Friday, January 28, 2011

You Know It's Loud When...

The place where I live in college is big on parties. Almost every night the sounds of music, commotion, and people talking rushes through my wall into my room. I cannot escape (or, rather, refuse to escape), but it's a good exercise in filtering out irrelevant noise.

But last night - someone's twenty-second birthday. The house is packed and rather drunken. I've had a long week and am off to bed. I walk down the hall, past hordes of people squished together, sloshing their ubiquitous red solo cups. I am about to wash my face in the bathroom and have taken off both my hearing aid and CI. I float in silence. In that state of total deafness, I sink into my usual detachment and amused objectivity. That voice in my mind speaks up wryly; I wonder if any of these people realize how strange they appear from the outside, with the sound turned off, mouths gaping and faces contorted into improbable expressions. I want to laugh, even as I find it slightly grotesque. The uniqueness of my version of reality accompanies me as I weave through the crowd, not caring for any of it now that I cannot hear.

But I can hear, that's what disturbs me most: the music is so loud. It's thundering through my body, the beat sharply defined and harsh. And, in my right ear, in my non-CI ear that still has some residual hearing left, I can hear faint, far-away thrums. They slam into my head like popping, shocking my brain with their brute physical force. (Not so in the left ear, which remains eerily silent, so different from when magnet fastens onto skull - wow, I have become completely dependent on that apparatus.) A group beside me shouts, the song changes. And I hear it. If it's that penetrating and noisy, that even my deafness cannot shut it out, how can it be possible that the people around me are not going deaf themselves?

Except I know they must be. This is too much noise for it to be otherwise. I am reminded of a conversation I had with my auditory therapist earlier this week: just wait a few years. Soon more and more of them will be struggling to hear, to keep up, to understand, and I'll find myself better equipped to cope with hearing loss than any of them. Now, that's ironic.

And, yes, the silence as an escape is nice, but embracing it for the sake of 120 decibels of a pop song? Not worth it. I keep feeling troubled by what hearing people do to themselves. Breathe. Turn the volume down, for your own sake.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Today I popped on my CI and drove out for my first session with an auditory therapist since September. I'd been into her office once or twice over the summer when I flew out for remappings, but due to being gone for so long I hadn't been on any kind of directed program. Go out into the world and figure out the sounds in it! That was my task.

And, in many ways, it will continue to be my task for a while yet. CI rehab, if nothing else, is very individually motivated. I was pleased to find today that I've achieved a slew of milestones since July and September - things that were hard or impossible for me then are easy now. (Or, if not easy, then possible. That's still encouraging!) I could identify all of the major speech sounds, something which brought back memories of sitting in my house in July getting frustrated over "ah" and "oo" and wondering if this contraption would ever make sense. Ah, YES. Sentence and word identification, provided that I had a closed set, also turned out to be a relative breeze, even without a leading phrase for minimal-pair words. Open sets are still a struggle, not unexpectedly so, but I'm picking out bits and sounds throughout the sentences I'm given. (This is something I've noticed in everyday use, while sitting where I cannot lipread a person - I can catch the common words like "and," "but," "or," "I mean," "you know." Of course, this doesn't help very much with the sentence at large. But it's something!)

We also discussed brain and listening development up to this point and in the future, talked about the interaction between hearing aid and CI (which continues to evolve), thought about issues in quiet versus noise (still one of my biggest challenges), plus came up with some strategies for dealing with everyday situations and continuing my everyday listening practice. Every day that I wear the CI is practice! I need to remember that; all along I've been hard on myself for not doing enough structured listening. But my brain does pick up on meanings and nuances on its own, I still don't know how. One example: I was told today, and have been told by countless people at other times, that my speech has really noticeably improved since the CI. It's not that I spoke poorly before, just that my enunciation has smoothened out, become more regular, and my clarity and volume is the best it's been. Now, this is nice to hear, but it's not something that's happened consciously. I don't think more about my speech now than I did seven months ago. It's just my brain automatically and subconsciously correcting old habits to correspond with how I hear other people talk. How wild is that?

Finally, one of my big takeaway points is that, moving forward, building self-confidence will be key. Once I believe that I can do something, once I relax and smile and take it in stride, then listening comes easier and easier. This entire process of disproving my two-decade-old convictions is quite strange... But how wonderful to have a day where everything falls into perspective!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Success, Undermined

One thing that frequently bothers me is the uniqueness of my position, not only with receiving a CI at my age in my circumstances, but in doing the things that I do, as a deaf person.

I applied for a job earlier this month, and got a prompt email response praising my resume as well-qualified, with the inevitable line, "Please give me a call at xxx number so we can discuss this further." Oh, jeez. This again. Obviously I hadn't mentioned the whole deaf thing from the start; it was completely irrelevant. But obviously it had to come out now. So, taking a deep breath and feeling vaguely abashed (as I always do in such situations), I fired off a reply explaining that phone calls weren't an option for me, could we meet in person or email, et cetera. The answer I got: "How wonderful that you have gone this far in spite of being deaf." Uhhh. Yeah. Gah. And then a few evasive lines about being uncertain of whether I could manage the job because of my phone incompatability and challenges in receiving verbal feedback. Well, so much for that.

This is just one recent instance (and a pretty mild example, at that) of several things that I keep running up against. The necessity of labeling myself as deaf - which I am, yes, on one hand - even while I feel like I've morphed into some strange organism with head jumbled full of noise. Deaf, but not entirely. And not hearing either. The question of what I will be able to accomplish or do at any time in the future, and the uncertainty that accompanies such a state of flux. The assumptions that hearing people make, that everyone has the same mainstream abilities. The way I myself make these assumptions, that other people can see or run or jump or be athletic or learn quickly or eat an unhindered diet. (This bothers me. I hate assumptions, and hate that I should make them. But, in the end, aren't they necessary for collective groups to function?) Finally, the resentment that a deaf individual with my level of proficiency (in academic accomplishment, in verbal skills, in whatever) should be considered "exceptional." The perception that deafness is some sort of terrible barrier against high achievement.

Don't get me wrong, deafness can be a terrible barrier. No one knows that better than I do. But what most frequently makes it terrible, in essence, isn't the competence of the deaf individual in question - it's simply that the way the mainstream world works is incompatible with what that individual needs to thrive. Language. Accessibility. Early intervention. Visual media. Understanding. A social and therapeutic safety net. That this ideal environment doesn't exist isn't anyone's fault, not entirely. It's a problem that I don't quite know the answer to, but it bothers me constantly. Deaf people (contrary to the old moniker) aren't dumb. But I look around and don't see any of them at Stanford. I doubt there are very many at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, either. I see very few of them in high-functioning, mainstream professions. I literally never see cochlear implants when I'm out and about. I think I'd just about do backflips if I ever glimpsed one. Growing up, I never had a deaf role model - my world was full of hearing people, and I wasn't sure what to do with myself. Many of the deaf peers that I had while growing up currently struggle in school, or hate it, or gape that I can achieve grades and acknowledgements and milestones on par with my hearing peers. In such a world, it's easy for me to forget that other accomplished deaf individuals exist.

This could be cause for me to celebrate and feel smug, but it isn't. I am reminded of how much I want a world where it's simply ordinary for deaf individuals to succeed to a high standard. It's not just that I don't want to be singled out. It's that there is no real cognitive, biological reason why more people with hearing losses shouldn't have the opportunities and experiences that I have had. (Social, political, psychological, and individual trends come into effect instead - now those are the snarky ones.) Why me? Why should I have this, if others don't?

This isn't a post intended to lay out areas in which the framework of deaf life in America could improve - clearly there are many - but, rather, a bit of a meditative outburst. These outbursts happen to me every once in a while, and I think the current one is worthy food for thought. This year I'd like to grapple with such questions a bit more head-on, as well as reach out and find other deaf individuals who have succeeded in their areas of interest, and how, and why. Yeah, deafness can be a big deal - but at the same time it isn't. With the right kind of environment, it really isn't.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

To the Mattresses

As I think was apparent in my last post, this is where the real work begins - or continues! My time after returning from a quarter abroad was largely a time for me to regroup, to literally and figuratively catch my breath, and I did little structured listening outside of a few covered-mouth conversations. Leading up to my remapping two weeks ago (which, in a nutshell, readjusted the electrode input and gave me a new program with a noise-reduction filter, which has been amazing for loud/distracting/overwhelming places like restaurants - I find that I can make out individual voices from among the hubbub!), I was content to let things glide along for a bit.

But now that I've returned to the structure of classes and the college lifestyle, I'm a bit more motivated to pick up the listening-exercises pace again. This is especially true after jumping back into an environment in which I'm surrounded by hearing people who: 1) unthinkingly assume that my abilities will be up to "normal-person" par, 2) ask me how the hearing is going (a natural question to ask, since I haven't seen them for so long) and therefore make me want to stay in practice, or 3) seem to have no idea how much my life has changed in the last six months, making me feel simultaneously dismayed and gleeful. Yes, a complicated mix, but that's the way things go.

So, I'm dogged again. The audiobooks are back. Appointments with an auditory therapist are upcoming. In class I challenge myself to listen, really listen, to the professor and predict what he/she says before the interpreter signs it. (Amusingly, this has brought up several instances where I notice that the interp has misstepped or paraphrased. Score!) Phone conversations - after literally a three-month hiatus - are working their way into my daily schedule.

These conversations have been the hardest part. They're not "conversations," per se, in that when my parents call we're not talking normally about anything. Rather, they're structured listening exercises, often accompanied by computer instant messages out of necessity. The usefulness of technology. Talking on the phone is way harder than talking in person, mainly because the range of frequencies inherent to human speech is literally compressed over the connection. Hence, speech doesn't sound like what I'm used to. It doesn't sound as dynamic and lifelike. People tend to sound far away, whispery or muffled, or just plain strange. Complicating the problem is the fact that I have absolutely no real previous phone experience with hearing aids to fall back on. I'm using the phone for the first time in my life. And sitting in a room by myself with a receiver pressed to my ear, straining to decipher the disembodied voice from the other end, is a real whoa! moment. It feels unnatural, I almost don't believe that I can do it, I start to panic, and the vicious cycle begins.

But, as with everything else, I've found that practice is key. Three days this week I've gone to the mattresses with the phone. The first time (also my first time since September, mind you) I was a wee bit too ambitious, and ended up feeling shaken, to say the least. Tonight I was actually smiling, picking up on impromptu bits and sometimes finding myself able to automatically reply. A bit like doing headstands at times, but the confidence that practice brings is astonishing.

Now, what happens when I do this every day? I can't wait!