In those first few weeks, Addie’s voice was perfect to me.
I couldn’t get enough of it. I’m not sure if I had never fully heard it or if it sounds very different now. It’s really hard to tease that apart. But in those first weeks, something about her sweet, crisp sounds just made my heart melt. That squeeze-her-cheeks-with-tears-in-your-eyes kinda melt. I told her she sounded like a cartoon mouse—the cutest Disney sidekick ever animated. I would ask her to keep talking and those first grade stories never sounded so good.
At first, I categorized voices into two groups—deep, mechanical bots or sweet, high-pitched chipmunks. When people spoke, their voice sounded like one of these two and, as we talked, my brain would differentiate and make sense of their voice. I pictured my brain like a scene from the movie Inside Out. (I’d like to think I have my own version of Joy.) As my CI interpreted a voice for the first time, my brain diligently retrieved core memories and replayed past voice recordings in real time. “She’s talking to Kevin now. Roll tape. He’s loud, lots of expression.” And as conversations progressed and multiple conversations occurred over time with a single speaker, each person would begin to sound less like a bot and more natural and familiar.
Sound also came through on a slight delay. The delay was longer at first and could make me a little crazy if I thought too hard about it. Being hyper aware of each of my ears hearing independently and differently at the same time took some getting used to. My Phonak hearing aid talks to my Marvel processor to coordinate and bring the sounds together. Now my brain must cue the sound engineer to create her best audio mix of my different channels of sound. Each day, the mix is closer and closer.
In a perfectly quiet setting, words were coming through clearly. Amazing. But if a truck drove by or the fridge made ice, my focus shifted to the background noise, drowning out the speech. I pictured my brain’s forewoman calling out, “we got a rumble!” and my CI tuning in to the background tone. Sometimes consequential (the truck behind me on my walk) and sometimes not (the ice).
In the beginning, more than one speaker would scramble together. And lots of talking plus background noise would make me feel like I was finding my way through a fun house. Not so fun. These moments would bring on what I refer to as the magnetic force field sound effect. With too many voices and too much sound, especially at the end of a long day, my brain would sound this alarm—I knew I had overdone it.
It wasn’t a “flip of the switch” and I could hear. Because of the distorted sound, it took a lot of work for me to understand anything. I couldn’t call this “the moment,” in retrospect, it was a step. At the time, it was the furthest thing from what I expected. I think if I had been deaf from the time I was born and had never heard sound, this may have qualified as the most exciting moment. But I had been a hearing individual, even until my surgery, and I was used to normal sound. This emphasizes the uniqueness of the process. I didn’t go in for an operation and come out hearing. I went in for an operation and six weeks later, I attached something to my head and started to relearn how to hear. I knew that eventually my brain could put the background noise in the back and concentrate on the foreground sounds. But this day proved to me I would really have to work through it.
Uniqueness of the process. Every CI recipient has their own story. The sounds in their world that come easily and those that require intense focus and practice. For me, speech came quick but voices took (and continue to take) practice.
During the first few months, I liked to practice by listening in on my kids from the kitchen. They’d be eating or playing a game in the dining room. With only my CI, I’d listen to their conversation. I could hear their speech, but not their distinct voices. All the words sounded like they were coming from the same high-pitched voice, but with listening (and context clues) I could start to tell them apart. While tiring, each practice with only my CI would bring more depth and distinction to each voice. And, for me, relearning to hear my kids’ voices has brought me the most joy.