Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hello, Donald

I feared this might happen. Everyone around me has turned into a duck.

Let me explain. My brain, getting better and better at processing the input from the CI, has suddenly discovered something that wasn’t there before: high-pitched sounds! The hearing loss I was born with eliminated the higher sound frequencies from my world, meaning I was always inherently biased toward low-frequency sounds. These deeper noises in the environment were always clearest to me, because they stimulated the section of the cochlea where I had the most residual sensory cells. Hence the reason I always preferred men’s voices before the CI. Higher frequencies, on the other hand, fell on the section of the cochlea’s basilar membrane where I was almost completely deaf. The only way I could perceive any kind of high-pitched noise was through artificial means: the programming on my hearing aids altered the sound to fit within the lower-frequency window in which I could hear. Now, with the CI, I’m able to hear the pure tones from the high-frequency section of the cochlea, and those high-pitched sounds are roaring – or, more accurately, squeaking – through my head for the first time.

Which means that, right now, everyone sounds like Mickey Mouse. Or Donald Duck. (I can’t endorse this description, having never heard Donald Duck before and even since the CI, but it seems hysterically accurate.) My family, friends, coworkers, strangers on the street: all their voices are cartoonish, tinny, squeaky like they’re inhaling from helium tanks. I’ve discovered that my brain, obsessive single-minded creature that it is, dwells on novelties. The lower frequencies aren’t that new, so it fixates on the higher pitches in the sound spectrum – Wait, what’s that?

A person’s voice, I tell it. Can’t you be normal?

It ignores me and says, Quack!

My days with Donald started about a week and a half ago, but have become more prevalent since. I speak and hear myself squeak – quack, quack! My house is crawling with ducks. The anchorwomen on the local news are ducks – something I noticed coming out of my room this morning, long before I saw the television. Even big, burly men speak to me with tinny quacking voices, and I struggle to keep a straight face. Admittedly, the effect fades once I turn up the CI volume and my brain becomes too stunned by sound to care whether it’s high- or low-pitched (which seems to be a line I’m treading these days).

The good news about Donald is that he shows the surprising leaps I’m taking in sound discrimination. Single-word listening exercises, as long as the sounds aren’t too closely related, have accelerated to where they’re sometimes wonderfully easy. As in, little-concentration-required, laugh-out-loud easy. This is a relief, because during the first weeks with the CI I often found myself exhausted, frustrated, and anxiously wondering if this chaos would ever make sense. I’ve never had so many consecutive stressed-out days in my life.

But at the same time, I’ve never felt so stimulated, so curious about the workings of the world.

The best news thus far: after borrowing them from a friend, I’ve started listening to the Harry Potter books on CD. This is something that I never could have done with hearing aids, and something that marks a huge step up in my abilities with the CI. Finally, I'm hearing well enough to follow speech for a sustained period of time, and these audiobooks are a great opportunity to practice. Harry and I have a long history – like many others from my generation, I was a huge fan when I was younger – and even now he still has something to teach me. I’ve heard countless accolades for Jim Dale’s Grammy Award-winning reading, and now it was time to hear it for myself. And let this deaf girl tell you, it’s quite good. I find the different voices fascinating, though at the beginning they tended to throw me off. My personal favorites are Dumbledore and Ron; Hermione is still somewhat difficult, while I find Malfoy and the Dursleys a hoot. (Of course, they all tend to sound like ducks!) The first day or two of listening required the greatest adjustment, seeing as all I’d been doing was children’s books. My brain would get tired after two pages and lose its place. Now, though, I can listen to one or two chapters at a time, without expending the same intense attention and energy. Sometimes I read ahead of the narrator’s voice, close my eyes, and just listen to the rhythm and flow of the words.

And imagine that, three weeks ago, I started with electric jolts!

1 comment:

  1. Rachel -

    this is absolutely fascinating.

    (pilar smith is my internet name for reasons i can't explain)