blackbirdonline journalFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

The Sound of My Unhearing

Sound waves enter the outer ear, or pinna, and travel through a narrow passageway called the ear canal, which leads to the eardrum.

One morning, I woke up unable to hear out of my right ear. I chugged chalky and pink amoxicillin throughout my childhood to combat frequent ear infections. My ear canals were still small for an adult, and while I didn’t get infections anymore, at times they became impacted with wax.

A plugged ear wrecked my equilibrium and made me clumsier than usual. Bruises collected on my arm as I bumped into the corners of the walls in my house. The COVID-19 lockdowns had closed many doctors’ offices for nonemergencies and a visit to the ENT doctor seemed trivial when people were dying alone and breathless in their bedrooms. I bided my time with rinses that dribbled a saline solution out of my ear and down my shirt. Nothing penetrated the blockage.

In the meantime, I had one ear to serve my three children as the world we knew shut down. My husband, Stephan, worked downstairs while I helped our eight-year-old manage virtual school. I made lesson plans for our bewildered preschooler but spent most of my time consoling her over the abrupt separation from her teacher, Ms. Brenda. Our toddler son busied himself with learning to twist open the basement door to find his father.

Each child needed me in their own manner as we all adjusted to our new normal. Which child wanted a snack? Which one had the toy first? What was my nonverbal toddler trying to communicate? I imagined myself pulling threads of conversation from the tangle of words in midair, connecting them to their respective humans like the matching exercises in my daughter’s workbooks.

“Mommy, can I glibby globby glubby?” Button, my four-year-old, asked.

I blinked. “Hmm? Can you repeat that?”

She sidled right up to my unaffected ear. “MOMMY, CAN I HAVE SOME JUICE, PLEASE? CAN YOU HEAR ME?”

It took a full five minutes for the bells to stop ringing.

When my brood all clamored for my attention at the top of their lungs, anxiety overwhelmed me. I couldn’t concentrate. I’d walk six feet from the dining-room table to the kitchen and idle next to the dishwasher in search of my reason for entering the space.

“Aaah!” My sixteen-month-old son shrieked.

Right. “I’m sorry, baby. You want some yogurt?”

My children chirped open-mouthed like baby birds awaiting breakfast in their nest. But I had no worm to break into three for them to share. My body would have to suffice. After weeks of dreading emails about late deadlines, I quit pitching and writing freelance articles to avoid burnout. Only I could not seem to split my time, energy, and attention among three children and have anything worth picking over at the end of the day. I struggled to conserve mental space for myself in daylight hours, thoughts not involving caretaking, but in doing so, I failed to meet their needs. I spaced out, scrolling my phone at the dining-room table. Irritation bubbled beneath the surface of my speech and splattered me with shame when it burst. Inadequacy gnawed. Perhaps, I thought, I could learn how to be a mother without also being a person. That way, my darlings could eat their fill of me, and I would not notice the chunks missing.

As COVID-19 spread across the US, I remained grateful that the din of voices ringing in my good ear was that of my children, who were healthy. I was, too. My chest expanded in a reaffirming breath. I reached for another conversation thread, not yet realizing the ways I had begun to unravel.


Two weeks into lockdown, my impacted ear had not resolved itself. Enough was enough. I googled a nearby ENT office and made an appointment that same week to remove the wax. The doctor was a short, East Asian man who greeted me through the receptionist’s window, apologizing for the wait while he shuffled some files and things behind the desk. They had sent all nonessential staff home due to the threat of COVID-19, he said. His hurried manner made me think of how essential “nonessential” components of our lives seem to become when we no longer have use of them.

As the medical equivalent of a Hoover vacuumed my right ear, I considered asking the ENT about something less immediate, less obvious than the wax jammed into my canal. I once sat as an eleven-year-old in a brown-walled booth to take an audiometry test. It determined I had some hearing loss. The condition wasn’t severe enough to merit any monitoring or intervention from the adults in my life.

But when I was twenty-eight, working as an editor at an insurance company, I realized my hearing had changed. I shared an adjacent cubicle with a woman named Cat who sometimes painted her toenails or altered dresses for her clothing line on her desk. She talked fast and loudly and laughed as if this job could kiss her whole ass at any moment. But Cat’s voice transformed into a murmur to me when she turned her face toward her computer. Sitting behind the muted cackle of a woman everyone else heard from rows away, I became aware that communicating would take more effort from me. Just me, though. Cat used a stage whisper when our other coworkers dropped by to gossip in a huddle next to her half of the cubicle. I was worried enough about becoming the fodder for their hushed tones without them knowing about my condition. I had a reputation as a sharp-eyed editor on my team; revealing that my ears weren’t as sharp would have felt like a blow to my professional image.

So, I began positioning myself to engage in conversations, swiveling my chair if someone on the aisle called my name. I got up and walked to where people sat because chatting from the other side of the padded cubicle was a no-go.

“You didn’t have to get up and walk all the way over here,” my friend Shavon admonished me when I popped up by her desk.

“I needed a screen break anyway,” I lied.

Still, my modifications didn’t stop my coworkers from shouting for my attention when I played music in my headphones, or when I focused on a tedious edit. It tickled them to see me jump in my chair after a shoulder tap.

“You were focused, honey!” Cat laughed.

I let that be the joke—Dara was way too dedicated to subject-verb agreement—rather than run the risk of my hearing loss becoming the punchline.

But that was ages ago in a different body.

This body, nearly a decade older, the one that sat in the ENT’s chair feeling pressure ease in my ear and a frisson of fear that maybe my exasperated husband was not exaggerating about how bad my “huh” and “can you repeat that?” habits had gotten. He had long endured my delayed responses while I waited for garbled sound to organize itself into speech. Sometimes my mouth ran ahead of my brain.

“What’d you say?” I’d ask him.

He repeated, “I said, ‘Did you see the—’”

“Oh, did I see that meme about Cardi? Yeah, I did.” I understood him a half-beat too late. His mouth twitched in annoyance.

Stephan had a solution to the problem. “Your mom likes her hearing aids. Our insurance covers them. I’m just saying, maybe you should go get checked,” he said. He had been bringing it up since my mother visited and showed off her new aids postdiagnosis two years ago. But physical devices represented more than help to me: they would be visible signs pointing to a heretofore invisible, genetic issue.

“I’m not my mom,” I replied. I did not say what I meant: I am too young for that. “And besides, my hearing is probably not that bad anyway,” I added. I resented when he set the television volume high enough for him to hear, which made it inaudible to me, as if only his desire to enjoy the movie mattered. The ever-present captions I used couldn’t tell me when the bloke on screen had a British accent. I missed knowing when the background music in a scene added to its charm or offered a sly commentary belying the montage before me.

When I adjusted the sound, my husband said, “It’s too loud; it’ll wake the kids.” I didn’t want to admit he was right, that I was being unfair to him.

His pushiness towards hearing aids made me stand firm in my desire to tough it out with as few people as possible knowing about my condition. That included my closest friends and my children. My main job during the pandemic was childcare and I could not handle the thought of my kids seeing me as deficient, broken, incapable of giving them what they needed. The way I saw myself.

I waged quiet protests in my house. If someone called me from another room, I would sit tight and wait until they sought me out wherever I was. There was not much difference in conversation between me not hearing their voices and me not understanding their speech.

Losing one ear for two weeks had knocked me off balance—the imbalance with which I had grown accustomed to living. I didn’t just experience difficulty hearing and loss of equilibrium. My thoughts ran away from me all day. I chased fragmented ideas in circles and felt less whole, restless, without the benefit of a writing practice to enliven routine drudgery. I was certain I was losing brain cells, unintelligence taking root as more sounds became unintelligible to me. And as the world shuttered doors and windows against COVID-19, seeking refuge at home, my inner life shrank to the four walls that bruised me, the three children jostling for my ear, the two competing roles of mother and writer, and one beleaguered brain struggling to make sense of myself and the moment.

I found my tongue when my ENT shut off his vacuum and the hum of the air-conditioning unit filled both my ears. “So, an audiologist told me when I was a kid that I had hearing loss, but I haven’t gotten it checked in a while. It runs in my family,” I said.

The doctor scraped my ear canal with a curette and shone a light inside. “I don’t see anything abnormal,” he said, “but I can give you a referral. An audiologist just happened to move in next door to me.”

Like a child cupping her hands over each pinna, I would ignore the otolaryngologist’s hall pass for another year.

The tympanum, or eardrum, vibrates from the incoming sound waves and sends these vibrations to three tiny bones in the middle ear. These bones, or ossicles, are called the malleus, incus, and stapes. The bones in the middle ear amplify, or increase, the sound vibrations and send them to the cochlea in the inner ear.

The ear Hoover cleared my wax impaction in time for the jarring realization that COVID-19 was here to stay. On my rare errands in public, people mumbled at me from behind masks, stringing together gibberish that never transformed into words, but instead tightened into a string around my throat. New worries pearled over old.

I closed my eyes every time a friend or family member on Facebook posted an old photo of someone I knew. Sometimes it was just a birthday announcement, but more and more of these nostalgic pictures included a death date. Two of my aunts and two uncles, coupled in sickness as in health, contracted COVID-19 amid ongoing medical emergencies. I attended the Zoom funerals of my friends’ parents while my children played outside my bedroom door. Any phone call could be the call—I jumped at every vibration.

The global plague and its attendant griefs seemed to amplify my agitation at not hearing others, at no longer perceiving my own inner voice. I stumbled through the days with a growing static in my head. Nightfall ushered me into a hellish anteroom. I stayed up as late as possible avoiding bedtime, trying not to think about death, waiting for sleep to come, wondering if they sounded alike stealing through the darkness. Fear crawled under the covers with me. When my head hit the pillow, my body tensed as if I lay eye to eye with Death, a nightly rehearsal for my final repose in a casket. There was still so much I wanted to do and be and see and write and I could die any minute. I could die right now. I was going to die before the sun rose again.

I did not want to die, but it scared me that I began to imagine a kind of respite in death preferable to my current state.

I leaned into my husband’s embrace for comfort: his heart thumped against my left shoulder blade and his breath warmed the nape of my neck. I held his hand as it wrapped across my chest, willing his love to anchor my stricken body as it did my spirit. I tried to inhale. My breath cut a ragged tear into the bedroom’s silence. Gasp-gasp, exhale. Gasp, exhale. Gasp. Gasp. Gasp.

“Hey,” Stephan whispered. “Breathe with me.” He slowly inhaled and released air. The instructions should have been simple for me to follow but nothing about breath or life came easy in that interminable night. My body fought itself.

In the space between my breasts, the place that told me when I filled my lungs to capacity, that was where I stashed all the day’s morbid thoughts, piling them as fast as they spawned in case I could free my hands to hold something alive, something fruitful. By evening, my chest ached. Everything weighed too much for me to breathe. And so, because I could not do the slightest task like draw air, I broke. The tension in my body eased as sobs wrenched from me. But I was breathing.


Winter was also a long night. The days when the sun shone despite the mood-dampening cold, Button announced it as if a rare visitor had come to break the mundanity of homeschool.

“It’s a sunny day!” she said.

So, it was. I gathered my youngest children—Button in her unicorn coat, Bear in a puffer spangled with stars—to stand at the open doorway of our house. My irrepressible boy tugged me to the threshold to face the world from which I hid. We inhaled the day until our lungs filled. Then we exhaled our greetings:

Hello, sun! Hello, trees with no leaves. Hello, bugs!
Hello, blue sky and floating clouds. Hello, gray car.
Hello, fresh, cold air. Hello, robins pecking for worms.
Hello, brown squirrel. Hello, icicles.

On days when I felt like a head with no body, I focused on the winter chill and the kiss of sunlight on the forehead my grandmother gifted me. But also, I zeroed in on the little voice that noticed details I did not: from the stalwart mailbox to the summer cicada husks, deserted and ruptured, that clung to the bricks until the snow fell. Some days I was barely clinging, too. Some days I held my son’s hand, and other days, he held mine.


The first COVID year crept by in bouts of intense childcare and benign self-neglect. I drove my children forty-five minutes across town to catch them back up on their biannual teeth cleaning. I postponed my own. But I knew I could not parent for long through the muscle memory of routine before my body deteriorated. I spent a short-lived stint, just before COVID-19, working from home part-time while caring for an infant and toddler.

It turned out I could not help but notice the ulcerous chunks missing.

As 2021 arrived, I resolved to catch up on all the medical care I had foregone in the past nine months of vigilant masking, social distancing, and isolation. I ticked body parts off a maintenance list—eyes, teeth, vagina—until my brain and ears remained.

That February, I sat in a slipper chair, laptop propped up on my nightstand, trying to get comfortable with the impersonal intimacy of Zoom cognitive behavioral therapy sessions in my bedroom. My new therapist rattled off questions to put a name to the reason why my heart raced at all hours of the day, why I couldn’t focus on anything, why thoughts of death plagued me while I poured milk into my son’s Cheerios.

Generalized anxiety disorder.


A memory returns to me: I am ten or eleven. Walking into a bowling alley for a tournament, I announce to my mother, “I feel anxious.”

The s escapes in a hiss of air between my teeth. I have recently discovered this word in one of the books that never leaves my hands. Anxious feels like a word to tuck in my back pocket for special occasions, one that would make grown-ups’ eyebrows slide upward. I wait for my mother’s reaction.

She chuckles. “Oh, really?”

Nothing in her bemused expression tells me that anxiety could be more than the jitterbugs in my tummy before a bowling game, that anxiety is a thing I could possess at all times—no, that it could possess me. That it could make me forget who I was before I became anxious.


My therapist suggested I practice grounding exercises with him during a session. I was game. It felt like a child’s pastime: finding five things I could see, four things to touch, three things I could hear, two scents to smell, and one thing I could taste. The exercise was not altogether unfamiliar.

When I told him about the sun greetings I did with Bear, he smiled. “That’s exactly it,” he said. “That’s a good idea and I love that you do that together. But I want to encourage you to do the same thing even when it’s not sunny outside. Greet your gray days. ‘Hello, raindrops. Hello, storm clouds. Hello, worms.’”

It had never occurred to me to give voice to the very thing I was trying to avoid, to speak to the elephant sitting on my chest.

Hello, anxiety.

Once the vibrations cause the fluid inside the cochlea to ripple, a traveling wave forms. Hair cells ride the wave, and microscopic hair-like projections (known as stereocilia) that perch on top of them bump against an overlying structure and bend. Bending causes pore-like channels to open up. When that happens, chemicals rush into the cells, creating an electrical signal.

My audiologist was a soft-spoken Black woman whose penchant for pearls reminded me of the army of brooch-wearing ladies who ran my old Baptist church. She ushered me into the small audiometric booth and instructed me to respond to the tones I’d hear by clicking a pen-shaped device. I couldn’t help but tell her, “Yes, ma’am.”

I sat in the faux-leather chair with my feet perched on the spokes of its base so my legs wouldn’t swing. First, she played different tones through a snug headset. A smile lifted my mouth when I heard the low sounds. I am killing this test, I thought. Then, a man’s voice spoke different words that I repeated into the otherwise soundless room.

“OK, that’s the last one,” the doctor said. Her voice sounded loud yet distant through the speakers over my ears. She took the seat opposite of me in the booth.

“You have significant sensorineural hearing loss,” she said. Her voice was firm but not unkind. I caught every word despite the cloth mask covering her mouth and nose. “Your hearing fails at the level of conversational speech.”

My hands fluttered about my face because the tears were going to fall and I was unprepared. I could not catch them. Or—my hands fluttered about my face because I was falling through my house of cards and there was no one to catch me. The doctor handed me a wad of tissues from the box of Kleenex I didn’t notice before. Was this response normal, then, a flood of emotion in a space built for detecting abnormalities? A moment ago, I sat in a river called denial. In one sentence, she had captured how words lapped at the shoreline of my ears, then rushed away in an indecipherable froth of sound, as if magnetically drawn back to their owner before my brain could make meaning. I struggled and failed to keep the salt water in my eyes at bay. How many messages had not reached me over the years? I was the bottle, a woman curved inward to meet herself, a wreckage of nerves, washing up on my own beach.

She waited for me to collect the flotsam. “You have been spending way too much cognitive function just trying to hear.” Her gentleness cut in its precision. I had told myself that going through life without hearing well wasn’t that difficult in order to make it true that my condition was not as bad as others said. But it was difficult. The unutterable truth was that I was so tired. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t hear. And I couldn’t remember what I heard because I used too much brain power trying to hear. The admission shattered me.

I wiped my eyes behind my glasses, then stared at my clairvoyant audiologist as she described my life in detail without having observed me outside this tiny booth, my confessional.

I told her how exhausted I felt at the end of a mothering day. I told her about all the misunderstood jokes I laughed at because I didn’t want to ask people to repeat themselves. My saccharine smiles to speed along unintelligible conversations. She nodded, keeping time with the halting rhythm of my speech.

“So, does this mean I need hearing aids?” I asked.

“I do believe they will make a tremendous difference in your life,” she confirmed. “You’ll be surprised how small and unobtrusive newer models can be. Now, I want to caution you that hearing aids are not a cure for hearing loss; they can only help amplify the sounds coming into your ear. So, you may still experience some distortion. And your brain will have to relearn how to hear all the sounds you’ve been missing over the years.”

I let the silence settle. I knew she knew that saying yes to wearing devices entailed more than me sticking hardware into my ears. Months ago, I had started reading Toni Cade Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters, and got stuck where she writes, “wholeness is no trifling matter.” I let the e-book return to the library after weeks because I couldn’t focus long enough to finish it. I was a whole mess of a wife and mother, a writer who wasn’t writing, trifling.

Are you sure you want to be well?

Heschl’s gyri
The auditory nerve carries this electrical signal to the auditory cortex of the brain on the transverse temporal gyri (or Heschl’s gyri), which turn it into a sound that we recognize and understand.

After my diagnoses, I inhaled all the information I could about hearing loss and anxiety. The most important concept I learn is that “hearing” takes place in the brain. It is the last place we tend to think of when we imagine the journey of sound traveling from our mouths: waves of meaning collected by the pinna, moving toward the tympanum, vibrating in the cochlea, sending a signal to Heschl’s gyri. Diagnosis as shock, electrical signal, a jolt of understanding. For a long time, I couldn’t address the problem because my denial, rooted in anxiety, was also a kind of unhearing. Neither of my conditions emerged during the pandemic. I battled intense bouts of dread and avoidance cycles for years whenever I received a business email. Anxiety lurked in my decade-long refusal to see an audiologist. To confront either issue, I had to want to be well, which is another way to say I needed to admit I was not.

Now that I am relearning how to hear myself, I understand: I sounded like so many others who struggle to acknowledge auditory issues. I mimicked classic denial behaviors without ever reading the handbook. Even my shame for waiting so long to get my ears checked is typical; those who need it most often avoid getting assistance for over a decade. After years of worrying about awkwardness and standing out, it feels oddly refreshing to realize I am only basic, after all. People with moderate to severe hearing loss, I learned, are more likely to live with anxiety, especially since auditory acuity degenerates over time. Perhaps, like my younger self prophesied, I was destined to live with this particular mental illness, spiraling into disquietude because of the damage to my spiral-shaped cochlea.

Sometimes, when I find just enough focus to tamper with my sanity, I question which behavior is the chicken or the egg. Am I an anxious person because I am hard of hearing, or am I anxious because I exist? Am I an introvert, or am I an adult whose childhood social development was shaped by coping mechanisms to hearing loss? I was a shy girl, but I was also a child who could not hear well, who compensated for cacophony by bringing books to meals full of chattering people. As a teenager, I belonged to a clique of seven beloveds, but I still withdrew when the gaggle gathered because listening and being heard demanded too much of me. Who am I without this condition that influenced my behavior in the shadows, and does it even matter, when this is the body I have to show up for in the light? The body that I need to show up for.

My audiologist is right: hearing aids are not a cure. Neither for the amplified speech I still often fail to comprehend, nor for the internalized ableism I had to face to get help for both my hearing loss and anxiety disorder.

When spring comes, I spend my Wednesday afternoons taking my two-year-old to speech therapy for his apraxia. He works with a rotation of therapists, one of whom is a blonde woman with a long ponytail. Ms. Krista reminds me of a kindergarten teacher when she crouches in front of my seat to update me on his progress that session. Her mask impedes my lip reading. Meeting her eyes, I sense kindness for the toddler who concentrates with all his might to say the color “puh-po.” She may have enough patience left over for the woman struggling to understand most of what she says. But I bob my head briskly, smiling behind my face covering, forgetting that my smile no longer masks my lack of comprehension. I thank her for her hard work once, and then again, so I can end the conversation. I still have work of my own to do.


When I get my hearing aids that summer, the clearest sound my brain registers is the kitchen faucet, the bubbly rush of water molecules hitting each other en route to the metal sink. It is the same water I have heard every day in this house, but today it is immediate, at the edge of my senses, drawing my attention. The soundtrack of living comprises a patchwork of “nonessential” noises we often relegate to the background. A study I once read linked hearing loss to dementia, and it conjured my creeping sense of unseated reality when one ear went quiet. In this way, I realize the loss and loneliness of living without sounds we do not know we are missing—especially if they originate within us—the sound of our own unhearing.


The next spring, when the cherry blossoms open to full blush in downtown DC, I drive to Philadelphia to attend a writing conference. This, too, is part of my bid for wholeness. The guilt over leaving my husband and children midweek during the school year, just to chop it up with other writers about writing, follows me out of the driveway and halfway through Delaware. But delight washes over me as the limestone, marble, and granite glory of Philadelphia City Hall imposes itself against the overcast sky. I lug my anxiety—a suitcase stuffed with eight just-in-case outfits for two full conference days—past Reading Terminal Market and vow to defy the voice whispering I should have stayed home. The buzz of the attendees in the hotel lobby halts my steps. I had hurdled all those mental obstacles to get there for the privilege of experiencing social anxiety sans children. I would, by God, be social, wearing my new hearing aids. And a KN95 mask.

For so long, I used the invisibility of hearing loss as a thin, ineffective cloak in public: no one could clock me as someone they could discriminate against, but no one could help me, either. People feel emboldened in the power dynamic of withholding assistance until they deem someone worthy of it. But I am working through my anxiety about accessibility in public and asking for what I need. Or rather, not even asking: stating what I need or using the accommodations already in place. This conference is my proving ground.

The meeting room 113A is longer than it is wide, with dozens of chair rows stretching back to the heavy wooden doors. I make a quick decision when I see people sitting two and three side by side. Even though they are masked, I think of COVID-19 and walk past them to the front. The seats in the first row bear orange sleeves with icons indicating accommodations for people with auditory, mobility, and visual disabilities. Still, when I see the symbol for sign language, doubt creeps. What if they mean that only people who use an interpreter can sit there?

Although I’m getting better at telling strangers I can’t hear well, I still struggle to find the appropriate label (and accommodations) to which I can lay claim. When my audiologist told me she considered hearing loss a condition rather than a disability, I nodded gravely. I do not want to sit where I do not belong when it could mean taking up space for someone who should be there. I tread lightly.

Three panelists sit at the long table up front, swiping their thumbs across their smartphones to pass the time before the session begins. The mustachioed one in the middle has wavy brown hair down to his shoulders and wears a flannel shirt over a faded black concert tee. He will do fine.

“Excuse me, are you the moderator?” I ask. “Is it OK if I sit here?” I jerk a thumb toward the ADA reserved section.

He shrugs. “I’m not, but yeah, go for it. I don’t mind.”

I sit.

No one else occupies the other reserved seating. For those few minutes before a panelist takes to the podium, I feel conspicuous, wondering if the other attendees are wondering what gives me the right to sit here. I imagine tilting my head to show my hearing aids if someone challenges me.

Hello, anxiety.

I take a deep breath. No one will say anything to me, I reassure myself. And no one does.

For the next panel, I take my seat in the orange ADA section without asking permission. As the presenters begin their spiel, my anxieties recede because I can, for once, follow their speech without straining my entire body to listen. I do not hear everything, but it is enough that I have made myself heard.  

The italicized portions under each subhead are adapted from “How Do We Hear,” published by the National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

return to top