My Life Not Knowing What Colors Look Like

By as told to

The only thing I know about my biological father is that he’s color-blind. My parents adopted me when I was two weeks old, and the only information I have about my origins, genetically speaking, is that he must be color-blind, and either my biological mother is too, or she’s a carrier for the recessive gene. I know this because I’m color-blind.

Specifically, I have deuteranomaly, or red-green color blindness. It was diagnosed in elementary school, and for a while it terrified me. I remember exactly what the room looked like; I was getting an annual eye exam (I’d worn glasses since about the third grade), and I guess they’d just started regularly screening for color blindness. They asked me to identify a number in a group of colored dots, and of course I couldn’t see any numbers at all. The lady giving the test turned and hollered to my mother, on the other side of the waiting room, “Did you know she’s color-blind?”

My mom was shocked, and not in a good way, and I thought, “Blind? Did she just say the word blind?”

A lot of things don’t have meaning until there’s some basis of comparison. When you’re a kid, your world is just your world, and you don’t know it’s different from anyone else’s until that’s pointed out to you. When I was a kid, people pointed to red and called it red, so I called it red; but what I was seeing wasn’t the red they saw at all. It took me a long time to understand what it meant to be color-blind. All I knew then was it felt like a dark shadow following me around, and I just wanted it to go away.

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Color blindness affects 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women. There are a few types of color vision deficiencies, but red-green color blindness is the most common type. It’s an inherited condition. To understand it, it may help to explain how our eyes process color in the first place.

No matter who’s doing the seeing, color is not really color.
It’s our brain’s interpretation of what we’re looking at. Every color has its own wavelength of light it reflects. There are more than 6 million photoreceptors in our eyes, and their one and only job is to send a signal to the brain when they pick up on their assigned wavelength. If you have normal color vision, your photoreceptors can tell your brain, “I’m seeing blue and not green,” or “red and not green.” Mine can’t. My photoreceptors that are responsible for those overlapping wavelengths don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They’re like, “am I seeing blue? Green? I’ll just guess and send it to Brooke.”

When I was younger, I hated when kids would tear the paper wrappers off of crayons, because I could not tell what color they were without reading it off the wrapper. In a normal box of eight colors, I can tell which one’s yellow, and that’s it. Once you get into the big box with all the shades in between, I don’t know what I’m looking at.

You learn to adjust. It’s really amazing the ways the brain can adapt. If you put two colors side by side, I know they’re different — I just don’t know what the difference is, if one is more red or brown or green.
Over time, I’ve developed methods for figuring out what I’m looking at. I can’t just look at something and tell you what color it is, but at this point I’ve got a lot of different shades memorized in this mental Rolodex. Sometimes I can take the thing and hold it up against something white, which gets rid of all the visual noise around it, and flip through the memory bank to figure it out.

I can identify the primary colors — basic yellow, red, and blue — pretty well, so sometimes I can use those for comparison. Let’s say I’m trying to figure out if something is more purple or blue; I’ll find something true blue, hold them both up in front of something white, and say, “Okay, how does this compare?”

People get confused when I try to explain the way I see different colors. How do you explain what purple or red look like without referencing color? Just try it. Try to describe one color without using another. It’s really, really hard. But I see things in color that people with normal color vision don’t. To me, colors have different depths and finishes, the same way a lipstick shade can come in gloss or matte. True yellow is a gloss, but goldenrod is a matte. Marigold is matte, but it’s darker than goldenrod. Yellows and blues are the colors I can see most clearly. I can tell blue from purple, even though they look like the same color, because blue is bright, and purple is dull.

There are a lot of colors I don’t like at all. I have light blonde hair and blue eyes, so on paper red is supposed to look good on me, but I’ve always hated wearing it. I just think there are so many other, better colors, most of them blue.

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Aside from the whole crayon wrapper thing, color blindness didn’t start to really impact my daily life until high school. That’s when you start going shopping with friends, makeup becomes important, your mom isn’t dressing you anymore and you need to wear clothes that match. It wasn’t until I started making mistakes with that stuff that I realized this is kind of a big deal.

We moved when I was a junior in high school. Here I am, 16 years old, at a brand new school, and I just want what every other 16-year-old wants: to fit in. I was leaving English class when this boy Thomas came up to me and said, “I think your eyes are bleeding.” I thought it was a prank, or a weird joke, and I just kind of laughed and shrugged it off.

When I got home later the makeup I’d put on that morning was still out on the dresser. My red lip liner and my brown eyeliner were both Clinique brand, and I’d mixed them up. Thomas thought my eyes were bleeding because I’d been wearing bright red lip liner on my eyes all day. I was mortified, and I never wanted to make that mistake again. To this day, I make sure my lip and eyeliner are always different brands.

That’s just one little adjustment, but I make a lot of them.
When it comes to clothes, I just have to keep it very simple. In high school, I remember my friends mixing and matching colors and patterns and I couldn’t do that. To this day, my look is pretty monochromatic, what people would call preppy or classic American, because it leaves very little room for error, and eliminates as much chance as possible for me to embarrass myself again.

I’m a financial adviser with Edward Jones in Wilmington, North Carolina. (By the way, being color blind in the financial world stinks; everything is a color-coded pie chart, or Excel sheet, or line graph.) I have to look put-together for work, but there have been times I’ve shown up in a black skirt with brown or navy shoes. There was a time when if I found a pair of shoes I loved, I’d stupidly buy them in every color, so I’ve gone to work with one brown shoe and one navy blue shoe on. Now, my rule for work clothes is I only wear stuff that goes with black.

Shopping is always an interesting experience. I think it should be a requirement that everything have a label that says what color it is. You can even give them cute names. Call it midnight! I know it means blue.
Or blush! I know that’s pink. But there should be some indication. You don’t know how many times I’ve had to ask a stranger what color something is. When was the last time another adult approached you in a store and said, “Excuse me, which one of these is brown?”

I do a lot of crafting and I’m very artistic — that’s ironic, I know — so I do this with clothes, and paint colors, and ribbon, and thread. I’ve done it so many thousands of times it doesn’t even feel weird for me anymore. It’s like I’m on autopilot. “Hi, my name is Brooke. I have color vision deficiency. Could you tell me which one of these is bright red?” At the beginning you can see in their face they’re thinking, what is this person about to do? Is this some kind of Candid Camera thing? I explain that I’m serious, that I really can’t tell what color something is, and then their face softens and they smile and want to help.

***

As an adult, I started asking every eye doctor I saw if there was anything that could be done. The nurses test me for color blindness every time I go: They run through the same quick test, the dots with the number; I say no, I can’t see a number; they say, do you know you’re red-green color blind? I say yes, and that’s it. I always wanted further discussion, but it always ended with me asking, “Is there anything that can be done about it?” and the doctor shrugging and saying, “No.”

This is not a condition that’s going to make me go blind. It’s not the same as glaucoma. It’s not a brain tumor. I get that it’s not on the same scale, but it’s something that affects my everyday life. Sometimes in small ways, other times in really, really big ways. But for the medical professionals, it’s barely a blip on the radar.

It bothers me that even eye doctors have never tried to have a conversation about it without me prompting. The only way I can make sense of that is they think, “there’s nothing we can do about it anyway, so why waste the time?” And I can’t fault anyone for that. It doesn’t seem like it’s that big a deal. But you can find simulator apps that take an image and adjust it, so you can essentially see it through my eyes — and let me tell you, [if] they realized the way their patients see the world, and the things that are missing, they’d be just as passionate about understanding as I am.

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A few weeks before Christmas, my boyfriend Tiger gave me a present. I’d read about Enchroma glasses, which filter out specific color wavelengths and let people like me see with normal color vision. I’d asked eye doctors about the glasses, and they’d told me to save my money.

They were so wrong.

Tiger recorded a video of me trying the glasses on for the first time. Later, we posted the video on Facebook and it got thousands of views. Tiger had books for me to look at, and pictures of flowers. I started to get emotional. Then he handed me a photo of my son, Noah, and I couldn’t stop sobbing. I thought he was beautiful before, but for the first time I could see all the colors in his hair, and all his freckles, even the light ones. I thought I knew how blue his eyes were, but they’re so much brighter, and bluer.

We went for a drive around town. I’ve lived in Wilmington for ten years, and I’ve seen everything in this city a thousand times, but every other second I was gasping. Have you ever passed the same store day after day and thought, “They really need to replace that sun-bleached sign,” then they do, and it’s the same logo, same colors, except it’s new? That’s how the whole world looked — like the entire city of Wilmington was brand new. I didn’t know red was so bright. Stop signs, and fire hydrants! The first time I saw a fire truck I’m surprised I didn’t pee myself. And real yellow is so saturated. Road signs are like neon.

The first time I walked into my closet with the Enchroma glasses on it was like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or the Wizard of Oz. My closet looked enchanted. There’s so much purple, and I thought it was all navy blue. And purple is so bright! I had no idea I wore colors that were that bright. I actually felt a little self-conscious. I don’t want to be invisible, but I’m not the sort of person who wants to stand out because of my outfit. I brought some of the things down to Tiger and I was like, “Is this as bright as I think? Are people looking at me thinking, ‘Why the hell is she wearing that color?’” Apparently the answer is no, because everyone’s purple looks like that.

Nearly every single day I’ll look at something with my glasses on and I truly don’t know what color it is, because I’ve never even seen that color before. And It took me two or three days with the glasses to realize that my world without the glasses on is much more one-dimensional. I kept thinking, “This color looks the same, but something is still different,” and then I realized that even when I see a color accurately, I miss the shade and tone of the things around it — the highlights and shadows that create dimension and give life to things. That’s what got to me the most. It wasn’t discovering that green to me looks tan. What felt like a strike to my heart was realizing that, by comparison, my world is very flat.

I don’t wear the Enchroma glasses all day, every day. It’s still a little overwhelming. The colors and the vibrancy and the light surrounding me when I’m wearing them is almost too much because it’s such a drastic difference. It’s not comfortable to be that over-stimulated all the time. And I wouldn’t want to permanently correct my color vision. As an adult, I can appreciate it, because I know my perception of the world is different, and there’s value in that. I have a totally different relationship with color than other people do. I think you see more color than I do, but I see more in color. And there’s so many ways that I like your relationship with color better. But I don’t like it enough to want to give up mine.

My Life Not Knowing What Colors Look Like