White Noise Lobster
by Nilsa Rivera
Every year, I’m supposed to get a hearing test. Every year, I am terrified of what my audiologist will say. This year wasn’t different. A month before my fortieth birthday, I figure I should get a hearing test as a baseline for the years to come.
When I got there, the front desk attendant offered me a snack and coffee. My nails competed with the cookie I shoved in my mouth, but I couldn’t get rid of the dentist’s office nerves.
My hearing loss started during my early childhood. As the oldest child of a deaf woman, it was expected but I never really knew it was not normal to hear. The only abnormality that I noticed was my mom’s speech. My family didn’t speak about deafness or hearing loss. It was just the way things were.
When I was seven years old, I sat in a classroom, isolated in a daydream. The teacher sat me in the first row, and every few weeks, she would ask me, “When is your mother taking you to get a hearing test?” My mother never did.
I was really shy so I always kept to myself. I was an only child, my parents were strict, and moved a lot so I was used to being alone. I remember looking at the other kids in the lunchroom, talking to each other and playing around. I wished that I could be as outgoing as they were but I never really joined them. When I interacted with other kids, they made fun of the way I spoke. “You speak funny,” they said, which made me self-conscious and I spoke even less. Eventually, someone mentioned that I spoke that way because I was from New York and I assumed they were right and used the excuse for years. I still let people think that sometimes.
As I grew older, I made few friends and sometimes they would tease me too but I always thought it was just my speech. When I misunderstood something, I thought it was because I was distracted. A lot of people miss a word here and there.
Eventually, I had a child. When my son was five years old, his teacher suggested a hearing test because he had a speech impediment. The audiologist smiled as I explained my family’s medical history. Then she said, “Your son is mimicking your speech. He’s not hard of hearing, you are.”
She told me to get into a metal closet with a bullet-proof window and asked me to press a button every time I heard a sound. I failed the test. I was 25 the first time I was prescribed hearing aids.
For the first time, I heard the annoying sound of the ceiling fan in my living room and the lawn mowers outside of my bedroom window. I heard voices overlapping each other, and the wind, the windshield wipers, the clicking, clapping, thumping of every object around me all at the same time. I heard my husband’s voice coming in way too loud. I also heard the static of my hearing aids every time my hair or glasses brushed against them. Every time I moved, I heard a squeal, like a microphone malfunctioning. I craved silence.
For years I didn’t wear the hearing aids. Then once, during a job interview, the interviewer asked, “What is the correlation between HIV and TB?” I said, “I think we can use TV to spread HIV awareness.” She smiled. “Well, I meant Tuberculosis but good answer.” I will never forget the embarrassment.
As my career started to grow, I was denied a promotion because I wasn’t assertive. Some of my co-workers also mentioned that I was too quiet. I started to see the value of socializing and networking but it just requires so much effort from me. Listening and understanding people requires my full attention. I listen with my eyes, body, and ears. I watch body language, read lips, strain to hear, and even feel for the emotion or energy the person is communicating. I tune out other conversations, other movements in the room, and anything that can distract me from the person speaking. I create an invisible funnel that focuses only on that person. If someone else speaks, those words do not reach my brain. If I want to listen to someone else, it takes a couple of seconds for my brain to switch to the next person speaking.
This effort is exhausting and I’m not always willing to give it. The content must be worth it. Socializing ends up low on my list of priorities because it is so difficult and overwhelming. When people gather in groups, there’s a tendency to get close to each other and talk in a low tone. It’s nice to be considerate of others in the room, I understand, but I can’t pick up on whispers especially when those voices are competing with other sounds in a crowded room.
I went to a business luncheon once with about ten people from my department. When the waiter asked me what I wanted to eat, I noticed the menu had lobster at market price. I asked what was market price. I heard, “It a special with white noise. Market is white noise, is white noise, and if you want white noise, it’s white noise.” I asked again and the waiter spoke louder. I created that funnel and tuned out all the background noise. “It’s a special with lobster. Market is white noise. It’s white noise and if you want white noise, it’s white noise.” By that time, some of my co-workers were looking, which embarrassed me so I said, “Ok.”
After I received a four-inch lobster tail with no sides, I ate quietly. A co-worker asked, “That’s all you gonna eat?”
“Yeah, I’m not that hungry.”
Then I got the bill. $125. My whole department had to chip in to help me pay for the white noise lobster. Since then, I avoid lunch with co-workers and label myself an introvert.
My husband says, “You read lips, you’re good.” I do read lips, which means that I have to constantly look at people’s lips moving. Some people can take that as flirting and others get self-conscious. I was once talking to a co-worker who has a low voice. He slumped over the keyboard as he taught me how to pull a report. He was looking at his keyboard, typing, and talking at the same time. I leaned in to look at his lips and didn’t notice how close we were until he looked up and his face was inches from my face. He smiled and spent the whole week after that flirting with me and licking his lips.
In the doctor’s office, I was put in another metal closet with a bullet proof window and asked to press a button each time I heard a noise. After the hearing test, the doctor said, “You haven’t been wearing your hearing aids.”
I confused the statement with a question and answered, “Not really. Only to work and class.” She frowned and stared at me sternly. I bit my lips, fumbled with my purse, looked down, and asked, “How did you know?”
“Your hearing is getting worse.”
I tried to ignore the heaviness of my chest and my heartbeat racing. My speech would get worse and people would struggle to understand me. I tried telling myself that people who loved me would learn sign language but I knew that was a lie. People would just ignore me even if I was sitting at the same table with them. I would depend on others to handle certain errands for me because it would be hard for me to communicate. Phone conversations would disappear. My friends would disappear. Not having a conversation with a stranger is not as bad as not being able to have a conversation with a loved one. Losing my hearing would make me invisible.
The doctor lowered her head and motioned her hand so I could look at her, instead of my hands. I glared at her lips moving slowly. She pronounced her words like a mom when teaching a child how to speak. “Soon you won’t be able to understand people. You will hear them but you won’t understand because your brain won’t process the words.”
Little by little, I was disappearing into a subculture that most people didn’t even notice. When I got back into my car, I sobbed, and put on the black hearing aids I had earlier stuffed into my pocket.