By Daisy Jasmine, Staff Writer
“Thunderbirds thrive in uncomfortable situations.”
As I sat in the ASU audiologist’s office in Tempe last week, with a central air conditioning unit screeching bloody murder directly into my tympanic membrane, I took comfort in this oft-repeated tenet of the Thunderbird Mystique. The doctor and her student fiddled with a machine they forgot to calibrate before my arrival, and I shifted restlessly in my seat, hyper-aware of the thin tube tickling my ear canal as they tried to take some measurements. My mother waved benignly from her post across the room where she sat on the edge of her seat, and I let her eager anticipation ground me from my conditioned panic. I breathed deeply and focused on thriving.
The audiologist’s office has never been a comfortable environment for me. There’s a very specific experience attached to it. You check in for your appointment and suspiciously vague testimonials from the 80-plus crowd smile down at you from the walls of the lobby. You’re ushered into a dim little coffin of a room and the heavy door clamps shut with a dull chunk, sealing you off from the world.
You sit on an uncomfortable stool and snap a pair of too-tight, red-and-blue headphones on. You grip a small trigger and wait nervously for a beep that may or may not be coming at any moment, warily pressing the button when you’re pretty sure you heard something other than your own ears ringing. You squint at the silhouette of the doctor on the other side of the tinted partition and wonder what she’s writing down. Then an uncanny, faceless voice spits two-syllable words and phrases at you through a roar of ambient static, and you’re expected to respond in kind.
You sit there, paralyzed by the incomplete information. The robot voice continues its monologue, but it’s drowned out by other, harsher words and phrases you’ve fielded in the past.
Not fooling anyone.
A miracle you can speak at all.
Why are you even here?
The silhouette notices you’re not even trying anymore, because you’re crying. The coffin door pops open as the nurse brings you a tissue and a cup of water. Sometimes they herd you into a different booth where the partition is not tinted, but covered in Little Critter stickers, and you sink into a bright plastic chair and sheepishly redeem yourself with some lipreading tests. You step out into the office and discuss the unsurprising results with the doctor. She usually recommends an irreversible, invasive surgical procedure. The diagnostic file you receive in the mail a month later reads, “full test not completed due to patient distress.”
After nearly two decades of this sort of thing, it’s easy to see how I came to find audiological visits uncomfortable. Despite it all, though, the level of acceptance I have felt at Thunderbird has renewed my desire to pursue the option of hearing aids—a difficult decision on its own merit.
My last experience with hearing aids started and ended when I was ten years old. I sat through one of those fun appointments described above, and was rewarded with a pinkish plastic chunk that sat in my ear canal, impossible to ignore. I remember celebrating the occasion by going to see “Lilo and Stitch” in the theaters with my mom that day.
I became very familiar with the sound of refrigerators and air conditioning units, and not much else. I eventually started “forgetting” to wear them to school. Before long, I had given up on the idea of hearing aids entirely.
But fifteen years later, here I was: back in the audiologist’s office, this time by my own decision. The aids squeaked to life and I fought the urge to scowl at my old “friend”, the air conditioning unit. After a few minutes of tinkering and adjusting, though, the dreaded droning noise faded away and I was left with a new, confusing, and exciting set of sounds to process.
It may seem obvious, but getting my hearing aids has been more of a journey than I expected. It’s taken some time for it to really sink in that it’s not an all-at-once solution, but the start of a new challenge to overcome, with drastic ups and downs. Going to a crowded party the night I got them was probably a bad idea, but that weekend I cranked an heirloom music box that had run silently for as long as I could remember and contentedly hummed along to the melody from across the room. I finally understand why fully-hearing people hate the sound of a crinkled water bottle so much, and I distracted myself while trying to place a phone call the other day, pressing numbers at random and marveling like an infant at beeps and boops.
The experience of filling a sensory gap you’ve been used to for most of your life is surprisingly difficult to translate. I’ve been finding myself using far more metaphors and similes than usual: it’s like physical therapy in my brain—no, it’s like learning a new language by immersion—no, it’s more like relearning English—or maybe it’s like getting new glasses, only entirely different. It’s frustrating and awesome and it gives me a new level of appreciation for scientific advancement and a pounding headache.
So, that age-old axiom about Thunderbird students living for the uncomfortable and challenging? I would say I agree completely. In just a matter of weeks, the frustrations I’m going through now will allow me to understand the world and the people around me better than ever before. Thanks to the rapid advance of technology, the patient support of my friends, and my own renewed optimism, I’ll be thriving before I know it.