Thursday, January 5, 2012

Resolutions, Part I: Listening as Habit

First post of 2012! This is a little strange, seeing as 2012 is going to be a banner year for a lot of things, and it's here already. College graduation, figuring out what to do with my life - compared with that, my two-year anniversary with the CI is exciting but a bit less prominent.

I've been reflecting on life during this holiday break, as I suppose many people tend to do at this time of year, and although much of it is too banal or confusing to put down in words, I've noticed two themes in my thoughts relevant to this blog. The two resolutions I'd like to make in 2012, pertaining to deafness/hearing loss/hearing, are to push myself and my hearing more, while also accepting and even embracing the things I cannot change, and to clearly ask more of other (hearing) people. Let me expand a bit on the first part. It's complex enough, and maybe my reflections on the other pieces will follow in future posts.

One and a half years later, my biggest challenge with the CI is the fact that my brain is still not accustomed to relying on hearing. I literally run into my issues of plasticity every day: it's struck me how much easier this would be to do as a child. Children who are implanted early and who know little of deafness do not approach the entire experience with any preconceived notions. Their brains are young, pliable, and willing to accept and integrate the presence of sound. Throughout this whole journey, my maturity (and admittedly my analytical mind) have been key assets in helping me progress, but those factors still aren't the same as a naive mind that embraces neural changes with arms wide open. Hearing, for me, is still stuck at the same phase as being a non-native learner of a foreign language. The sound enters my brain and I stop, suspended for a moment, translating it into intelligible thoughts, words, and associations. Gato is cat. Id est is that is. EeeEeerRRrerr is the vacuum cleaner, or a car, or someone's voice calling my name. (Okay, so this process is currently more tied into linguistic comprehension than environmental sounds. Those are coming more and more automatically.) Once I know what I've heard, or think I do, then I reenter real life. The problem is that oftentimes it's easy enough to dismiss those noises as they come in, simply because the process of cognitively figuring out what they are requires too much brainpower (or because I honestly don't know, and there's no one else around to ask, or I don't feel comfortable asking). Listening, really listening, is something I need to remind myself to do. It's still a translation. It doesn't always happen automatically.

I've been reminded of this time and time again while I've been home. I've already found that, when I'm at auditory therapy or otherwise focusing on listening for an extended period of time, it takes me a good ten to twenty minutes to really warm up and get into the groove of hearing. (And then I get tired. Of course. Shelf life of optimal auditory concentration is short.) While I've been home, my mother, crafty as she is, has taken to positioning herself so that I cannot see what she's saying. When I try to turn my head or motion for her to come where I can see her, she refuses. And then she speaks.

I stop. Sometimes I ask her to repeat, but not always. In silence, I stare ahead of me for so long that I wonder if I really understood anything. But the mental wheels are only turning, turning the words over like pebbles in my hand, experimenting with what they feel like. Sometimes I search my mental dictionary, grasp after context, try to intellectually work backwards and guess what she could have been talking about, but now more often than not I just let my unconscious work. It's an odd feeling, vacant but at the same time teeming with anticipation. And then - the words come. The entire sentence. Nearly ten or twenty seconds later - an eternity in conversational terms - I deliver what she said, and then come up with my own answer. "Yes, get me a glass of wine - white, please."

I can do it. The words are there. I almost never miss, within the space of one sentence. "You can do it," my mother tells me, poking my shoulder. So why aren't I hearing and grasping more things, more often? I still imagine what it would be like to overhear conversations, to constantly pick up on words I don't see.

It's a question of concentration, of mental resources, and most of all of habit. If I can see someone's face, or move so that I can see better, it's as if the newfound hearing-reliant part of my brain switches off. It does help out, but it's only the supporting actor. When I can't see, that supporting actor is too timid to assume the main role, or doesn't even think of jumping into the spotlight. And if I'm not given time to process, if I'm not speaking with a friendly and understanding close friend or family member, listening is a moot point anyway. Right now, I could probably have a decent base-level conversation in quiet with a familiar voice, but it'd take me a long time to think, translate, and then respond. Most conversations, unfortunately, are not like that. Most people want effective communication, something that at this point I can accomplish better by sight than by sound. (If they really cared about crossing over to my level, wouldn't more of them learn sign language?) And so my brain goes on relying mostly on seeing.

This is an interesting problem, and it's one that I'd like to continue to explore throughout the new year. Here's to listening, to learning to really listen, and to keeping close the kinds of people who will enable me to do that. And here's to that giddy rush I get when I sit there, inside my mind, and realize that I have understood.

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