Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Black Box, Revisited

This brain business is freaking me out. I’m wondering how much more complex my mind is than I consciously realize. Today I had another auditory therapy appointment, my first since last quarter, and while I walked away feeling excited, I also walked away feeling unsettled. What exactly is going on inside that black box that I don’t understand?

To offer a quick recap: my therapist and I sat down and discussed my progress over the last month or so, then proceeded to listening exercises that I’ve done a few times before. Throughout, she commented on my growing confidence and poise with listening, or at least my growing willingness to persevere with deciphering what I hear. To paraphrase her words, she told me: “Your entire life, you’ve had to hang back, to resign yourself and say, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t understand this.’ You’ve felt constantly unsure and you’ve grown used to being cautious as a result. Now you have this wonderful new tool that helps you engage better, and you’re learning how to overcome that hesitation that you’ve grown used to.”

How true, not only for me but for anyone else with a hearing loss. And how nice to have this perspective articulated so clearly. Disengagement has been a survival mechanism for me for so long that it’s hard for me to commit my brain to listening, to trying to piece the sounds together despite having less than ten months’ experience with this auditory mess. The words streak by, not making any sense at first, that old response kicks in and I think “I can’t do this! For heaven's sake, I’m deaf!” and then I get overwhelmed and implode and my mind switches off. I don’t do this intentionally, I don’t think. It’s not that I mean to give up. It’s that habit (by now, almost instinct) tells me that my efforts will be futile and that trying isn’t even an option. Spoken word gibberish soup, again. So much for that.

But when I do try, strange things happen. One of today’s exercises dealt with listening to a simple sentence involving two words: “Please pick up (food item) and (food item) from the store.” Old hat, this exercise, even while the words to engrain in my auditory memory seem limitless! Some of the food words, I’d heard often enough to get right away, such as hamburgers and French fries. Others were more unexpected, and when my auditory therapist saw that I wasn’t getting them she would switch to verbally describing them to give me clues, instead of either 1) repeating the word over and over again while I got progressively more frustrated, or 2) throwing in the towel and telling me the word outright. This backroads strategy is one that she’s used from the beginning, to force me to listen in the context of language. It’s also very hard for me right now. Remember, I’m listening to full-bodied descriptive sentences without lipreading. Talk about a jump up!

So, today I sat and listened to her describing this unknown word using other unknown words, the sounds piling up and toppling over and burying me in their rush, and while I couldn’t have told you what I was hearing I also wasn’t completely overwhelmed. This time was different. The words going by sounded like English words, they sounded like language. They sounded comfy, like they could have been my friends. Even if it was impossible for me to say exactly what they were, at least after the fact – I felt more like I was brushing each one of them as they passed, but not strongly enough to sink in my hook and reel them in. Once in a while, one or two would jump up and I would grasp a fleeting phrase, but then struggle to hold on as the stream continued. “This is a… breakfast… You use it to… and it… green…” Other times, I would rustle against individual sounds but couldn’t think fast enough to assemble them into words.

Yet, out of this ghostly, translucent chaos, some sort of picture emerged. The first time this happened, I listened to my therapist’s stream of speech, sat there subconsciously ruminating, and then said, “Yogurt.”

“Very good!” she told me.

“That’s really what it was? Yogurt?”


How did I ever get that? All I’d heard, at least consciously, was something about flavors and strawberries. Impossible, for my brain to make the leap from that to “yogurt.”

But then it happened again. The word in question: zucchini. I listened, gathered that my therapist was talking about a long and green vegetable, but instead of searching through my mental food vocabulary to find something that fit the bill, the word popped up and came to me right then. I knew. It had been there all along, beneath the surface of my brain, but hesitating and not knowing how to fight its way into conscious articulation.

And again. Something about cutting and breakfast and sugar, only half-grasped and feeling like a murky dream: without a doubt, it must be grapefruit. I wasn’t assembling clues, because the clues themselves hardly made sense. Unless they were assembling subconsciously, just like everything else?

Whoa whoa whoa, wait. What the eff is going on? I don’t get this. How can I so definitively say something, based on so little (read: almost nonexistent) proof? Unless the proof is there in abundance, somewhere deep within that black box, and I’m not capable of realizing it? What determines whether the sounds click together to make a word or whether they don’t? How can all this be happening without the conscious input of my work ethic or deductive reasoning or problem-solving skills, but based only on my willingness to sit there and listen to and accept what seems like chaos? How can my brain be so resourceful, all by itself and seemingly without me?

And, at the same time, how amazing is that?!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Breaking Through the Jargon

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a few interesting experiences with appointments: among others, visits to the doctor and the dentist. All have emphasized to me how I continue to progress with my CI (even if, again, I don’t feel like I’m progressing).

Now, I’ve always hated going to any sort of appointment by myself. The reason, I think, is fairly obvious. There are too many people to adjust to for lipreading, too much important information to catch (especially with medical terms! oy vey), and too many details that too easily slip beneath my notice. Up until the time I left for college, and even past then, I always took a parent in with me for any kind of appointment, just as a safety net. That isn’t an option anymore. Nor, really, is requesting an agency interpreter to show up for every little thing – I’d consider that in a dire situation, but as someone who sometimes feels like she spends a quarter of her life scheduling interpreters in one way or another, I’d rather cling to my sense of freedom. As well as personal privacy.

Appointments aren’t the highest item on my worry-o-meter, but they’re pretty high. So, in the last month, I found myself pleasantly surprised when I visited the dentist and heard the technician say, “Now, I’m going to floss your teeth,” as well as some other things I don’t remember. When I went to see the doctor, she slipped behind me and (without meaning to, I’m sure) spoke from where I couldn’t see her face. “Take a deep breath,” she said, placing the stethoscope on my back. And I understood! If only she knew how much time, hard work, anxiety, joy, and pride had gone into that one breath I obligingly took. Other things, like “I’ll be right back,” “Just step this way,” and “Very good” also stood out to me, like tiny rays of light against a murky gray surface. Falling like candies into my hand.

I still might not be perfect, but when my CI steps in like this it assures me that I will be okay, that I am capable of figuring out routine hearing-people things like going to the doctor by myself. But still – every time one of those tiny comprehension moments occurs, I am so, so stunned. I never get used to the feeling of how easy understanding is during the moments where things fall into place. (Even as I type this right now, I’m grinning uncontrollably.)

Dear readers, are these tiny moments getting redundant or boring yet? Of course not! For me they never will, because I cannot ever imagine myself taking them for granted.