I'm five years old, just a few weeks into kindergarten at my new elementary school. The school nurse leads me down the shady breezeway between my classroom and the main office so she can test my vision and hearing. Taking a test seems very grown-up and I have recently begun to suspect that I am very smart, so I beam as I tell her which pictures and letters I see on the black and white cards she holds up, and raise my hand when I hear the high-pitched dings in the bulky headphones with vinyl coverings, like the ones my father uses to listen to records at night. I am certain I am impressing the nurse with my intelligence and poise. She smiles back at me, further securing my certainty that I am nailing the test.
A few days later, she comes back to my classroom and takes me once again to the office for another test. This time we're just testing my hearing. She says she wants me to take a special hearing test, one that is a little longer than the one we took before. I oblige, happy to demonstrate my talents once again.
This time, after I slip on the headphones and she switches on the testing machine, I hear a few dings, but they are spaced further and further apart with long stretches of silence. The nurse covers her mouth with a clipboard and reads words to me and asks me to repeat them back to her. I recognize some of them, but a surprising number of them don't sound like real words. I say them anyway and she smiles back at me, but every few words, I see what looks like a tiny frown in the corner of her mouth, almost too quickly for me to see, but I catch it.
A few days later, my mother explains that I have a little bit of a hearing problem. She says I need to always make sure I can understand what my teachers are saying. I promise I will.
As I get older, my hearing problem becomes more and more noticeable to me and everyone else. I mishear things all the time, often to the delight of my friends and classmates. A game of "telephone" is sure to be hilarious if I am somewhere on the chain, attempting to hear whatever silly phrase is whispered to me and inevitably misunderstanding it and repeating something even sillier. It becomes my thing--I'm the Amelia Bedelia of Hidden Valley Elementary School. I somehow manage to do pretty well in school. I sit as close to where the teachers are talking as I can. When I miss something, I ask for it to be repeated. But I also start to notice the annoyed tone in others' voices when they repeat things I miss, especially when I ask them to repeat them more than once. It becomes hard to separate others' frustration about having to repeat themselves from frustration with me, so sometimes I decide it's better not to ask them to say it again. Sometimes I make the decision to just not know.
When I am in tenth grade, my parents drive me an hour south of our town to the UCSF medical center in San Francisco, where I have an MRI to determine what is going on with my ears. It turns out that many of my cochlea, the tiny hair cells inside that help filter sound, are damaged, probably since birth, which explains why I have such a hard time hearing. Despite my protestations, I am fitted for hearing aids.
The experience of wearing the hearing aids is terrible. For a few months, I slip them into my ears in a stall of the school bathroom before class and pull my hair down on either side of my face, but they make everything incredibly loud. Background noises overpower the sounds I actually want to hear. Instead of the lesson my algebra teacher is giving, I hear every scratch of a pencil and ripping notebook paper and gum snapping and breathing of every kid in my quadrant of the classroom. Instead of helping me understand my teachers, my brain feels like it is going to implode in response to all the information being hurled at it. I eventually stop wearing them.
For most of my young adulthood, I am embarrassed by my hearing, but I cope. I ask for words to be repeated. I explain that I have some hearing loss. Once I'm no longer a child among children, the teasing pretty much stops. Still, I am anxious every time I enter into a situation where I might have trouble hearing, which is pretty much everything other than sitting across from one other person in a quiet room. If someone speaks quietly or with a mumble, I am lost. I get good at faking understanding, but not good enough that I am never caught.
When I am thirty-six, I give birth to a little girl. We stay at the hospital for three days. Every fifteen minutes, it seems, a different nurse, doctor, or other hospital worker comes into the room for one reason or another. I struggle to hear many of them, but I am so in love with my new baby that I almost don't care.
As the months go by, I start to worry that my hearing will impact my mothering. I'm terrified that I will accidentally miss her cries, so I use a video monitor, even though we live in a one-bedroom apartment. When she sleeps, I carry it around with me, cranked up at top volume, checking it constantly.
My mother suggests I visit an audiologist, just to find out what is going on. I am annoyed with her for doing so, but I make the appointment anyway. When I go in for my hearing test, which is surprisingly similar to the ones I took as a kid, the audiologist matter-of-factly informs me that I have a severe hearing loss and that I definitely need hearing aids. I explain my hesitation, citing my bad experience in high school.
"That was twenty years ago," she tells me. "The technology has gotten much, much better. Now we have hearing aids that can go entirely into your ears, and help to filter out background noise. But also, if you don't get this taken care of now, you could have some serious cognitive issues down the line -- there is a lot of research that indicates that hearing loss can lead to dementia and a whole host of other problems."
And so, two weeks ago, I was once again fitted with hearing aids. They are tiny, imperceptible. They fit completely into my ear canal and cannot be seen unless you are looking.
As she tucks them into my ears and switches them on, I hear the clack clack clack of my daughter's hands on her toys, from the blanket at my feet where she is sitting on the floor of the audiologist's office. I am immediately aware that I would not have been able to hear those sounds before. I pick my daughter up and kiss her tummy which makes her giggle, and I feel my eyes well up as I notice that I have never been able to really hear the richness of her laugh before that moment. We play music on the drive home, and I hear notes in songs I've known for years that I didn't know were there before. That evening, my husband and I have a conversation from separate rooms--something I don't think I have ever done with anyone in my life.
There is still a lot left to adjust to. Because I missed so much, my brain has spent years taking in much less information than it is now, and it is still learning what to do with it all. For the first week, I kept thinking my husband was speaking to me sharply. Eventually, I figured out that what was really going on was that, after seven years together, I was actually hearing the sound of his voice for the first time. He had grown accustomed to speaking to me at a higher volume, and now that I didn't require it anymore, it had a different effect.
I still seize up with muscle memory anxiety when I enter a situation that would previously have been challenging for me hearing-wise, but the experience of finally being able to relax, knowing I'm not going to have to pretend to have understood someone while silently churning with shame on the inside is incredibly liberating.
There's another unexpected pleasure I get to enjoy now that I wear hearing aids, one which I never could have predicted: All day long, I wear these incredible devices which correct my hearing loss by magnifying sounds I am not able to naturally hear, and it is truly amazing. But at the end of the day, when I take them out of my ears and place them in their case for safekeeping, the quiet of my unassisted hearing that surrounds me is surprisingly satisfying. All the street noise disappears--I hear only what is very close to me, like closing the door to a very noisy room. In that moment, it's as if my hearing loss, the source of so much trouble and pain over the years, becomes a tiny gift.