient, country sludge metal band. His incoherent ramblings are graciously hosted on Metalblast(dot)net.