I was in first grade when I had my hearing tested the first time. I sat alone on a chair in a soundproof booth with thick walls covered in carpet. Heavy headphones were placed on my head. A joystick was placed in my hand. Press the button when you hear a sound, the doctor said. He left, the door closed behind him. I could hear nothing in the outside room. The silence was uncomfortable, and my brain started doing that thing where it made sounds to fill the space, unable to be alone. Through the one small window, I watched the doctor sit down, open my chart, make some notes. Then he turned to his computer, facing the opposite direction so I couldn’t see his mouth, and pulled a microphone close. After a few minutes, I heard it: a low, steady beep. Silence again, and then more: beep, beep.
The beeps changed in pitch and frequency, sometimes reverberating low enough where I could feel it in the body, and my thumb would give the joystick a confident flick. But I wasn’t so confident during the high-pitched beeps. If you think you hear something, press it anyway, the doctor told me. I didn’t trust myself, but I pressed my sweaty thumb to the joystick anyway, trying to get a glimpse of the doctor’s face, looking for a reaction marking my success or failure.
The tests confirmed that I did have hearing loss: about a 20% deafness that would likely progress over time. Do you hear ringing or buzzing in your ears? the doctor asked. I nodded. The sounds I heard were phantoms, a result of tinnitus, a common byproduct of my genetic hearing loss. Ghost sounds. What does it sound like? he asked. Bells, I said.
When my father got angry, I escaped to my closet. It was a big walk-in, wide and deep, with shelving in the middle and two racks on each side. I turned half of it into my private hideaway: I lined the floor with blankets and propped pillows against the wall. I kept it well-stocked with a flashlight, a stack of books, and Tastykakes.
As I listened to his rage fill the house, I pressed myself against the pillows, bracing my back and side against the walls. By that time I had become an expert at reading the air, my gut a finely-tuned instrument that detected subtle changes in his emotions, and I could predict oncoming storms. At the first sense of it — the first charge of the air, or a specific way he set his jaw — I disappeared myself. In the closet I took my hearing aids out. The yelling and the furniture crashing sounded muffled then, like I was underwater. Like I was far away. The less I could hear, the more I could ground myself. As my thudding heart returned to normal, another phantom noise rushed in. This time, a hiss of cicadas.
One year I got a sleigh bell necklace for Christmas. I hung it on the inside of the closet handle to serve as my alarm: if footsteps approached, it clinked softly. If someone pulled the handle, it jingled.
Years later, I try matching science with my experience, as if my experience weren’t enough to be trusted. I have spent so much time laying the circuitry bare, trying to explain my body’s chemistry to others to be taken seriously. I have tried stripping science from trauma, then reconciling it to be understood. I learn the words. I practice the vocabulary: flooding, trigger, hippocampus, hypothalamus. I know how trauma rewires the brain. How my own triggers, like loud noises, initiate a neural, chemically-induced course of action in the body that I have absolutely no control over. Like a well-worn VHS tape that glitches in the same spot, playing out the same way every time.
I study my audiogram, tracing its peaks and valleys with my fingers. I think of the girl in the closet, who learned to set traps to make up for her lack. How my body learned to read a room before I could see it. How sometimes, I still hear bells.
Story Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/JoLynne Martinez