Monday, December 27, 2010

Input: Invalid

As of today, I've almost reached the six-month mark since I got my CI turned on (minus two days). I have my six-month remapping appointment later this week, and I'm excited to see what progress I've made and what the sound quality is like afterwards - especially since it's already so good.

But six months? Wow. My experience of the world has been transformed since those days in late June. My hearing aid sounds downright depressing now, and the dynamism of the CI is like being continually seduced. Let's face it: I'm addicted to sound. And whenever I'm feeling discouraged or just plain short-circuited (like when life starts sounding too chaotic - i.e., almost every day), I need only look back to that time to appreciate how far I've come. Six months: a heartbeat, and yet an immeasurably long stretch. It's impossible to compare my perceptions then to my perceptions now. My horizons have broadened, my sense of the possible has exploded. Yet, these days, I get the sense that I'm approaching a new threshold.

Let me expand: my brain, in its absorption and data-gathering over roughly 26 weeks, has reached the point where it can observe and interpret sound considerably well for where I started out. Except that relying on auditory information is not its natural instinct. Noise has never made sense to it before now, and so its innate tendency is to rely, as it always has, on sight. Since I've gotten home from being abroad, I've discovered that, when my parents or other family members intentionally speak to me from where I cannot lipread, I can understand them. I can do it! How astonishing. But this is only after much repetition, only after I forcibly shift gears and coerce that long-deafened brain of mine to listen. It can do it, it just believes that it can't - and, when lipreading is the faintest shadow of an option, it automatically seems to tune out noise and choose to watch instead. My mind is like a computer: in its long history of programming, sound input has been an invalid command. Now that the CI makes listening possible, the hardest part is going to be convincing my brain to trust what it hears, to actually use those long-neglected pathways.

So, I'm teetering on the brink of using my ears and not my eyes, and this process has been ridiculously difficult because it requires a literal reprogramming of my experience. But yet, the sensation of having a conversation (however predictable and simplified) and actually hearing and understanding has been... mind-boggling. In all senses of the word. I have to repeat what I've heard to myself as if to prove that it was real, that it sprang into being from a mind not my own, that it makes grammatical sense. It's happening! I just need to teach that brain of mine to believe in sound as clear, accessible, trustworthy - as much as sight. The ground is not going to crumble beneath its feet. This is an unprecedented challenge, and after twenty years it is is bound to be difficult - but here's to having arrived at the point of subtle mind games, rather than being-hit-over-the-head-by-a-blunt-object ones!

Monday, December 20, 2010

ASL, Revisited

As I think I've written on this blog before, one of my biggest qualms about getting the CI was that it would represent a literal rejection of myself, a capitulation to the idea that I wasn't good enough to lead my life just as I was. In making my decision, I felt like I was casting aside the "deaf" part of my identity, which hurt regardless of the struggles associated with it. Six months later, however, I find that certain aspects of that identity will always endure, irrespective of whether or not I can hear. Sign language, especially, lingers with me in gratifying and unexpected ways.

I don't know how to classify my attitude about ASL before the CI. It had always somehow seemed like a crutch, a reminder of my inability to communicate like everyone else. I grew up with virtually no other deaf people in my life, and in my awkward preteen and adolescent years using my hands to converse only emphasized how different I felt from the world around me. Now, even though I am still far from an auditory communicator, I'm a skilled enough lipreader (and, increasingly, my CI is a helpful enough tool) that I've been able to distance myself considerably from ASL. When I am not in class, days pass in which I see no sign, in which I get along reasonably well (if not perfectly) in one-on-one interactions without it. As my hearing progresses, I find myself feeling more and more linked to the hearing world.

And yet, I am not. Not entirely. This has less to do with the fact that I will likely always need interpreters or other communicative assistance for some situations (and might as well accept it), and more to do with the fact that sign is wired into who I am. Now that I've experimented with other options, and come to see ASL as a bit more of a personal choice than a strict necessity, I feel freer to embrace its charm. I think in English and prefer to speak most of the time, but I cannot abandon the wonderfully deaf part of myself. Oddly enough, the CI has made this clearer than ever.

As much as I'm learning to be auditory, the truth is that I'm predominantly a visual learner. I retain information better when I see it - as with sign rather than mere lipreading. When I introduce myself to strangers, I find myself tempted to fingerspell and then give my sign name, and have them do so in return. Ditto for when other people do not understand what I say; surely I will make myself clear if I only spell it out? My hands writhe and itch by my side. A few times, absurdly, I've started to fingerspell to strangers before I've checked myself. (For the record, I've come to think that everyone should be able to fingerspell at the very least. It would make life infinitely easier.) When I am across a noisy room from a friend, I impulsively want to wave, to sign; shouting feels ridiculous, pointless, and tires me out besides. Sound notwithstanding, I cannot divorce myself from these inclinations.

When I settle down with my writing, sometimes I cannot think of the word that I want, at least not in English; however, I often find that I can sign its exact concept, its exact nuance. I lean back at my desk making sweeping gestures into the air, willing the English version to come. ASL, in all honesty, was my first language, and maybe this only comes across at such moments. Sometimes, when I am alone, I converse with myself using my hands. They become extensions of my thought.

Most importantly, though, sign language is what often defines many of my closest relationships. I've come to realize that, however comfortable I feel with lipreading a person, I often do not feel completely at ease with him/her unless he/she signs. I associate lipreading with strain, hyper-attention to detail, and continuous guesswork and exertion. Under such circumstances, it's possible to communicate well, but it's very difficult to relax. It's a subconscious association at times, but often the people with whom I feel most myself are the ones who sign, giving me confidence and dispelling my tension. Speech can make me feel trapped, painfully aware that I am at a disadvantage compared to my hearing peers, and confined in my ability to make friends only with the people I can lipread well. (Moving forward, I'm interested to see how the CI influences this.) But ASL is like a comfort food or a favorite book by the fire: in its presence, I can exhale and unwind.

Communication, clarity, security: regardless of whether I can hear or not, I've come to realize that I have the sort of fondness for ASL that stems from its being a part of my identity. It's hard to explain this to some hearing people, who, upon asking "Can you lipread?" and receiving my affirmative "Yes," ask no further questions about my communicative means and do not seem to wonder after my visual, secret self. For indeed ASL belongs to the most private part of me; perhaps this is part of why I avoided displaying it more publicly at a younger age. Or perhaps it was because sign language was too often questioned, too often stared at, too often made fun of or used as the brunt of crude jokes. Too often in my childhood, other kids would mock me with empty hand gestures and made-up signs. Even now, I find that my peers too often display interest in only the "obscene," "amusing," or "random" signs that add entertainment value to their lives, rather than true communicative meaning. (This is true for any language, I think.) If I have been reserved about sign, perhaps it is partly because I've gotten tired of this horseplay.

As I grow older and become a more skilled communicator in a variety of ways, and as I discover new horizons with the CI, I realize all of this more articulately. My identity with ASL is a quieter, more self-contained sort than that waved about by the strictly nonverbal, Deaf crowd, but it suits me well. Even if I woke up to hear perfectly one day, I don't think I could ever shun sign language completely. And that's reassuring.

Finally, one of my friends passed along this link not too long ago:

Even though I admittedly sometimes dream of nothing more than reducing my dependence on ASL and interpreters (again, there's something tricky about it being a choice), reading this article was sweet and satisfying. If more people are learning sign language, if more people are considering a perspective, communicative means, and experience of the world so different from their own, then all the better. I used to be one to scoff at hearing people's naive and overly romanticized notions of ASL being "breathtaking" and "like hands dancing," but in the end, there's no language like it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Same Place, Same Sound - Or Is It?

Coming back to familiar places, you always notice that they do not feel quite the same. The reason, in most cases, is you: you've been away, you've changed, and you're returning with a different perspective. This has been true for me in many ways since coming back from three months in Europe - but perhaps the most striking difference about home is that it sounds different. It sounds better! Having a baseline to compare to, I'm reminded of just how much my hearing is progressing.

Take airports, for instance. From my many travels back and forth to California over the summer, I've come to associate airports and airplanes with tune-ups in hearing. At first, they almost made me physically ill. That first flight back from California, almost six months ago, is something I shudder to think about. A great shapeless blob of sound hovered over my head, roaring and pulsating, so that reading - concentrating - thinking - became impossible. But now, the thrum of activity, and even of the engine, is just there, keeping me company. Now I can hear the different sounds in that large roaring cacophony, from when the engine gears up to when the wheels screech as they land to the various footsteps and announcements and voices in the airport. Loud and clashing, yes, but more subtly so.

The same is true for my house: not only are its noises more tolerable, but they are more complex. The new whirs and clicks and noises I'm noticing have me confused, and I have to go through the whole process of racing around figuring out what they are. I'm hearing more noises from farther away, and I've found that when I'm sitting in one room I sometimes know exactly what's going on in another, just by listening. How strange and amazing. It feels almost like ESP. This is not the same house that I knew three months ago.

My first day home, I sat down at our piano and struck a note: middle C. It rang forth, smooth and so beautiful that I literally gasped. Same house, same piano, and three months later it sounds so wonderfully pure and resonant, so different from the almost mechanical notes I heard over the summer. My brain is starting to interpret music as, well - music.

In the yard, the chickens roam about, clucking and crowing. I recognize their noises instantly as chicken sounds. But here, too, something is different. I'm hearing them from way, way across the yard, and they sound more richly layered, more complex, more - I don't know - chickeny. I'm noticing more different tones and subtleties in their clucking, almost as if I can interpret their moods. Too bad this doesn't stop them from being annoying. I'm still apt to shout, "Shut up!" when one rooster gets his tailfeathers into too much of a wad.

Who knew one place could feel so different, so much richer, based on the quality of sound I find there? My ear is working on finer and finer auditory skills, and the amount of texture that gives the world is astounding. It's starting to be a little more than just "noise." Now I've just got to listen to some of the specific songs I heard over the summer, return to some of the same listening exercises, go to more familiar (but yet changed) places, and see where all that puts me!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Public Service Announcement Number One

Our minds really fool us into accepting an illusion of mediocrity. It works something like this. You pull yourself along step by step, tied inextricably to the present, feeling that all of this is too slow. Things aren't changing, not really. You've put in the hours, but your efforts seem to whisk off with the next strong wind. What you're building is as of yet a fragile thing - resilient, yes, but so delicate that you wonder if it'll ever be of use. You want to give it room to grow, but at the same time you keep questioning where its limits lie. You are too used to the limits you've always known, and in your heart you wage a battle between idealism and habitual resignation.

Yet the boundaries do expand, invisibly. Time and again you discover that your brain has been working all along, beneath your notice, and that you're acquiring skills you never anticipated. Time and again your newfound knowledge strikes, and you experience a single moment that shocks you with its revelation, its clarity, as life roars back and exposes the vista on which you stand.

This happened to me again today - a tiny gem that a hearing person would hardly have noticed, but that for me was a startling breakthrough amidst a scenery that had come to feel mundane. It was on the bus to London. I had been staring out over the clouds and city, lost in thought, still ten minutes from my destination. The bus shuddered to a stop to let some people off, and at that moment, I heard the driver say over the intercom, "Shepherd's Bush."

Wait, what - Shepherd's Bush? The words had come out of nowhere, but flashed into my mind as clearly as if I had read them. I looked out the window at the bus stop. There, on the side of the road, were those very same words printed on a sign. Shepherd's Bush was the name of the stop. Inside my heart stumbled, then pushed itself back up in disbelief. I hadn't anticipated or even concentrated on the driver's announcement, but I had heard it, and the sensation of hearing was as wonderful as a soft light diffusing through my mind. The noise hadn't been awful or distracting or meaningless; I had actually understood. It was the first intercom announcement that has ever meant anything to me. Hypothetically I knew that disembodied voice must be saying something, but that impersonal rationalization cannot compare with experiencing it personally.

Over the next series of stops I sat tense, quivering, trying to connect the harsh sound with some external meaning. And, yes, I could connect the very moment that it said, "Notting Hill" or "Marble Arch," though those times the sound was blurred by the engine. I felt as if a veil had been briefly drawn back, allowing me to glimpse the objects casting shadows on the other side of it. Flutter closed that veil might, but the more times I part it the more heartened I feel. Understanding: I can't describe how superbly sweet it is.

And here I've been climbing mountains, even while I've believed myself to be trudging over level fields...