P / P Essay: The Water Inside (Can You Hear Me?)

Written By: Alanna Bailey

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Photo By: Joshi Daniel Photography

The word claustrophobic came to mind. I’ve never been one for small, contained spaces, let alone small, contained spaces that swallowed sound—so this was starting to fit-the-bill for pulling the fire alarm in my lizard brain. Survival mode, hyper-vigilant, I surveyed every detail of the small, angled room, a series of rectangles stacked and repeated in different orders: rectangular ceiling mirroring the rectangular floor, pulled out and mirrored again in three-dimensional rectangular blocks, steps, one on which I sat, directly across from the standard rectangular door and an adjacent tiny rectangular window, across from a rectangular speaker fastened in the opposite corner. And as if this rectilinear closet wasn’t unfortunate enough, everything, save the door, window and speaker front, was covered in entirely drab slate-grey, carpeting, institutional, no doubt special ordered from a company that made the dowdy material with a special ability to absorb acoustics.0

The soundlessness magnified my breath and heartbeat, now entirely in my throat and head, but consumed anything else. The ad for the material or it’s corresponding ‘Yelp’ reviews must have been equally alarming—‘Wish your son and his band weren’t into death metal? Cover his room with this soundproof material!’; or ‘I’ll bet Ted Bundy wished he had this! What a great invention!’; or ‘Now my small farms slaughterhouse doesn’t scare the other employees!’. The list goes on. And horrors aside, I was shaking my head at the designer. I imagine some interior architect fell asleep in front of a bottomless Auto CAD galaxy and woke to see their toddler had stacked up shoe boxes and wood blocks on the floor nearby, and simply said—brilliant, I’ll just do that. Lazy… But perhaps fitting for a great torture chamber, or audiology testing booth, as it were.

I shifted on the scratchy carpeted step and adjusted the large leather headphones waiting like a noose around my neck, which was now starting to itch. I felt hot despite the moderate-to-cool-temperature, standardized, as the grey room. I focused on my hands, my nails, then looked down and studied my boots, shiny calico toes illumined under a fluorescent bulb; they looked like a pair of leopard’s-eye stones waiting on the dusky granite cushion of a jewelry box, snapped shut, yet to be gifted. How lonely. How the hell did I even get here?

My entire life I’ve been a water-baby, half fish[1], beach bum, and I never got ear infections[2], which seems funny to consider since I was such a sensitive kid. I would get hay fever from too much dust or cat dander, occasional hives from cat or dog saliva, full-on allergy attacks from over-chlorinated swimming pools, or my cobble stones[3] would get activated and my eyes would be so itchy I couldn’t stop rubbing them and they’d swell shut. I’d sporadically get laid up and miss half a birthday party with an ice pack on my eyes, waiting until the magic medicinal eye-drops I had to carry with me kicked in (sometimes I’d totally score extra cake because the supervising parents felt bad, though it rarely made up for the discomfort). What caused this horrifying allergy? No one knew. Some swimming pools set it off, some didn’t. I eventually grew out of some allergies, but never my love of the water. Something about it, free from gravity, suspended, an alternate atmosphere, sky’s parallel universe, immaculate symmetry split by only the horizon. Perhaps it’s the closest thing to tangible proof of magic I could experience, though I’m certain there’s also something to it akin to the womb— a fluid abyss of infinite, quiet calm, the whole body swathed in slow time and a cool cloak or velveteen warmth.

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1 Preferred label: mermaid, thank you.

2 The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports “Five out of six children experience ear infection (otitis media) by the time they are 3 years old.”

3 Cobble Stones is a colloquial term for ‘allergic conjunctivitis’, or inflammation that took place under my eyelids when they got set off. What’s more, the treatment for this consisted of check-ups at the optometrist during which I’d have to rest my chin on a small plastic tray in front of a massive robotic apparatus, on the other side of which the doctor would coax me into relaxing so he could flip my eyelids inside out to check underneath. Any little boy on the playground thought this trick was the tits—it was not. It was excruciatingly uncomfortable, so much so I’d often balk and pull away, prolonging the process. And yes, This is what hell is like, Dante left it out in Circle 1, but trust me, it’s there.

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Such an all-consuming comfort is probably why I equally loved hot baths or Jacuzzi’s. But it was May, and May in New York City meant thick, blistering humidity was seeping in and I could no longer take solace in my nightly routine of searing hot baths. It’d been a few weeks since The Break Up and I was certain I didn’t want to feel Anything. Ever. Again. But I’d also been sober for two and a half years now, so I had no out, no burning mystic liquid to pour on top of the misery. I just had all these, feelings. Getting to the beach was possible but a total pain via subway and most days I barely had the energy to get out of bed and drag myself out to work or for coffee. So when my dad called and excitedly said “Hey kiddo! I had an idea, how about if I fly you out here for Mother’s Day to surprise mom?!,” I was glad for the interruption in my lack of routine. It was of course a very generous offer, I certainly didn’t have much money for anything but the basics but I wasn’t sure that I was in a great space to see either of them, having also just started going to a group focused on the effects of growing up with family “issues,” which was pointing to a faint but distinct and unyielding line between my upbringing and some of my decision making (read: including my choice in romantic partners). However, I did miss them and the prospect of being able to drive to the beach [4](oh and to drive! How I’d missed it) and lay on the hot sand until it covered me or to Danielle’s place to float in her pool sounded great—but then again so did anywhere else. ::SIGH:: “Ok, let’s do it.” I agreed. If I had one old coping skill left to get away with, it was taking a trip.

Despite the nagging voice in the back of my head saying Wherever you go, there you are, I threw some stuff in a suitcase and was ready. I couldn’t change reality or make the feelings go away, but it felt nice to think I was going somewhere, that there was some movement in my life, as long as it wasn’t backwards I’d take a sidestep over nothing at all.

When I landed it turned out to be rather moving to surprise my mom. Poor woman. Part of the plan entailed me intentionally not responding to her calls the entire week so she thought I’d forgotten about her only to show up in person, flown all the way from New York City to Los Angeles for Dad to say “Hey Jean, so weird, I was just pulling in the driveway and look what I found.” She had walked out from around the back hall’s corner and stopped stiff, shocked when she saw me, covering her face with her hands. She cried (she never cries). “Oh my god! Alanna!” she whimpered, unmoving. “I thought you forgot about me!” escaped from between her fingers. I closed the space between us and held her “I know mom, I’m sorry, that was part of the plan. But I didn’t! See—here I am, Happy Mother’s Day!” I guess that was pretty nice. I had done something kind and was feeling something, and it wasn’t just pain. We had a pleasant dinner and hugged some more, after which I slipped out to go cry in a meeting before returning to watch TV until I fell asleep.

The next day I went to visit Danielle. It was my favorite L.A. weather: a dry 95 degrees of desert swelter. It felt like heaven to me, like the sun loosened rays of light to unravel in billowing gathers of scalding raw silk just to warm every inch of the body. Versus 95 degrees with humidity, which merely becomes oppressive and downright rude, especially in New York City, more an equivalent to a dirty homeless man’s wet blanket being thrown on you. Everything becomes gummier, nearly vulgar and stuck-all-over-you inescapable. However to many this level of heat in Los Angeles was alarming, given the slightest incandescent breeze that might accompany it at any given moment, possibly morphing into: The Santa Anna’s. ‘Earthquake Weather’ we call it. Or ‘Fire Weather[5].’ My mother, also a native to Los Angeles, hates this heat, she’s witnessed too many times the weathers merciless fruits. It’s a climate where any dry leaf has tinder potential and best-case scenario would be a full city or neighborhood black-out for a day. It sets her into mindless watching or poking around, unconsciously double-checking drawers for flashlights and fresh batteries. Either way, pick your natural disaster or catastrophe and L.A. seems somehow continuously overdue for one…

Danielle, one of my best friends and also a native Angelino (but thankfully one less stressed by potential atmospheric prophesy), received me with a hug that engulfed me wholly, and I welcomed it. I probably cried. We went out by her pool and I reviewed the unfolding of events and how epically badly things had ended with That Guy Whose Name We Shall Not Speak. She was supportive. After a while she had to go back inside and work from home a bit more but invited me to hang out by the pool as long as I like. I indulged her offer. Swam, floated, laid in the sun, lather, repeat. I felt so heavy at moments I was surprised when I didn’t sink to the bottom of the pool. It was a heaviness that felt like someone has siphoned lead into the marrow of my bones making any movement feel too large a chore (read: depression). Lifting myself from the pool to lay back down right on its lip was a feat, I wondered if seals felt this way. But the sun helped. It always did. It’s hard to feel much else when your physical self is consumed by whole-body sensations like this: submerged in the cool deep or rendered motionless by heat. I rolled back off the lip of the pool again, flopping into the water, where I held my breath as long as I could, letting the soft quiet of the water hold me.

But apparently the world would also be a little quieter when I emerged, or, if not quieter, muffled. Somewhere between my aquatic ‘meditating’ exploits and the six and a half hour flight back to New York, there seemed to be water still in my ears, or one of them for sure. The trip home had been short, so at first I’d chalked it up to being a ‘jet-lag brain-fuzz’ (it’s only a 3 hour time difference but somehow it can still mess me up). Then I thought maybe my ears still weren’t popping from the flight dissention, but slowly I heard the odd meaty click when I worked my jaw—bad news was the click/pop sound was muffled too. I let a few days pass and dragged myself to the doctor (read: health clinic[6]). When I showed up for my appointment it had been almost a week since returning to the East Coast and I put to use the newfound skills of ‘rigorous honesty’ sobriety had taught me, diligently reviewing a comprehensive list of every single ailment or allergy I’d ever had to the doctor (ok and maybe also I hadn’t talked to many people since being back and welcomed the company), noting though, that while I’ve always had not great hearing, ear infections were never an issue. “Alright then,” the physician jumped at the opportunity to get a word in, “how about we take a look and see what’s going on?” I obliged. As she stepped towards me and tickled my ear with a cold otoscope, I heard an “Ah.”

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4 In 2014 Dr. Wallace J. Nichols reported to Eric Niiler of The Washington Post “When we step away from our high-stressed lives and step into nature, we get a shift. Physiologically, our brains and bodies change…” I’m just saying…

5 Yes dude, ‘earthquake weather’ and ‘fire weather’ are legitimate terms to describe the climate. I once got into a tiff with some guy (internet date) who claimed that is ‘not a thing’ scientifically; to which I say: piss off. Wherever you’re from, you have local jargon, dialect, local myth, geographic anomalies… His argument felt like the equivalent of saying someone speaking with an accent isn’t speaking “correctly.” Total rubbish. It’s contextualizing language and the words work just fine. It doesn’t have to be a ‘formal’ or scientific term to be true. Ask any long-time L.A. resident if a nervous thought hasn’t crossed their mind when the winds start blowing in hot. It’s a seismic creeping in the limbic system taking shape in cracked lines of drought-ridden earth, tectonic rumblings into consciousness—

And yes, many of us also call everyone by a gender-blind ‘dude.’

6 What you have insurance that affords you a decent GP? Well good for you.

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I paused, “Still water in there?” She was quietly looking in my right ear again with the tool, “Or did you finally find The Cancer?”

“No, no cancer.” She was still looking in my ear, “There may be a little water but it’s likely not an infection.” She stepped back, “What’s really obstructing your hearing is a large cerumen build up.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Wax. There is a large build up of ear wax, a ball, in this ear, that needs to be removed.”

Ladies and Gentlemen: we have now arrived at peak sex appeal. “Um. Removed? Is this normal?”

“It happens. We can do an MIP here with fluid and wash it out, standard procedure.” She saw me looking at her, “MIP, minimally invasive procedure, nothing to worry about, it’s a fluid impact removal, but you’ll need to take antibiotics for a couple days to prevent infection when we’re done as the ear will be pretty raw; oh and you’ll also be required to see an ENT for a check-up when the antibiotics finish to verify there is no infection since we aren’t specialists.”

I surrendered to the very cute nurse who bounced in and was quite perky as she had me tilt my head all the way to the left as she stepped up on a stool and commenced squirting some kind of saline solution directly into my ear canal—repeatedly. Like 2 bottles of the solution, repeatedly. It was not…pleasant. Somewhere in the eternity of the violent squirts fighting to liberate the huge “cerumen build up” from my head, the geyser hit a memory of being at the beach with That Guy the first time we’d kissed, the way his warm lips seemed to mouth new words into my own as my legs ground in the sand…

I started crying on the table.

“I know it’s unpleasant, but we’re almost done.” The nurse offered. I nodded slightly as the unrelenting jet of fluid continued to rhythmically pound into my head.

So, I had my epic ball of earwax removed, took my ‘preventative antibiotics’, located an Ear Nose & Throat (ENT) doctor that was covered by my insurance[7], made an appointment and showed up for it. All of this felt like too much.

Entering the evaluation I was met by a very nice Israeli doctor who started looking at my file on a computer screen. And I did the thing again. I began to recite my meticulously through medical history, again noting that no ear infection had ever been an issue (and certainly not a ball of wax either), but the doctor caught the moment I mentioned never having great hearing like a thorn snagging on silk, asking me about it.

“Yeah, you know in elementary school when you have those mandated hearing tests?” she nodded, “I never did well on those, and I think I had to go get one done with an outside doctor, but it was fine.” I casually felt around in my memory and found: “Well actually, I think I may have had a cat-scan…yeah I did. And they didn’t determine anything so, yeah. Anyway am I infection-free?”

“And how long ago was that?”

“Oh geeze, like 20 years ago? Long time.”

“Well would you like to take one now since it’s been so long?”

I stared at her. This was not an issue, nor why I was there. I wanted to leave.

“We have an audiologist on staff.” She pointed behind her with her thumb, “It doesn’t take long and wouldn’t cost you anything.”

I could not tell you why I said yes other than hearing it was free. “Um, sure. Ok.” I agreed hesitantly while my body’s weight suddenly became apparent again as though an instinctive act of protest. Something deep inside me was very, very sure this was not a good idea, I even faintly heard a 7 year olds voice in my head scream ‘NO!’. I’d tuned out the last of my talk with the Israeli doctor and followed her in slow motion as she left and reappeared with a nice young man, “Hi I’m Dr. D’Auria, the audiologist here. Why don’t you follow me and we can give you that hearing test.” He had a kind face, and his name reminded me of the word aria [8]which I liked. Small distractions making it slightly easier to shake his hand and follow him. I briefly wished That Guy was there to hold my hand…

So there I was, sitting in this awful, tiny, angular, cement-grey, insulated room staring at the repeated shapes and textures, trying not to hear my heart pound every ounce of blood through my entire body. This was almost certainly a place of nightmares. The door swung open and cleared my knees by a couple inches, producing Dr. D’Auria’s smiling face front and center “Alrighty,” he reached toward the large headphones waiting around my neck, “let’s just put these guys on and we can go ahead and get started.” He settled them over my ears and fitted the leather band to my head, fussing with some nearby wires, “All good?”

Something caught in my throat but I managed to spit out a dry “Mhmm sure, yeah.”

“Great.” A glance that lasted a split second rolled over his face informing me he sensed my uneasiness, causing him to give an equally quick smile in consolation.

So he exited the torture chamber and closed the door behind him, reappearing a moment later in the adjacent rectangular window. I saw him fiddle with some switches by his back wall and put his own headset on, his with a mouthpiece, which he spoke into, sending his voice directly into my ears from the other side of the wall. “Alright! Can you hear me?”

I nodded, “Yes.”

“Great. So, you’re going to hear a series of beeps in different ears, when you hear one I want you to say ‘Ok’.”

“Ok.”

The test commenced. At first I strained to see if I could see his hands anywhere in his booth, indicating when he was sending a beep through, but they were now concealed. I vaguely began to recall doing this once before, but in that other lifetime I’d had a button to push whenever I heard a beep instead of speaking. I refocused. Despite my inability to cheat I kept a hawkish focus on him through the window for the whole of the beep tests eternity.

“Great.” His voice reentered my headset, “Now we’re going to do another part. I’m going to say a word and I want you to repeat it back to me.”

“Ok.”

Then the unspeakable happened: As Dr. D’Auria set to begin this word test, his torso was moving and I couldn’t see his hands until he produced a stack of papers which he held over his face, covering all but his eyes. I felt confusion and rage swirl inside me, huge iron and steel bulwarks being swallowed by a sea of crimson magma, producing a body stiffening panic. I was breathing shallowly, quietly as possible, intently scrutinizing his every move through the small window with the lazer-sharp focus of a necromancer staring into a casket, trying to resurrect the dead. I couldn’t understand what was happening when I heard:

Airplane.”

Startled out of my scrambling gaze I replied “Airplane.”

Midnight.

“Midnight”

Cowbell.”

Words were getting softer now and I was still sitting rigidly, teeth clenched, begging the window for an explanation. “Cowbell.”

Mmusamm.”

Realizing I’d get nothing from sight I squeezed my now tear-filled eyes shut and mentally summoned a pleading prayer God God God God Please

“Museum.” I sputtered.

Fox tail.”

“Fox tail.”

Shmuughaskd

I had nothing. I knew nothing. Defeated tears escaped my still clinched eyes. I said nothing. A distant murmur seemed to come from the left headphone. Again I said nothing. Shallow breaths came and left my body, still frozen as though it would help.

Neighborhood.”

“Neighborhood.”

Asdjgfkkll.”

“Astroturf?”

Zeus.”

“Zeus.”

Ccdhfflmh.”

A few more minutes of this agony continued followed by a brief quiet.

“Alright great work.” His voice gently reentered my ears. “You can take the headphones off and I’ll be right back.”

I opened my eyes, almost gasping for air and shoved the headset off, putting it down heavily on the step next to me. I wiped my face and took another deep breath, unsure of what had just happened. I looked down and saw my hands, knuckles white, gripping my purse. I tried to focus on breathing through a minute that stretched for miles, when Dr. D’Auria reentered the room with papers in his hands.

“So it looks like you have what we call a ‘cookie-bite’ hearing loss and would probably benefit from hearing aids[9].”

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7 Somehow this doctor was in a very nice establishment on Park Avenue, and due to the referral I wasn’t going to be charged through the nose (if you will) and out of pocket for seeing a ‘specialist.’ Always remember to get a referral from a GP first, kids. Makes all the difference.

8 Aria (n): 1. An air or melody; 2. An elaborate melody sung solo with accompaniment, as in an opera or oratorio.

9 The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports “28.8 million U.S. adults could benefit from using hearing aids.”

I burst into a fit of sobs. “I don’t understand… Wha— but I co – What is…There was just wax…” I conjured a napkin from my bag and blew my nose heartily.

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Poor guy was clearly startled but maintained his composure, raising the papers he held and showed me a graph chart with a large crescent line dipping in the middle of it, “So a cookie-bite hearing loss means you can hear high and low frequencies perfectly fine,” he pointed to the edges of the graph chart with X’s in a straight line on each side of it, “but you miss some sound in the middle-ranging frequencies;” He pointed to the path of dipping X’s in-between the two straight lines at the top, “See so on our chart, when we connect the progression of results which you were able or unable to hear, it takes a shape like someone took out of a bite of a cookie.”

I was in shock, I shook my head, “But I can still hear things, but then you—why did you hold up that stupid piece of paper during the test?”

“It’s common for people to be able to find lots of ways to compensate for some of the sound they may be missing if they have hearing loss…”

“But you—”

“Right, so to compensate you have probably been doing things like lip-reading;” seeing my stunned face he went on, “it’s actually common for people to do things like this without even realizing it, especially with this kind of hearing loss… It’s common for, say, you to maybe have a hard time deciphering some consonants, especially coming from a man with a very deep voice…Hearing aids would help amplify the frequencies you don’t hear as well.”

I cried again. My brain was scrambling to put pieces together. The image of the chart he showed me looked eerily familiar, but hearing aids? I wiped my face and blew my nose again.

“But how did I get this?”

“Most people are just born with it[10],” he shrugged, “occasionally people with extreme jobs that are very loud over a lot of years could lose some ability to hear certain frequencies.”

I took a very deep breath, still wracking my brain trying to remember anything at all about this, half thinking out loud I recalled “When I was little, I had to see a doctor, I was referred from the school hearing test person…And I think they did a cat scan to see if I had hearing loss…but I never got hearing aids…?”

“Well, given the type of hearing loss it is, they may have determined it wasn’t severe enough for you to need anything corrective.” He offered. “Maybe ask your parents about it?”

I was having trouble digesting all of this, trying to piece it together, but missing so much my brain short-circuited in a blowout switching me to my adult, business-woman-self who took over, “Ok so how much are hearing aids and are they the only option to address this? Also how big are they? I’d like to see the smallest ones possible.”

“Why don’t you come with me.” He motioned and began moving to a doorway nearby.

This wasn’t good. If I knew anything it was that when things were expensive, price was never addressed upfront. I collected and lifted myself from the awful room and followed Dr. D’Auria. Sitting in the leather exam chair in his office directly across from an enlarged poster of the ears anatomy, I helped myself to a nearby box of tissue. “So how much are hearing aids?” I repeated.

“Well they are expensive, but ultimately, really just an investment in your quality of life.”

I knew this shtick, I was a talker after all. I wanted to be more cunning and maybe even negotiate with him somehow (read: reassert power and punish him for being the barer of this news), but this tender part of me kept wafting through me, begging for comfort and answers. I was staring at him.

“Hearing aids tend to range from $4,500-$6,000 or $7,000[11].”

“WHAT?”

“Yeah. They’re expensive[12]…”

“But insurance covers them right?”

He took a breath, sucking air through his teeth, “Actualllyyy, they don’t. Unless you have Medicaid or Medicare[13].”

“WHAT?”

He nodded in apology. And, it got even better: I was informed that hearing aids only had a shelf life of about 5 years and required batteries to be changed regularly. I was just livid now.

“Excuse me, That is insane. You’re saying if I’m not a senior citizen or living below the poverty line, I’m supposed to pay out of pocket, and I’m to do so every 5 years?! How is that legal?! And there is No way to get this covered? What am I supposed to take out a loan?” I took a breath trying to remember this very nice doctor was not actually the one responsible for this breach of human rights.

“It’s criminal honestly. There is one company that offers loans for them but I always advise my clients Not to use them because if you are late once they hike up the interest rate 20% for the duration of the payment plan.” He saw the fury rising in my face and raised a pleading hand, “I know. But, what you can do, and I always tell people, is to open one of those credit card accounts with an offer of 0% interest the first year and just pay it off in the year you have.”

The fury seemed to implode and collapse back into fatigue inside me. I felt like I’d just been hit by a Mack Truck.

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10 As of June 2016 the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports approximately “2-3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears.”

11 I would later find out, a friend of mine, who has had a long and fascinating list of careers over his lifetime, at one point actually had a company that made hearing aids. When I told him about this whole fiasco he shook his head in disgust and explained that basically hearing aids cost literally UNDER $20 TO MAKE. The software to tune them may be more expensive but even so not nearly that much and is something an audiologist would be required to have—not a patient. Additionally, The National Institute on Deafness and Other Related Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reported “One in eight people in the United States (13%, or 30 million) aged 12 years or older has hearing loss in both ears, based on standard hearing examinations.”— Consider that in comparison with pricing. Talk about profit…

12 In some affirmation of my friend’s experience, in 2013 CBC News [Canada] did an article on a relatively new company, Audicus Inc., who saw this incredible markup in cost and created a way to streamline hearing-aid distribution online, directly from their manufacturers. In this article Audicus’ CEO is quoted stating an average cost of making a hearing aid is “anywhere between $50 to up to $200.” – I only wish this company had existed sooner…

13 I kid you not, this is 100% true. Well it was before ObamaCare/The Affordable Care Act (ACA) kicked in. While the ACA was signed into law in March 2010, it wasn’t in widespread implementation yet and I was still under the archaic operations of yore and hearing aid coverage was nowhere to be found in their glossed booklets of offerings. (It’s also worth noting, while ACA was obviously a drastic improvement, it still only covers 75% of the cost of hearing aids, which, for the average person, still leaves a large bill. – Let us pray Trump doesn’t make this worse again…)

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Our appointment lasted a while longer, during which he showed me all different kinds of hearing aids and the ones that I’d need for my type of hearing loss. He gave me brochures, a copy of my hearing test and his card, encouraging me to take some time and think it all over, reach out with questions and follow up to let him know if I’d like to proceed. I left the office and stepped onto Park Avenue feeling drained, a hard shell void of energy. I felt like I was standing in a humid snow-globe, after being shaken hard, and all the flecks of glitter swirling around me were the words and sounds I couldn’t quite grab—until an angsty local shoved past me and reminded me I was in fact amid the garish racket of New York City and breach of The Rule of keeping sidewalks clear, no less.

I walked to the train and stood on the platform still watching everything in slow motion. What did the world sound like to everyone else? Over the next few days I started to see it all: my coworker with the deep voice and huge beard, unless we were facing each other I could never understand all of what he said; when I sat in large meetings in rooms with bad acoustics I missed a lot of what was said, and seemed to be standing outside myself, watching myself just nonchalantly tune out everything I couldn’t hear, focusing instead on my fingernails or a poster on the wall; when my boss stood nearby with a question, the air-conditioner obstructed his words enough for me to move closer to him to hear; when I stood in line at the bank I glanced outside at two people talking on the sidewalk and realized I was reading their lips through the glass and somehow eavesdropping… I remembered a funny moment with my friend Laila when we’d first met—

“My name’s Laila.”

“Laila?”

“Yeah, you know, like the Eric Clapton song.”

“What Eric Clapton song?”

“You know,” she hummed a little, “Lay-la, ya got me on my knees Lay-la…”

“That’s not what he’s saying! He’s saying ‘hey now’!” I argued, counter-humming: “Hey-nah, ya got me on my knees hey-nah…”

I thought of my entire childhood arguing with my best friend over the “correct” lyrics of songs[14] as we’d belt them out in the car. I felt like my whole life was a lie. Why hadn’t anyone told me this? Had anyone? Why couldn’t I remember? How did all the other people in America without Medicare or Medicaid afford hearing aids? Would I have done better school growing up if I’d heard better? What the hell had happened during the doctor’s visit I had as a child? And why did I have a cat scan? Did I also have a brain tumor I didn’t know about? Did I need to learn sign language? If I got hearing aids, if I opened a credit card, (something up until that point I’d taken great pride in not having done) even with my full time job, there was no way I’d be able to pay off $6,000 in a year[15] and also make my monthly student loan payments and pay rent, afford a monthly metrocard, [16] pay utilities and eat… I thought for a split second about calling the ex-boyfriend We Do Not Name to come over and just hold me, and remembered we’d broken up. I felt like I was drowning.

I decided to call my parents and tell them everything and was particularly shocked by their response, which was: not being surprised at all! They remembered everything. They told me that, apparently, when I’d seen the audiologist in elementary school[17] they had also suggested I would benefit from hearing aids, but, upon my throwing a massive fit and sobbing hysterically, also offered I would probably be ok without them, finding natural ways to compensate (such as lip-reading, evidently) and they could just keep a close eye on it, bringing me in for check-ups once a year to make sure it wasn’t getting worse.

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14 Yes, this was before smartphones and Google. So instead of immediately having ‘correct’ answers at our fingertips to prove one another wrong we just had a good ‘ol battle of the wills…and possibly started a few fights in the backseat that resulted in our mothers pulling the car over. Sorry guys.

15 Another interesting fact, the Hearing Loss Association of America also reports “While people in the workplace with the mildest hearing losses show little or no drop in income compared to their normal hearing peers, as the hearing loss increases, so does the reduction in compensation.”

16 Which by the way, after living in New York City for over 10 years, only continues to rise in price while the service concurrently goes right down the toilet. As of 2016 a monthly MTA metrocard costs $116.50! (And the Daily News reports they’ll be increasing to $121 a month in 2017.)

17  The Hearing Loss Association of America notes “Almost 15% of school-age children (ages 6-19) have some degree of hearing loss.”

__________

“And did you?” I asked angrily, wracking my brain for a memory of the scene they described.

“For a few years we did,” my mother said sighing, “but then life happened…” (she was referring to my father going bankrupt and the ensuing domino effect of years of moving around the city.) “And we didn’t notice anything, so we stopped going after a while.” I sat in furious silence.

“But you should have.” I said flatly. “How would any of us have known it was getting worse or not if it wasn’t being checked? And why didn’t you get me hearing aids then?”

“Alanna, you were so upset, and the doctors said you’d probably be ok without them,” she offered sadly, “hearing aids were much bigger then[18], and you were such a little kid, I didn’t want you to feel overly self-conscious or be socially stigmatized…”

“We still have the hearing test,” my dad interjected, “do you want to see it?”

He had it faxed to my job the next day. When I saw it I sat down heavily and looked at them, one from 1993 and one from 2010, they were mirror images of large dipping ‘cookie-bites’ in the middle of the checked graphs. “Exactly the same.” I muttered breathlessly.

The human mind and body are pretty miraculous things, incessantly working to heal and protect us from pain. Adrenaline allows us to move and function in spite of severe physical trauma, the skin bleeds from a cut and microscopic fibers and tissues immediately go to work re-stitching themselves together; and the mind, well the mind and psyche reserve the wholesale veto power to block out, repress or temporarily erase moments of extreme pain. Ask plenty of survivors of immense physical accidents, emotional abuse or violence and they often have no recollection of the incidents at all; many women lose access to the full memory of the pains of childbirth over time, and some of us, who have more subtle (or at times overt) moments of immense emotional or spiritual pain, also find our conscious memory banks befogged or empty of the moments that caused the mental scarring. And it seemed as a child the news of my hearing loss and possible need for a very visible and unattractive reminder of it daily was fitting for my young mind to know even then that pain and humiliation was too big for me, and swallowed it right up. I felt betrayed and angry, but also sad for my smaller self who’d been so distressed then. Didn’t she know she was still smart and beautiful and capable and magic even if she had worn hearing aids? And I felt upset at the thought of her temper tantrum and fear determining so much of the very adult decision not to have hearing aids. I didn’t know if I could entirely say my parents were wrong, they certainly had their hands full, but felt somehow they still should have done more.

Something switched in me again. I made an appointment to go back and see Dr. D’Auria the next week. Before the appointment I made numerous phone calls to health insurance and hearing aid companies, I researched the law around lack of coverage, I even went all the way out to Flatbush[19], Brooklyn to a shoddy office where I was told I’d find discounted hearing aids. But the office was shoddy enough I figured any discount there wasn’t worth the risk of a bunk product (or having to possibly go all the way back there any time I needed a repair).

When I arrived for my appointment I still cried a little as he slid on a sample of what I would potentially wear, “Hey that’s a cool tattoo, is that a shell?” I had forgotten about the tattoo I’d gotten behind my ear a couple years earlier (not like I see it everyday).

“Yeah.” I sniffed, “A conch shell. So I can always hear the ocean.” I motioned with my hand like I was holding a shell to my ear.

He offered me a Kleenex. “You know usually it’s guys that are the most upset about needing hearing aids. They don’t have all this hair to cover them!”

I half smiled at his effort. I looked over at the huge poster of ear anatomy again and asked how my hearing loss worked or if it was located anywhere specific in there. He humored me. [20]

__________

18 Yes, this was the 1990’s. Hearing aid technology has only improved over time (but their pricing hasn’t).

19 FYI: When Columbus talked about finding the end of the earth, where the horizon ended and dropped off into the abyss, he was referring to Flatbush, Brooklyn.

20 Image borrowed from the ‘Carolina Ear & Hearing Clinic, PC’ under “Normal Ear Anatomy & Hearing” here.

__________

He walked over and pointed to the external ear and canal leading to the eardrum, noting that sound enters there and the frequencies bounce off the eardrum making it vibrate. Those vibrations push on the apparatus of 3 tiny, fleshy bones (or ossicles: the malleus, incus and stapes), which move in a dance with the vibrations and push on a small oval window at the entrance of the cochlea[21]. And the cochlea, apparently, is filled with fluid that moves in motion with the vibrations, making and transmitting waves along the scala vestibuli[22] and on to the scala tympani[23] which causes the basilar membrane[24] to vibrate. Now within the coiling halls of the cochlea lies also the Organ of Corti (between the vestibular and tympanic ducts), which is made up of “mechanosensory cells,” aka tiny hair like cells. The organ of Corti is advantageously positioned on the basilar membrane and actually has 4 rows of tiny hair cells (3 outer, 1 inner); and from the very top of these hairs are even tinier “finger like projections called stereocilia”. The frequency (read: sound) vibrations that travel through the ear and reverberate through the cochlea moving all these tiny hairs like a forest of kelp waving through a great current in the seas depths, processing the bulk of sound transmitting to neurons to run and tell the brain what’s washed in[25]. And my ‘cookie-bite hearing loss’ was most likely due to a smaller ‘tiny hair’ count[26] within the fluid of the cochlea.

__________

21 Cochlea, derived from the Greek kohlias, meaning “spiral or snail shell”

22 or “the upper bony passage of the cochlea”

23 or “the lower bony passage of the cochlea”

24 Inside the cochlea this membrane separates “two liquid-filled tubes that run along the coil of the cochlea”

25 Yeah. If you’d ever doubted moving at the speed of sound was fast, now’s the time to be impressed—the inner ear machinery is constantly moving at an uncanny rate to deliver you (and have your brain process and identify) every little sound around you, all the time.

26 As noted in a 2016 Consumer Report also explaining how this works, “Once hair cells in the inner ear are dead, there’s no bringing them back.”

__________

“So you’re saying that 1. we all always have fluid in our ears and 2. because I probably have less hairs, or less living hairs, in the cochlea I hear less?”

“Correct. Basically think of it like less little guys in there to pick up on all the vibrations, so there’s less to run and tell the brain about.”

“Huh.” I realized I’d been sitting on the edge of my seat, intently, with my hand resting over my heart as though to comfort both my adult and younger self.

“How did they get like that?”

He shrugged, “Hard to say, really. Sometimes they just don’t fully develop or fewer of them grow when a fetus is in-utero. It happens.”

Indeed.

I decided that I was worth having a better “quality of life” and that I wanted to know what the whole world sounded like—even if it meant opening my first credit card[27]. When I got home I called and told my parents I decided I’d like to move forward with getting hearing aids and asked if they could help me pay for any of it. They kindly  offered to pay a small chunk and the rest would go on the new card.

__________

27 I wound up having to go to court from maxing this card out and after about a year being unable to keep up with the payments, ultimately sticking my head in the sand in fear of never being able to deal with the debt. Their attorney was kind when I explained how and why I’d wound up in the position I had and cut me a decent deal. To this day I am still working to pay it off only to need a new pair of hearing aids in the coming year… let’s just say I’ll definitely be calling these guys.

When I got off the phone with them I was sitting on the floor at the foot of my bed. I recalled how this was the same place I sat the last day That Guy came over to have a Final Talk a couple months earlier and how I’d slid a shopping bag of his stuff across the floor and told him he should go. It was at least starting to feel more distant… Sighing, I glanced over toward my closet and mirror and remembered I needed an envelope to mail a bill, so I crawled over and pulled open a drawer of small shelves I kept in there and rummaged for office supplies. I found the envelopes but lingered looking through all the drawers. Then my hand hit something. I grabbed it and pulled it out. It was a shell from me and That Guy’s day at the beach when he first kissed me. He’d written ‘I Love You!’ inside of it (I always took shells from the beach home with me). I was going to cry but I unexpectedly started to remember how he’d only begun doing little things like that for me after I’d done them for him. At his place, if he left before me in the morning, I’d leave little post-its on his mirror and cabinets for when he got home. I thought of how in the last months he was always scrambling to match my affections, how I’d been blind to his nervousness, focused only on what I did want to see or hear. I looked at the shell. Felt its weight. I looked at the open drawers. At the closet. I looked up at my reflection in the nearby mirror. “I love you.”

__________

A Native to Los Angeles and now early-retired New Yorker, Alanna Bailey has been writing poetry since she was 16.

First studying the written word by accident she proceeded to follow this mysterious wonder to New York where she studied under the auspices of Sekou Sundiata, Brenda Shaughnessy and Sharon Dolin (and even a bit of fiction with Neil Gordon and Stacey D’Erasmo) at Eugene Lang College, The New School University where she took her Bachelors Degree.

She is currently pursuing her MFA in Poetry at Boston University under Robert Pinsky and Dan Chiasson. She is fairly certain this is what heaven is like. 

And Above All: She firmly believes that every single person’s story is their strength; and is worth being told– and heard.

Her poetry can be found in Armchair/Shotgun No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 and Yale’s Sage magazine.

She and her dog currently reside in Boston.

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