Opinion: The activation

cartoon park scene with birds signing

Regular BDN contributor, Alexis Borochoff, describes the moment her Cochlear Implant was turned on and tells us how she adjusted to living between the parallel of both the deaf and hearing worlds and having the best of both!

I was vexed by that tissue box sitting suspiciously close to me. The Laura Ashley designed box sprouting its labia pink tissue taunted me. I looked away as Dr. Grey walked in. She was tall, lanky, what you’d call the mousy type perhaps, but there was something graceful in her manners. She was seemingly content with herself, as if she just came back from a three-hour massage session by the bare hands of the Dalai Lama.

“Today is the big day!” she grinned at me. My mother, who sat across me in the room, smiled even wider. I bobbed my head up and down. Dr. Grey greeted my mother and turned to me.

“How was the surgery? Was it okay? No pain?”

“Nah, it wasn’t painful at all, they gave me enough drugs to knock me out for a week. The only annoying thing was dealing with the bandages and my hair.” I laughed as I thought about waking up from surgery to find my head poorly bandaged, my hair pitifully sticking out between the folds of the bandages. I resembled the wild woman of Borneo.

Dr. Grey chuckled, “Well, you do have a lot of hair.”

I nodded at her. At this point, I was ready to hear. I was ready to get this over with. I had been without my hearing aids for more than two weeks. Once the surgeons crack your skull and plant the cochlear implant in you, the hearing aids are forever gone. It was fortunate that I am  an excellent lip reader and could still communicate with my peers.

I had spent the last two weeks daydreaming about the new sounds I’d be hearing. The chirping of the birds from the water fountains, the humming of the bees over the hibiscus, and the snoring of the Golden Retriever puppy nestling into his mother’s tummy. As hokey as it sounded, I wanted these Kodak moments. I had carefully planned out my CD collection of songs I was going to listen to with my new ears. But what was going to be my first song? Whose melodic voice should be the first one to penetrate my ear, giving me that awakening after a lifelong silence? Should it be the likes of Karen Carpenter or Joni Mitchell with their powerful feminist voices, welcoming me to their world of healthy lungs? Or should the thrash metal band, Slayer do the honor? How many people will be able to say they lost their ear virginity to Slayer? After two weeks, I finally decided on Let it Be by The Beatles. Choosing The Beatles just made sense.

“Before we start…” Dr. Grey said as she pulled her chair up closer to me and the computer next to me, “lets talk about you, why did you want this cochlear implant?”

Why? What is it to you? You do NOT know what it is like to not hear.

“Well, as I got older, my hearing was gradually declining. I couldn’t hear very well, and it was very frustrating for me. It’s hard for me to communicate with people, often I get left out when it comes to a large group of people talking…” I felt my eyes water. I now understood the presence of the hideous tissue box, as Dr. Grey pushed it closer to me. Damn you, Dr. Grey. I took a tissue, sobbed and dabbed with it under my nose. “I’m just tired,” I whispered through my soupy sob.

Dr. Grey seemed pleased with herself. I could not help but wonder if this was her routine, to see how many patients she could crack? Was she taking cue notes from James Lipton? Dr. Grey cocked her head to the side as if this meant she was letting me know she was listening to my pain, and that she was the one who was going to be my savior. She was going to be the one who will erase my silence and give the world a voice.

“Are you ready for this?” She stared at me. Oh boy, was I? I let her put the device behind my ear, the magnet of the implant latched onto my head. It felt foreign in a funny R2D2 kind of way, I was now 1/16th of a robot. She attached a long cord to the implant and connected it to the computer. I braced myself, watching her flicker around the keyboard. She held up three fingers. I lip read her, “I’m going to count from three to one, once I say ‘one’ I will turn it on, okay?” I nodded nervously, staring at the wall ahead of me. What was I to expect? Clarity?

From the corner of my eye, I could see her three fingers reducing to two, and then, finally to… one.

I was sitting on the corner of my chair, half dangling out. I could not stop blinking. I had almost fallen out of my chair. I could not think. Every molecule in my body is trembling. “I can’t…” I stopped mid sentence. Even my own voice hurts. Every sound is jolting my brain while I twitched in a mild seizure.

“Alexis, I turned it off,” the doctor looked worried. I was speechless at this point. The doctor turned to my mother. “I think I might have adjusted the volume a little too loud for her first time.” You think? I waited another minute for Dr. Grey to adjust the volume to a more appropriate level. She nodded her head, and once again, held up three of her fingers. I make a face. Three. Two. One.

“Alexis, can you hear my voice?” I heard my mother. I gulped for a second, and then smiled at her. She sounded strange. This was not my mother’s voice I recognized from my hearing aids. I was used to her muffled sweet maternal undertones, but this woman sounded like Darth Vadar. My eyes widened. What is that? I felt disgusted as I listened to my own breathing. I heard Dr. Grey nudging me to talk.

“Umm…” I stopped myself. This is my own voice. “My name is Alexis and ummm,” I tested my voice. My voice was clearly different than theirs. I sounded deaf.

“This is what I sound like? All those years mom, I’ve been talking like this, and you let me?” I joked.

HAW HAW HAW! I jerked my head toward the closed door, following the sound. What was that? I raise my eyes.

“Did you hear that?” My mom was excited. Dr. Grey chimed in. “That was a woman laughing down the hallway, but she is very far away, and it is very low,” I was floored. I could now hear people in hallways. Was that a good thing? Do I want to hear people in hallways?

My mother would not take her eyes off me. We are walking through the hospital on our way out. She is pointing at everything. “Do you hear that?” she said, shifting her finger at the vending machine. The obnoxious Coca-Cola vertical sign let out its brainwashing hum.

“I need to go to the bathroom.” I turned to my mother, I was still not used to my voice. I waltzed into the bathroom, hearing strange warbling sounds everywhere. My heart raced. I got in one of the stalls and had one of the biggest scares of my life; a woman in the next stall flushed her toilet. For a millisecond there, I actually thought this was a bomb going off. The whooshing of the toilet made it sound like there was a nuclear war between the stalls. There is nothing more demeaning than sitting on a toilet with your pants around your ankles, and being horrified for your life. I might as well get gobbled up by a tyrannosaurus sitting here. I came out of the stalls, approached the sink, and had the second biggest scare of my life; I turned on the water faucet.

This is what I sound like? All those years mom, I’ve been talking like this, and you let me?

The Beatles were waiting for me in my mother’s car. I was excited by the thought of de-virginizing my ears with Paul McCartney circa 1969. My mother and I walked through the lobby. I felt a tug on my arm. “Listen” she pointed to the air as if she could pinpoint where the sound was coming from. I shook my head. I did not hear that specific sound. I was too distracted by passerby’s voices and the clippety clopping of their shoes. I was too distracted by the air vents and my own breathing. It never occurred to me that everything made noise. She ushered me closer to the sound she wanted me to hear. I followed her lead.

There was an elderly woman standing in the corner of the lobby. She had a viola in her feeble hand, and rested her chin on the base of it. Oscillating the stick on the strings of her viola, the people gathered around her in silence, and I — standing among them, listened. The elderly lady wrapped up her song and bowed down to the clapping crowd.

“Did you hear what tune she was playing?” She asked excitedly. I shook my head.

“She was playing Yes Jesus Loves Me.

I stared long and hard at my Jewish mother. She did not understand my irritated look. She did not understand what she did to me, and that she had ear-blocked me on Paul McCartney with this viola playing Sophia Petrillo. The Christians will have a field day with this. Oy vey.

I finally understood why people complain about the show The Nanny. I definitely was not missing out on Fran Drescher’s nasal voice. I still improvise; I leave the television on mute with closed captions.

My musical taste changed drastically. I plopped my once favorite band Jack Off Jill’s CD into the stereo and was mortified. It was bad. The screeching of Jessicka’s voice was not comforting anymore, but rather, just an annoyance. Jessicka cannot sing, which explains the band’s lack of popularity. I found myself leaning toward more popular music. I had a newfound love for folk music and psychedelic rock. I had an epiphany, this was the greatest gift I have ever received. Music. No one can take that away from me now. No one.

There is a downfall to the implant; I can hear people.

No matter how hard I have tried, I cannot for the life of me, get rid of this deaf voice. I have been talking like this my entire life. It is like trying to learn how to change your breathing rhythm. You just cannot just snap out of it and magically start talking like a “hearing person.” However, I do not sound as deaf anymore since the implant. People often mistake me for having a cold, or as a foreigner. Worst comment on my voice I’ve ever heard was, “Are you numb from the Novocaine?”

The chirping of a bird is not all that great. Nor is the snoring of a sleeping puppy. I still cannot hear the bees hum. This could be a good thing.

My cat is now more successful with her manipulative crying.

I still struggle with self identity, living between the parallel of both the deaf and hearing worlds. I consider myself deaf, and I consider myself hearing. Deaf people consider me hearing, and hearing people consider me deaf. I do not really care as long as I have my
rock n’ roll.

At nights, I take off my brand new ears and relax peacefully. What they do not realize, is that I have best of both worlds. I have my sounds, and
my silence.