At first I was shattered . . . . As I became more comfortable with my deafness and learned more, I accepted it, made my peace with it, and tried to learn from it.
— from I’ve Lost My What?, by Shawn Lovely
April 29, 2002, 7:30(-ish) a.m.:
Something wakes me, but it’s not the alarm clock. I raise my head, only to discover that the vertigo that sent me to the ER last night hasn’t subsided. I lie back down and reach for the phone to call in sick to work. “It’s Monday,” I remember, “They’ll never believe me.” I put the phone to my ear and listen for the dial tone. Nothing. Confused, I hit the hang up button and try again. Still nothing. I notice that the light on the caller ID screen on the phone is on. The incongruity takes a moment to sink in, but then it hits me: The phone isn’t dead, I just can’t hear it.
That’s when I scream. And I don’t hear that either.
In the instant I realized what had happened to me, nearly everything I thought was true about my life – who I was, who my friends were, what my place was in the world – changed, and I had to learn it all over again. Growing up as a hearing person and then losing that identity was a surreal, terrifying, heartbreaking experience. There was a sense that I no longer had control over anything at all: If this, my connection to everyone and everything in my life, could disappear, could be taken away at random, then surely I couldn’t count on anything else.
In the early months of my loss, I fought sadness and anger so deep they scared me. No one could help me understand what was happening to me – there’s no medical explanation for it – and no one could fix it. My anger unleashed itself on unsuspecting store clerks or patrons trying to pass me in the aisle. “I’m sorry,” they’d say meekly, after I smugly informed them that I hadn’t gotten out of their way because I couldn’t hear them asking to get by,“I didn’t know.” I dislocated my shoulder three weeks later in May, then came out to the parking lot two weeks after that to find my car with a flat tire. Completely defeated, I sat down on the asphalt and cried until someone drove by and took pity on me. I had been given pain medication for my shoulder – Vicodin, I think – and more than once I wondered how many it would take to make me fall asleep and never wake up. I didn’t really want to die, I just knew that there was no cure for hearing loss and that I was not cut out to live in a world without sound, and I didn’t know what else to do. I even seriously considered checking into a psychiatric hospital at one point, because I figured that would be a place where I could be as crazy and as sad and as angry as I felt inside without being a burden to anyone because it would be their job to take care of me.
Even though I often tried to push everyone away, I thankfully never had to face any of this alone. I have had the good fortune along the way to be surrounded by a loving, supportive family and a few amazing friends, along with extraordinary medical professionals. My parents and Nate and the rest of my family never gave up on me, never let me feel like I was a burden to them, though I know at times I must have been. They also never lowered their expectations of me, which is not something I can say for everyone, and was really what I needed in order to hold on to the person I was. Aimee met me at the ER that morning and never left my side, and when I thanked her later for being there, she wrote (because I couldn’t hear her), “Where else would I be?” Karen’s house was the place I drove to when I needed to go as far away as I could and still make it back by dinner time, and she never turned me away, even when I showed up unannounced. That they – and many others – stuck by me, or took the time to get to know me, or didn’t run screaming in the opposite direction when they heard what happened to me means more than I can possibly say.
Sometimes people say, “You’re so brave,” or “I don’t think I could have handled it as well as you have.” I rarely think of myself as courageous, and people only see me that way because they think what happened to me is unbelievable. They ask, “How did you ever get through it?” I say, “You do what you have to do. You get up every day, even when it’s hard, and you take it hour by hour – minute by minute if you have to: Get out of bed now; go to the gym now; eat lunch now; read this book now. Then you go to bed and do it again tomorrow.” Eventually, it isn’t so hard to get out of bed, and one day you realize that life can still be good and that you want to be a part of it.
It took me more than a year to start feeling like myself again. My cochlear implant surgery in August 2003 went a long way toward helping me feel whole again. It gave me back music, which was more than I had any right to hope for, and makes it possible for me to understand my niece and nephew when they say stuff like “Peanut butter and jelly is my favorite vebgtable” [sic], or sing Happy Birthday on my voice mail. It’s not perfect, of course, and every once in a while I still get mad that this is my life. Usually it’s a TV show that’s not captioned (or is captioned poorly) or someone on the other end of the phone who doesn’t understand the relay and hangs up on me. It still makes me angry that these everyday things aren’t just easy for me. I know, though, that there’s a reason this happened to me, even if it’s not clear to me yet, and so I try to be patient and compassionate. Mostly.
When I think of where I was six years ago today and in the aftermath of this thing that happened to me, it’s hard to recognize myself. So much has happened, and I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if I’d never lost my hearing. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I’ll say that I’m glad that this happened, but I do recognize that good things have come out it, and maybe that’s enough.