How I learned to hear the click of a pen

    Photo of the author. Photo by Tracy Fuad / NBN. Photo illustration by Jamie Wiebe / NBN. Background by THINKING IN REVERSE on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    Everywhere around me I see mouths moving. Conversation flows freely, and everyone speaks at once. I catch a word here, a word there, trying my best to understand. But the words fall too fast, the topics change too quickly, and before long I am totally lost. Though I speak the same language as these people, I struggle to understand them and communicate the way they do.

    In kindergarten, my parents discovered I had hearing loss after I failed a routine screening test. Over the years my hearing grew progressively worse without any apparent reason, to the point where I am now completely deaf in my left ear and have a profound loss in my right ear. Throughout grade school and most of high school, I stubbornly refused to admit that I had hearing loss. I wore a tiny hearing aid in my right ear, but always wore my hair down so that no one ever saw it. As far as anyone besides my family and closest friends knew, I was hearing “just like everybody else.”

    But earlier this year, after much deliberation, I decided to try a cochlear implant.

    From silence to sound

    A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device that stimulates the auditory nerve of a deaf ear, allowing it to hear. Right now, inside my cochlea are 16 electrodes that receive signals from an external microphone that I wear behind my ear. The microphone picks up environmental and speech sounds I would otherwise be unaware of and sends them to the electrodes, causing a simulation of sound.

    About a month ago, I underwent surgery for the internal parts of the implant. The electrodes were inserted in my cochlea and a magnet was placed under the skin above my left ear to hold the external microphone in place while I am wearing it.

    I was extremely nervous during the weeks leading up to Activation Day, when my audiologist turned on the external microphone for the first time. I was scared, and still am, about how much the cochlear implant will change my world. A lifetime of hearing loss has caused me to develop very set habits.

    For example, I’m abnormally, even freakishly, visually alert. Subconsciously, I always position myself so that I can see a speaker. I’m terrified of the dark because I rely on my eyesight for communication. My phone is permanently on vibrate, and I can’t tell Justin Timberlake from Madonna without glancing at the song title. To me, this is all normal, a part of daily life. I don’t think of it as compensating for a missing sense — it’s just the way I am.

    On Activation Day, an audiologist turned on my cochlear implant, and then played a few tones to test it out. To my great surprise, I could actually hear them. Honestly, it didn’t sound like much. I could differentiate between a loud sound and a soft sound, but a high pitch and a low pitch sounded exactly the same to me. I didn’t get emotional or overwhelmed right away, like I thought I would. In fact, I was a little disappointed. This is it? I thought. This is what I’m supposed to get excited about?Sound kind of sucks.

    Making Sense of Sound

    Everything I hear with the cochlear implant sounds exactly the same to me, whether it’s a fan whirring in my room or a human voice. It all sounds like an unnaturally high-pitched whistling or rushing noise. Listening to it all day long is absolutely exhausting. Rather than giving me an idea of what certain things sound like, the world of sound is now an even bigger puzzle I’m struggling to figure out. With time, I will get used to the cochlear implant, and my brain will start teaching itself to understand the flood of extraneous information it’s unaccustomed to getting. Already, I have a heightened awareness of sound. Though I rarely know what the sound is or where it’s coming from, I am conscious of new sounds because of the buzzing noise I hear coming from the implant.

    Case in point: On Activation Day, after leaving the audiologist’s office somewhat disappointed, my mother and I stopped to fill the gas tank before driving back to Northwestern. The moment my mother put the nozzle in the tank, I heard a faint rushing sound. I looked all around me trying to figure out what it was. I eventually figured out I was hearing the gas flowing into the tank — I never even knew that made a sound! How was it possible that no one had ever mentioned this sound to me, when it was so obviously there, so obviously making itself heard? I consider this my “first sound,” and not until that moment did I realize what getting a cochlear implant would really mean for me.

    The next few months will be filled with all kinds of similar discoveries. Recently, I became aware that click-pens make an actual clicking noise when you press down on them; the word “click” does not just refer to the motion of clicking, as I previously thought, but the sound the pen makes when you do so.

    No one ever explained this to me before I got the cochlear implant. Lame as it may sound, I felt like somewhat of a genius the moment I figured this out.

    Over the next year, I will be going through aural rehabilitation to teach my brain how to hear with the cochlear implant. Basically, I will be doing exercises to learn how to listen — and yes, my parents do find this humorous. I will start out small with basic listening skills, like learning to recognize environmental sounds, and I will use visual cues like subtitles on movies to help me recognize speech sounds. With practice, I will learn to do more complex tasks like comprehending sound only with my ears, without any form of visual cues. Hopefully within the next year or two I will be able to speak on the phone with the cochlear implant. It will be a long and frustrating process, but the payoff will be worth it.

    I think of each new sound as a little gem waiting to be polished. The buzzing noise I hear whenever a noise is made will gradually turn into a million more sounds I’ve never heard before or even knew existed. I get so happy when I chance upon a new sound, like the click of a pen or rush of running liquid. As I continue to practice, the murky mess of noise will eventually become crisp and clear, with each gem polished until it shines with the beauty of sound.


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