I’ve been deaf all my life. There was a time, briefly, when our parents – both my sister and I were diagnosed around the same time – worried we wouldn’t be able to appreciate music. They needn’t have worried at all. Music will be a constant in my life.
When I was 21, music started to slip between my fingers. My heart broke, quickly, splintering with speed; in an instant, then further more instances. My way of experiencing the world around me had changed, a whole set of frequencies disappeared sharply. My deaf ears had become deafer still. The progressiveness had kicked back.
Deafness exists on a spectrum, under the umbrella there are all different levels. Within each individual, the spectrum expands further; along with our audiograms, we all have our own history with our ears. With a progressive form of deafness, unpredictability is at the helm. I’d been so attuned and appreciative of the unique way I heard the world, that to lose that was a loss I struggled to accept, at the time.
My sensitive ears had rejected hearing aids for as long as I had them, growing up. With analogue hearing aids, I felt sure, certain, that I could hear the inner workings of them; a persistent, low level hum. When digital hearing aids arrived, it was still tumultuous; amplified sound – when compared to the natural low frequencies I could access without aids – wasn’t my thing.
A brief history; I got my first hearing aids at 2. The rocky relationship began at primary school – thus began the years I’d dutifully wear them for school, then rip them out as soon as I arrived home. At the age of 14 or 15 I abruptly made a decision not to wear them at all anymore, after a teacher had been trying to get me to wear them again after I’d removed them for break time. I stubbornly – rightly, perhaps – decided that I’d no longer be forced to wear these amplification devices. My body was my body – another moment I wish I could’ve given teenage Sarah a hug, and a high five. At 21, I began wearing hearing aids again; without them, at this point, lipreading was harder than it needed to be. In 2016, a little over 4 years ago, I received a cochlear implant.
The process of getting your brain to recognise the sounds from a cochlear implant can be a long one. There are multiple appointments after the initial switch on, called mapping appointments – it’s a slow and steady part of the cochlear implant rehabilitation process, wherein more and more electrodes are switched on. Each time you’re sent away with a little more sound to adjust to, along with more volume. All it all, it takes a few months. Then, a few years; even now, 4 years down the line, I still notice subtle differences occasionally. Music is awesome, and it makes my heart so happy.
When my hearing dropped, there were a few things that felt heartbreaking, and one was how different music sounded. A big part of this was simply because I wasn’t used to music with hearing aids – there are many deaf people for whom music is wonderful with hearing aids, my sister included. She’s written about music quite a few times – Feeling the Music, Auditory Hallucinations?, Purple Rain – and deafness many times – On the Complexities of Being Deaf, Being A Deaf Writer, and A Symphony to list a few.
These days there are songs that are still improving for me. With each day I have my cochlear implant, my brain must still be slowly adapting and tuning in the background – I barely notice it. Yet, with music, there are songs I can listen to now that sounded ridiculously wrong in the early days with my cochlear implant. I remember, during the months of research, that some found their musical tastes changed – sometimes drastically – after receiving their cochlear implants. That didn’t really happen for me, but I do find there are certain songs I can’t listen to pleasantly anymore; if too much is going on, it can sound like static. Literal static. I don’t worry too much, as there are thousands and thousands of songs that sound beautiful, including, once more, my old favourites.
To stop and think about it for a beat, it’s pretty amazing that the sound in my head is not actually sound at all; rather, it is my brain interpreting electrical signals as sound.
If I were to try and encapsulate all the ways I experience the world around me as a deaf person, we’d be here for hours and hours. It’s a topic I will return to many times, hopefully more words to come on deafness before the end of Nano Poblano.