Let’s Talk About “Pink-Eye”

“PINK-EYE”. Six months ago, the word elicited feelings of disgust, pity and judgement. When a friend or acquaintance mentioned that they were recovering from pink-eye, my face would unconsciously form into a disdained frown and my body would automatically recoil. People who got pink-eye always confused me. To me, people who obtained the disease were always categorized as the minority (or majority, but we won’t get into that) of individuals who didn’t wash their hands, who picked their nose, or who scratched their wedgies. I was a staunch supporter of this point of view until I, an avid hand washer myself, woke up one morning with the dreaded pink-meanies.

At first, I was in denial of my condition. I convinced myself the culprit of my eye irritation was anything but conjunctivitis. When friends, family and heaven forbid, strangers – which, by the way, not your place – asked if I was burdened with the pink-monster, I would sharply retort that I had slept in my contacts, or that I had scratched my cornea, or that I was just exhausted and having a rough day, okay? But as the days past and my red, swollen and tender eye persisted, I was forced to accept that perhaps I had somehow pissed off Fortune and as a consequence she had rewarded me with the public shame of pink-eye. Walking down the street, I could feel strangers’ judging eyes following me, accusing me of contaminating everyone by daring to venture out of isolation. I had become the rabble, one of the lepers I had cruelly judged.

As if accepting defeat, I dragged myself to my local drugstore. As I approached the pharmacist’s counter, I neglected to remove my sunglasses as I looked up from under my hood and mumbled that I needed an antidote for pink-eye, to which the pharmacist loudly replied that the remedy was sold over the counter and thus I would have to retrieve it and pay for it at the front till of the drugstore. Mortification began to sink in. A major factor in taking this step of acceptance was that I thought I would be dealing with a trained professional, one whose education made him impartial and people’s illness textbook. Furthermore, the embarrassment from picking up a prescription from the pharmacist is limited by the assumption that they have filled prescriptions more humiliating than my own. That thought was a security blanket for me. And with his instructions to pay at the till, he had ripped the security blanket from my grip.

I dragged my feet to correct aisle and scanned the rows of remedies. My eyes searched the numerous similar boxes, all promising to cure some ailment that I could not pronounce, until my eyes stopped upon a large and obnoxious hot pink box. As if its bright coloring was not enough, the box had stamped across it, in all capital letters: PINK EYE. I searched my memory for a time when I had wronged someone so cruelly to motivate Fortune to warrant this kind of retribution. Was this packaging necessary? Why didn’t the pink-eye box look like all the others? Wasn’t there a more discreet way of handling the situation so as to not disgust the cashier when I got to the till? He looked unimpressed as he gingerly handled the box, so as to not come into contact with my pink-devil germs. His accusatory look suggested he was thinking something along the lines of “Really, you couldn’t have had a friend come and pick this up for you? Now I’m probably going to get your nasty eye disease.”

As if being a ‘social leper’ hadn’t been enough, I had now become a ‘perceived friendless social leper’.

The eye drops worked and my pink-eye vanished, but my memories of the social stigma of having pink-eye remained. Those humiliating few days are accompanied with the shame I feel about my judgmental point of view that preceded them. Yes, I recognize that out of the thousands of diseases I could have been afflicted with pink-eye is perhaps the least serious. Yes, I realize that there are people who are really suffering with ailments that do not have a cure. Yes, I acknowledge that perhaps this piece can be viewed as an over-dramatized account. But my experience with pink-eye can be extended to the stigma that surrounds all illness, and can serve as a reminder that we should not be so quick to place judgement on situations we are not familiar with.

By Breanne Steinke