Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Dead" and "Deaf" Sound The Same To Me

Because my hearing loss originated primarily in the upper registers, I experienced increasing difficulty in hearing high-pitched speech sounds. Consequently, words such as “dead” and “deaf” sounded the same to me. I could only determine which word the speaker was employing by knowing the specific context in which the word appeared in the conversation.

The first time I fully paid attention to this issue was in my oncologist’s office almost ten years ago. I had just been diagnosed with ovarian and endometrial cancers. The universe must have been having a grand “two for the price of one sale” that day. Never one to turn down a bargain, I took them both home. Fortunately, buyer’s remorse set in immediately and while I couldn’t return the diagnosis, my oncologist created the perfect blend of medications that eradicated both of my cancers.

While chemotherapy is frequently excellent at eliminating cancer, certain chemotherapy medications are highly ototoxic. In other words, the treatment that can save your life can also kill your ears. As part of my informed consent to take these medications, the doctor told me that hearing loss could be a possible side effect of my chemotherapy treatment. Because I had already begun to lose some hearing prior to my cancer diagnosis, I responded with the truth of my experience at that time. “Dead and deaf sound the same to me.”

I wasn’t necessarily being flip. Being deaf felt emotionally the same to me as being dead. Granted, I could not base this belief on any solid evidence. Obviously, I had never experienced either state. However, one should never underestimate the power of a vivid imagination. Still, when it came to choosing life or death, I knew that I would choose life no matter what the cost. I prayed for the best outcome on all fronts and opted for the treatments. I was lucky. My hearing loss was easily fixed for several years by increasingly strong hearing aids. However, in 2005, I started to experience a more precipitous drop in my ability to hear and thus to understand people.

Most of us have a favorite coping mechanism in the face of loss and mine is denial. I expected to have hearing problems throughout my older years but certainly losing my hearing in my late forties and early fifties seemed premature to me. Besides, I didn’t immediately become deaf on receiving my chemo treatments so I must have managed to avoid the ototoxic effects of the treatment. Right? Wrong!

In a later post, I can tell you about all of the gyrations and adaptations that I went through in order to hear other people for as long as I could. However, since conversations include two or more people, I wasn’t the only one turning myself inside out in order to converse. I was fortunate that many people were willing to stretch themselves to accommodate my loss but I know that it wasn’t easy for any of us.

Finally, in 2007, reality struck and I realized that I truly was deafened. Because it became so hard to communicate with people in any normal way, I began to remove myself from situations where conversation would be expected. I isolated more and more until I basically communicated with only a very small circle of friends and family who were either willing to write what they were saying to me in the moment or endlessly repeat words I could no longer understand. For an extrovert like myself, becoming deaf was a deadening process, although happily not at all the same as I had previously imagined death to be.

It was during this time that I realized that conversations are vital. They are absolutely necessary regardless of whether they occur verbally, in some version of sign language or whether they are partially communicated via writing. To be without conversation stripped me of an important way of knowing myself and deprived me of creating shared meaning with others. I felt exiled from the rest of humanity and myself.

Now that I can hear again, I am passionate about the value and impact of conversations that enliven, educate and elicit our true selves. I never want to take my ability to hear, pay attention and listen for granted again. While cancer taught me the value of life, deafness is teaching me the value of connection, knowing and being known, understanding and being understood. I don’t think that I’m unique in yearning for these things. I’m guessing that being connected, known and understood allow us each to love ourselves and thus to connect to, respect and accept all other living beings.

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