Eye Exam Anxiety: Why This High-Stakes Test Feels Like a Midlife SAT

eye exam chartWhen I took the SAT back in the 1980s, I prepped for weeks, felt like a bundle of nerves on test day and sweated the results afterward, knowing these scores would determine my future.

Thanks to the SAT, all my intellectual insecurities bubbled to the surface. Would I get in my first-choice college? Would I win any scholarships? Would I be destined to a life of minimum wage jobs because I bombed the math section?

I dreaded every moment of it.

Now, a few decades later, I’m feeling the same test anxiety. Why? Because it’s time for my visit to the optometrist.

Having needed glasses since I was 10, I’ve watched my eyesight steadily decline. By my 20s, I had switched to contacts but wore a stronger prescription than my 70-year-old grandmother with cataracts. (Truth.)

Thanks to my annual eye exam, all my aging insecurities bubbled to the surface. Would I need reading glasses in addition to my contact lenses? Would I need multifocal lenses? Did my astigmatism get any worse? Is macular degeneration setting in?

I dreaded every moment of it.

At 51, I looked at my eye exam as the midlife SAT—the high-stakes test that will determine the need for stronger prescriptions, special eye drops, and potential surgeries. It’s an annual rite of passage (of time), making me very aware that I’m getting older. I can almost see Father Time hovering nearby, clutching his death scythe in one hand and an hourglass in the other.

In light of my poor vision, I feared the arrival of my “annual exam notice” in the mail. I felt like it taunted me with its ageist wording. It brazenly stated:

Dear Lisa, it’s time for your annual eye exam with Dr. Goodsight. Please call our office today to schedule your appointment.

But, I could easily read between the lines. It really meant:

Dear Lisa, since your days as a four-eyed fourth grader, your eyesight has worsened every year. You might want to learn Braille now and get paired with a good Guide Dog to help you maneuver through Target. Please stop avoiding the inevitable—don’t make us hunt you down. Schedule your appointment today.

At least that’s how I took it.

With dread, I scheduled my appointment and started prepping for exam day.

  • I practiced reading street signs from afar, decoding restaurant menus in dim lighting and deciphering micro-directions on a bottle of Nyquil.
  • I got a good night’s sleep the night before the exam.
  • I ate a good breakfast the day of the exam.

I was prepped but panicked, wondering if I could still conquer an eye chart at 51.

Exam day arrived.

Nervously, I waited for my turn. An assistant led me to the preliminary exam room, where she tested my current prescription.

“Try not to blink,” she instructed as I propped my chin up, pressed in my forehead and gazed into the center of the machine trying to focus on a spiral-like design. My eyes watered as I tried to remain blink-less, causing me to lose focus and making me anxious about failing.

Next, she tested my peripheral vision, where I had to focus on a black dot in the center of a big circle. She gave me a Jeopardy-like clicker to click every time I saw a dot light up around the circle’s perimeter. With lights flashing left and right, reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s psychedelic boat ride, I panicked when I didn’t click fast enough, making me anxious about failing again.

With trepidation, I headed back to the anxiety exam room and took out my contacts. After a few questions, the doctor switched off the light and told me to focus on the eye chart on the wall.

“Read the line that you can see most clearly,” she instructed.

Oh, crap. A line? Without my contacts, I couldn’t even read a letter. I just saw a rectangular-ish white light with blurry black things in the middle. My stomach felt queasy, just like on SAT day.

Next, she positioned my head into another machine and dialed in my prescription.

“Which one is better…one? Or two?,” she asked, “One? Two?”  As I hesitated, she repeated, “One? Or two?”


With my prescription dialed in, I got another crack at the eye chart. This time, I felt like I was hokey-pokey-ing my way through my eye exam, as I covered my right eye, then my left eye. Right eye. Left eye. I put my whole self in, I put my whole self out.

And then the moment of reckoning arrived.

Unlike the SAT, I didn’t have to wait nervously for weeks to get my test results. With the exam over, my doctor said the words I longed to hear since I was 10: “Your eyesight actually improved since last year.”

What’s this now?

Not only did I pass my eye exam, but my test scores improved since last year. This has NEVER happened to me. I’d like to think my test prep played a big role, but actually, my doctor said it’s a phenomenon that happens sometimes in middle age. But I’ll take it. At this stage of my life, it feels like I just aced the midlife SAT (Seeing Acuity Test).

6 thoughts on “Eye Exam Anxiety: Why This High-Stakes Test Feels Like a Midlife SAT

  1. Cheryl Maguire

    This is hilarious and unfortunately I can related to all of it except the ending (maybe one day my vision will improve!). I’m so nervous of needing reading glasses too.

  2. Haralee

    I feel your anxiety. I would rather get a root canal than go for my eye exam. That test they do where they flip back your eyelid just gives me the heebbie jeebbies just typing it!. Hey at 52 and you can still wear contacts and no readers and your eyes are improving, You are golden!

    1. Lisa Beach Post author

      Oh, I definitely need reading glasses sometimes, Haralee. And I’m constantly increasing the zoom on my computer monitor and cell phone so I can see the screen better.


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