Thursday, April 4, 2013

100th Post!

When I started writing this blog almost three years ago, in late May 2010, I could never have imagined the experiences and milestones I've since achieved. And, in celebration of that sentiment, and also in celebration of 100 posts, here's a story from this past weekend that epitomizes what those three years with the CI has been able to do (and that also epitomizes the budding sense of potential I feel perhaps more strongly now than I ever have before):

I went home for Easter during the latter half of spring break and, being a low-key person by nature, was fortunate enough to get to spend much of that time chatting with my parents and some good friends. I'd gone home feeling excited about some of the progress I've made recently in auditory therapy, and warned my mother in advance that I'd "make her be mean to me" while at home by talking to me while not letting me look at her. A few times over the weekend, we did it. Sitting side by side in the quiet living room at home, I'd stare at the ceiling or across the room while we entered into a conversation. Each time she fell silent for a few moments then began speaking again, I instinctively turned my glance in the direction of her voice, as always wanting to see, to lipread. Then, as always, I forced myself away from her face and clung to the wavering thread of that voice.

It was more robust than ever, at least because I felt more able to grasp it than ever. During one conversation in particular, I found myself thinking of the days, during the summer of 2010, when we'd sit down and do endless renditions of "I like watermelon" or "I like apples," semi-closed-set exercises that despite their predictability sent me into spirals of frustration. Words sounded unfamiliar, elusive, and my brain ground its wheels and sent sparks flying just to understand the simplest things. One syllable, two syllables, foreign shapeless noises blaring at me, raising tides of pent-up energy as I reached for them but knew not how to hold them in my hand. This time, in the quiet with that oh-so-familiar voice, we actually achieved some semblance of conversational flow.

My mother would make an observational remark, and I'd get it quickly enough to say, "Oh really? How did that go?"

I asked her to repeat words here and there, but always within the context of what I'd heard: "The dog is doing what?" or "She said she'd see you when?" Listening wasn't perfect, but nor was it completely incoherent: in the dense jungle of sound, my mind always had a few strong vines to grasp, and my brain was always able to trace a terrain map of what it had heard.

Toward the end of the conversation, I realized that this kind of fill-in-the-gap is something I do all the time while lipreading. Even in this quiet conversation with a familiar voice, I was able to approach the comprehension threshold that I already achieve with sight. That sound, that listening would ever carry me there! Stunning.

In the past, we've stuck mainly with familiar subject matter even in our open-set conversations, and even that has felt stilted and difficult. This time, we were able to expound upon subjects that I knew very little about. She told me about people she'd recently met, stories they'd told her - completely open-set, unknown material to my ears. Finally, here I understood: acquiring new information through hearing, through language. Is this how it feels?

There was no more - or very little - stumbling back-and-forth through short, disconnected statements uttered only for the purpose of exercise. No more listen and repeat. "Today is Saturday." "Tomorrow is Easter." "I am tired." "You are on vacation today." None of that. I listened to fuller, more complex and coherent sentences and - I can't describe how wonderful this felt - kept up with 80-90% of what my mother was saying. It was like being liberated from elementary beginning-to-read books into the world of prose and literature. That's the only way I can think of to describe it.

Finally, the most exulting, the most elusive feeling of all: the feeling of being able to move beyond meaning to engaging with actual content. The words came more easily to me when I heard them, and I lingered less on their meaning, spent less time slamming my head against the shadowy surface of each word before its sound waves vanished forever. I heard; I understood; I formulated a response. My brain felt increasingly able to process meaning in real time. Returning to the jungle analogy, it was like swinging through the forest canopy on vines, reaching the end of each arc and actually finding another handhold there instead of swinging backward to where I started - or, worse yet, missing and falling to the underbrush below.

Conversational flow: understanding what someone else is saying, easily and effortlessly enough to respond and feel comfortable with the give and take of words. It may not have been perfect this past weekend, but it was far better than I have ever experienced. That sensation of electric auditory back-and-forth felt like a gift. A gift of that mysterious black box inside my skull, calculating sound frequencies and piecing them together and presenting them back to me in a wrapped package. I still don't entirely understand how it happens, still can't entirely believe that it could happen to someone like me.

Three years ago, I would have found this kind of experience incomprehensible. Here's to my nearly three-year-old baby ear (and more posts, like a proud parent, to chronicle its progress)!

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