When I first met other people with hearing loss, I was fascinated by their stories, often inspiring but also heartrending. Other people had great difficulty in expressing their emotions, and I realized I could help do it for them, by creating a dramatic, spoken-word depiction of life with hearing loss. I turned to my friend Dalene Flannigan, a fellow actor and a brilliant playwright, and the result was Unheard Voices. This performance piece of connected monologues aims to illustrate the impact of hearing loss on not only those who have it, but family, friends, co-workers and even our hearing care professionals. The characters include a woman trying to explain her communication challenges, a man who has been sidelined from his job, a teenager trying to fit in, and the battle between a hearing daughter and her aging mother.
After I had been performing Unheard Voices for a couple of years, several people asked me to include a character experiencing the trauma of sudden deafness. One of the first deaf activists I had met was a woman who went to bed ‘hearing’ and woke up deaf. She and others shared their stories of sudden deafness, and again I turned to Dalene, who created the following monologue which now forms part of Unheard Voices.
Scene: A woman is talking to a retail specialist in a hearing assistive devices store.
Wow, I didn’t realize that there would be so many, uh, styles to choose from. I’ve never used one of these vibrators – oh, not a vibrator, you know what I mean – an alarm vibrating-vibrator-thing…
I never needed one – when my husband’s alarm went off in the morning, I never heard it. I think I’d trained myself to ignore it because it was too early – I could get another hour’s sleep! David would shower and get ready for work, and just when he went out the door, that was when I had to get up. But I never needed an alarm – just the sound of the front closing would wake me. It wasn’t loud, just a soft puh-phht! I always thought it was funny that I wouldn’t hear David’s loud beeping alarm right next to my head – yet I could hear the soft closing of the door downstairs.
Strange, eh, these signals that we don’t think about consciously, yet we respond to? At least, I used to respond….
So, after the door closed, I’d lie in bed bartering with myself for more time. Like, I don’t have to wash my hair this morning, I’ll just pull it back – that’ll save me ten minutes. Or, it’s Wednesday, so Dana, my daughter, doesn’t need a drive this morning – that’s five more. And I always thought that I was lying there just thinking about nothing, but now I know differently. I was actually listening to things.
We live near a busy road and I could tell the weather by the sound of the tires on the road – slurpy meant it was raining and crunchy meant it had snowed. And if Dana’s bedroom door was open, I could hear her breathing, a sort of snuffling-snore. There was this one bluejay that used to drive me nuts with his scratchy, high-pitched drone. I put a plastic owl in the tree but he wasn’t fooled. And, like clockwork, I’d hear the tapping of my dog’s nails on the hardwood as she paced between her food bowl and the bottom of the stairs, waiting for me to serve her breakfast.
I heard all of this before I got out of bed – before I even opened my eyes. This was before…that morning.
That morning I woke – this is ironic – and sat bolt upright, startled, as if someone had banged a drum or shot a gun or something. My heart was pounding. I listened for something unusual – the sounds of a burglar, maybe? Nothing, thank god. I breathed a sigh of relief – and that was it, the precise moment when my whole world changed.
I didn’t hear my breath. My own breath.
I didn’t wake up because of a loud noise – I woke up because of nothing. A silence so deafening that it woke me. And it terrified me. I shook my head, to be sure I was really awake and not trapped in some nightmare – which of course, I was.
“Hello?” I said politely, as if answering the phone. “Hello!?”
(She is now very upset.) Um…they say it was a virus of some sort. They’re not sure. Just some virus…!
But boy, did my life change – and my job! I used to be glued to the phone and now I have to learn how to communicate, all over again. Now, I’m texting and my life is full of all these things that vibrate and have flashing lights. I’m working on my speechreading – and the whole family is learning sign language, but the kids are better at it than me.
You know, it’s like being tossed into the deep end to learn how to swim. It was blind panic – I had zero coping skills. And the thing about tossing someone into the deep end is that – if they can’t get the hang of swimming fast enough – they drown. But not me, no way, I’m treading water now…and I’ll be swimming laps soon…and…
(She pulls herself together, tries for humor.)
Well, I’m sure you’ve heard all this before, working here and all. Um, this one here will be fine, I guess. Yes, I’ll take it, thank you. Uh, does it come with instructions? You know, if I ever thought of buying a vibrator for the bedroom – I’m sure I never thought of this…