New York’s Ubiquitous Glowing Screens Are Making My Life Unlivable

That’s a problem. Photo: JANIFEST/Getty Images/iStockphoto

On the subway to see my neurologist at NYU Langone, I count Reeboks and Docs. Shoes bore me, but I study them because I can’t look at the digital route maps, the big glowing ads, or the phones in people’s hands. When I get to the hospital, I try to press the digital buttons outside the elevator without looking. In the waiting room, I check in on an iPad (which makes my skull feel compressed), then try to find a chair that isn’t facing a TV. If I’m unable to find one, I stand next to the TV, like a surly office fern. Around every corner lurks a blue-light-blasting panel — and to me, each one is a threat.

I have a traumatic brain injury because someone hit me with a car. On a morning run, westbound on Dean Street in Crown Heights having nearly crossed Classon Avenue, I heard my head crash first on the hood and then on the ground. For about a year after, the world seemed untenably noisy, text appeared to swim on the page, and speaking felt like pushing tapioca through a sieve. Now, two and a half years out, I still wear ear protection and read documents in 16-point type, but of my residual symptoms, light sensitivity and migraines are the most disruptive because together they function like a kind of digital allergy. My chronic migraine flares within seconds when I look at screens, which, in New York City, are increasingly impossible to avoid.

Behind the front desk at my gym, an expansive TV plays rock-climbing videos. Each time I scan my tag, I feel like someone is jamming safety scissors into my left eyebrow. Every treadmill has a built-in TV. I climb aboard, cover the control board with my sweatshirt, then run staring at my sweatshirt to avoid hazards in my periphery. I’ve stopped going (which, given the risk of Omicron, is perhaps for the best).

I quit working as a teaching artist in part because so many public-school classrooms have Smart Boards. I love dining outdoors — I no longer need to parenthesize my hands at my temples to shield my eyes from the TVs ubiquitous in restaurants. In cabs, I keep my eyes closed, not wanting days of pain from the onboard entertainment playing loops of The View. I am vigilant about fending off pet emergencies since screens are such a dominant interior feature at VERG. I don’t fear the world exactly, but I do decide where to go (and, often, if to go) based on the concentration of LEDs and OLEDS. If, God forbid, I have to visit Times Square, I practically sprint from the train to my destination.

I write plays, so I see theater. In Off Broadway lobbies, I nod at colleagues’ small talk while silently working to position my body so I’m turned away from the TVs playing interviews with writers opining on theater’s place in our apocalyptic times. I generally try not to take my seat too early — the sea of preshow phones can provoke substantial quease.

When my efforts to elude the cacophony fail, my forehead tightens. The tightening becomes sharp, pulsating pain above each eyebrow. If I keep using my eyes, the pain intensifies and spreads. All text blurs, all light becomes too bright, all sound becomes too loud. My speech slows and muddles. The flare can last days.

More and more, I see screens taking over public space. The new Moynihan Train Hall terrorizes me. I wonder whether we truly need the tampon dispensers in public restrooms to play videos. I find many delis no longer inhabitable, museums no longer oases. I dread the near future, when paper menus become obsolete, and when, as is already true at JFK’s eateries, iPads replace servers. In this physiologically specific way, I worry about being pushed out.

Strangers’ phone screens have become more efficient at searing my forehead with each passing year. The newer models of the iPhone, starting with the iPhone X, all have OLED screens, which cause me a day of pain in an instant. The older LCDs are backlit with LEDs; their less intense light grants me a few more seconds lag time, and the pain they do cause me more readily dissolves. The mechanism by which any type of light causes headaches isn’t well understood. Self-appointed experts on Reddit attribute the hostility of OLED screens to their flicker, but study of that is only beginning.

There are emerging technologies that make my life easier. I write on an e-ink monitor — a Kindle-like screen, which I prop up with an adjustable book rest and supplement with a Bluetooth keyboard. I use f.lux, free software that makes my Mac screen orange. I never let my brightness drift above three bars. For reasons not entirely understood by science, this combination of low brightness and warm color makes my own computer more or less “safe”. When I can swallow my vanity, I wear red FL-41 lenses, which, while not a cure-all, do make the subway less of a migraine minefield.

In 2018, the FDA started approving CGRP receptor antagonists, the first class of preventative medications created to specifically target migraine. I recently began injecting Aimovig, a drug in this class, and now, if I take my three other headache medications, and if I successfully evade the world’s digital fixtures, I only get a life-halting migraine about once a week, instead of every day. I have received this change with a kind of bodily euphoria. I feel wild pleasure when I do ordinary things — frying gnocchi, kissing strangers, feeding the cat — without simultaneously managing pain.

I often wonder how many other people experience screen-dense public spaces as pain-kindling hellscapes. How many people would need to for screen ubiquity to be widely considered an accessibility issue? If there is a meaningful “we”, how can we, the digitally impaired, the screen-intolerant — who knows what to call us? — consistently speak out when the platforms from which to speak are overwhelmingly online? How can we find each other? If we do find each other, where in the city can we gather that won’t hurt?

Until I figure out better answers to these questions, I’ll be hiding out in my dimly lit apartment, tapping away at my e-ink monitor, dutifully taking my three migraine preventatives, trying not to give myself an ulcer with Aleve.

NYC’s Ubiquitous Screens Are Making My Life Unlivable