I’ve begun to forget how horrible it was before the CI. Right now, I am a link between both worlds. But if I forget how bad it was, my ability to articulate the pain of those who are struggling to hear will be lost. So before I forget, here is a story:
Back in the days before I even knew about cochlear implants, I went to a very noisy cocktail party. I didn’t know many of the guests, so the struggle to hear and interact socially required a lot of energy. My strategy consisted of sticking next to my hearing-husband and letting him do the interacting while I stood there with a smile on my face. The trick was to not get separated from my husband.
At first, everything went well. We found the few people we knew and caught up on their lives. Since my ears do not do the hearing for me, I stood directly in front of people and read their lips. The movement of lips, accompanied by bits of sound (not consonants, unfortunately) was sometimes enough to facilitate understanding. I relied on other resources such as my vision, memory, social cues, and body language. If I missed the beginning of a comment, I waited until something in context revealed the subject. I relied on my cognitive powers to process the clues and generate meaning. Since I knew these people, I was familiar with names, places, and things they were involved in. Constructing meaning from clues is exhausting, but possible.
Our small circle expanded to include new arrivals, and our cocktail party group conversation began to seem like watching ping pong. The only way to keep up was to see each speakers’ lips at the moment they began to speak. Since people didn’t wait until I was watching their lips to begin speaking, I could not possibly keep up with the back and forth of group conversations. Asking for repetition would disrupt the flow and one repetition wouldn’t suffice. I’d have to ask them to repeat again and again unless they learned to face me every time they spoke. And that was not going to happen. So I ramped up my focus, pushed my concentration, and worked. I could not sustain this level of intensity for more than an hour, and I was reminded of research showing that constant overload of the cognitive function is thought to be a link to dementia.
And then it happened. I found myself alone, face to face with someone I did not know whose lips I could not read because of his obscuring mustache. Not a single word. My husband was lost in conversation on the other side of the room and everyone I could have called on for hearing help was suddenly out of range. Ditching mustache man was not feasible given the logistics of the tiny crowded room. So you ask: Why not just tell him you’re hearing-impaired? Simple: Because I wanted to continue to exist. When they realize you are deaf, even the most generous people eventually begin to leave you out. And when you are left out, you are diminished. Not as smart. Not relevant. When they do address you, some talk to you as if you are very old, or very young, or not all there. You lose your dignity. Even sitting with my family in my living room in the evening, the chairs too far apart for me to hear, my children address conversation to my husband, and not me. I was slowly being buried alive. So the answer is: I would rather fake it than lose myself.
So there I was, looking for loopholes in his mustache, processing the occasional vowel sound, searching my memory bank for connections to body language, facial expressions, and vocal inflections–anything that might generate a clue to his meaning. It was a risky approach and the longer I kept it up, the more ridiculous I would appear if he discovered he was talking to a deaf post. Soon, I was in too far to confess. And that was when he stopped talking and looked at me. At first I thought I was nailed, but then I realized he had just made a point. So I nodded. He started talking again. Depending on his expression, I responded to his pauses with vague affirmation, surprise, or a smile. I did not understand a single word he ever said. But I got lucky. He was one of those people who are so self-absorbed he didn’t realize I wasn’t hearing him. I shifted into park and relaxed while he carried on a one-way conversation. It was a win-win: he got to expound; I got to hang out in the hearing world as if I belonged. He never suspected, and I managed to coast for 20 minutes.
While I survived that evening, cocktail parties were destined to go the way of lectures, meetings, restaurants, movies, and plays, because I couldn’t hear enough to justify the energy spent. When I went to see Dr. Peters and learned about the CI, I was on the verge of resigning from the hearing world.
This is what I have to remember.
Next time: How My CI and I Got Into Hearing Trouble Before an Audience of 100.