Identity crisis: Deaf — with cochlear implants

The day I stepped into the street just as a car wheeled around and hit me was the day I decided to get cochlear implants.

Identity crisis: Deaf — with cochlear implants

The day I stepped into the street just as a car wheeled around and hit me was the day I decided to get cochlear implants.
  • The day I stepped into the street just as a car wheeled around and hit me was the day I decided to get cochlear implants. I changed my mind after laughing away an afternoon with a group of only Deaf friends, but then when I felt the DJ’s speakers at a ballroom dance, I decided to do it.

  • I got my first cochlear implant in June 2010, and my second, six months later.

  • It was the year of ugly, with my hair shaved and 56 staples in my head. I couldn’t taste anything because my taste nerve, wrapped around the auditory nerve, got nicked during surgery. Vertigo meant nausea, dizziness and not knowing which way was up.

  • While hard of hearing or late-deafened people may easily transition to life with cochlear implants, Deaf people deciding to get implants must consider serious cultural issues before surgery and navigate them carefully after surgery. Because deafness is the only disability with its own language, Deaf people view it as a culture rather than a disability. Surgery that corrects the disability may feel like cultural genocide.

  • While the audiologist may determine who qualifies for cochlear implants, some of the additional factors for the patient to consider include:

    • Ability to devote hours each day to listening rehab (this means enduring the noise while it is still new and uncomfortable, instead of taking off the external processors when it gets hard or loud)

    • Willingness to expose yourself to new sound experiences

    • Willingness to expose yourself to new cultural experiences (which does not have to mean betraying or abandoning Deaf culture)

    • Skills for flexibility and coping as you transition between worlds and endure challenging sensory and cultural experiences

    • Level of commitment to diligently working the rehab program.

  • Before the audiologist actually activated my sound six weeks post-surgery, my world was already changed. It wasn’t just the electrodes that screamed a terrifying brain noise into my head even without any external sound input. I had culturally offended myself — and I was excited about it.

  • I craved tasting the language I loved to write, and I longed to speak the same language as my mother. I wanted to swoon to the sound of a sunset, dance to the tinkling of butterflies, and sleep under the song of the stars.

  • Digital sound was far less romantic than I had imagined. Initially mechanical in its roaring noise, it was frightening and exhausting. I wanted immediately to know all sounds, but at first struggled just to learn the difference between sound and silence.

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  • I had to practice noticing when sound actually happened long before I could learn to identify what the sound was. Learning to identify specific sounds took months of repetition, frustrating me with things like the difference between a knock at the door and someone using a hammer.

  • Other sounds, like the garage door opening or the toilet flushing, were outright violent. I still don’t wear my cochlear implant processors to brush my teeth, and my husband has to start the dishwasher when I am in another room.

  • In the same way as I had to learn the difference between sound and silence, I also had to learn the space between sentences before I could even find words. It was months of rehab to learn the difference between specific words, like hat and cat and even more months to understand them regardless of the tone or gender of the voice. It was another year before I could understand with any kind of background noise (which is still hard enough that I usually depend on lip reading). I wore a lapel microphone for almost 10 months to learn my own voice for speech therapy.

  • The plus side of cochlear implants, though, is that they have extra settings hearing aids don’t have. I can change the volume of the sound, adapt sensitivity to how much sound I pick up, and choose the type of sound environment: quiet everyday sound, noisy places, focused one-on-one chats with a friend, and music.

  • Music made everything worth it

  • Digital sound is not always magic. If I wear my cochlear implant processors too many hours for too many days in a row, the spot where the magnet attaches to my head gets tender like a bruise. Dancing is harder for me now, the music distracting me from simply following the lead given. People forget I am Deaf, and many of my friends stopped using sign language. It feels like losing the language of the heart while busy saying so much.

  • I prefer people to sign as much as they can instead of only talking, and I express myself best visually. What was an identity crisis in the beginning has become a vehicle that transports me between cultures. I did not abandon my Deafness, and did not choose to be hearing. My implants are a tool of accessibility and freedom.

  • I am Deaf — with cochlear implants,

  • and it turns out that listening has very little to do with hearing.

  • Deciding whether or not to get cochlear implants was a very difficult decision, and one that I knew would change everything. I carefully considered my own unique situation, the context in which I lived, and my own desire to open myself up for new experiences. It took courage to move forward with such a difficult choice, and it required tenacity to do the hard work of learning to hear digitally. But the reward was astonishing, and every single day is an adventure of new sound experiences.

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Emily Christensen lives with her husband in Oklahoma. Her Ph.D. is in marriage and family therapy and she is pursuing a second degree in Hebrew and Jewish studies.


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