December 2007. I woke up and heard the sound of ringing in my ears, the kind that comes from having been at a concert or spending the night in a bar with the music blaring beyond loud. I acknowledged the faint sound with skepticism, I hadn’t been near noise the day before, why would my ears be ringing?
Then the ringing continued for days. Days became weeks. Weeks turned into months. Eight years later it’s the constant background hum of my day-to-day life. I’ve stopped noticing it unless I’m in a quiet room or straining to hear.
After flipping around from one doctor to the next, someone finally attributed the ringing to hearing loss. Great, I thought, I wasn’t going crazy, just deaf.
Shut into a soundproof room with walls covered in tiny black dots, becoming dizzy from the pattern on the thin carpet, I stared straight ahead with headphones in my ears, raising my hand to the intermittent beeps. And then they stopped. I could hear the sound of my breath, the ringing in my ears, but no tone to signal my hand upright. The silence stretched on for minutes.
Finally the technician returned and explained I had tonal hearing loss. Certain pitches had faded away completely from my range of sounds. The doctor asked what my profession was. When I told her I was a school teacher she looked at me quizzically. My hearing problem was most common in people who worked with machines, who drove jackhammers into cement, soldiers who had been to war, not teachers in their early twenties. She asked if I’d been exposed to loud noises. I thought of the times when I was a teenager and would walk for hours with death metal and Pantera blaring through the headphones, the handful of concerts I’d gone to, the indoor gun range my then-husband had taken me to months earlier. None seemed significant enough to have caused the permanent damage. She theorized it could be related to an underlying health problem and sent me on my way with handouts for how to deal with my new auditory absence. She explained that everything now would be like listening to songs played on a piano with broken keys. I would work constantly to fill in the missing notes, the phrases, the words not quite captured in conversation.
As a child I heard everything. Under-the-breath whispers not intended for an audience, late night discussions floating upstairs from kitchen to bedroom, secrets, words spoken during a game of telephone. Everything filtered in whether or not I listened.
And now, eight years after the ringing first began, I have re-learned how to listen.
When someone is speaking I must stop all other activity; no checking my cell phone, email, the time, I glance down only momentarily to scoop up mouthfuls of food, chewing slowly and deliberately so as not to let the crunch of a meal overpower spoken words. I watch the open and closure, puckering and pursing of words passing over lips. I look for gestures, body language, smiles and frowns, the light in someone’s eyes that comes from telling jokes, deep understanding, or speaking from the heart. I notice the automatic downward shift of the gaze that comes from having heard an answer far off from the question, signaling to me that I’ve misheard and that the words I’ve filled in to the blanks were not quite right. I can tell someone’s mood, predict the topic for discussion just by watching the rhythm of their breath. When I listen, I listen with my whole being, focusing my mind on the words rather than thinking of the next thing to say. Any deviation from being present brings a loss of comprehension.
Sometimes our greatest struggles are our greatest gifts. This loss that constantly challenges and frustrates me, has taught me to hear that which does not make a sound, to be present, and to notice things I would otherwise have overlooked, ignored, or taken for granted. I invite you to listen too with your eyes and with your heart whether or not your ears need the support.