March 2020 Metro (Actress Sophie Woolley)
I started losing my hearing from the age of 18. I did not expect to go deaf, even though it runs in the family. Bits of my hearing identity kept falling off as I lost another frequency. I was in denial for years until I began using interpreters and stenographers. I made a success of my life, developed a tough skin and numbed myself. By my thirties I was almost totally deaf, with hearing aids no longer allowing me to follow speech. I avoided focussing on what I’d ‘lost’, but I often felt exhausted and excluded. I worried about my future.
There was an option to regain my hearing through a cochlear implant, but like many in my situation I put it off. It involves having surgery to implant a high tech hearing device. I was scared of skull surgery and I didn’t see the point, thinking it wouldn’t work any better than hearing aids, lip-reading and sign language. A cochlear implant user who’d gone deaf like me persuaded me to go for it when he said ‘All of my problems are gone’. I’d never heard anyone talk like this about implants and I thought he must be exaggerating. I was wrong. Soon after my implant was ‘switched on’ in 2013, at the age of 39, I was able to have easy conversations with people for the first time since my 20s. It was like the surgeon and audiologist had rewound time. I felt 21 again. I never thought this would happen to me. I went from hearing almost nothing, to being able to follow speech, with some added ‘cyborg’ perks that make my hearing friends green with envy.
My younger sister implanted soon after me, and we can chat on the phone or walk and talk without looking at each other With the implant, I can bluetooth music direct to my processor. I can also switch to ultrazoom, which helps me hear the person in front of me in noisy places. And I can switch off sound whenever I want. In the first few weeks after I was activated, I felt constantly euphoric. It was a bit like falling in love, crossed with time travelling. The sound was also heightened and hallucinatory at first. The sonic weirdness was intensely beautiful, profound and often intensely funny – all at the same time. As well as nostalgia about being reunited with a recognisable sound world, ‘going hearing’ opened the floodgates on memories of the early days of going deaf, before I’d adapted. Now that life was suddenly much easier, with strangers instantly treating me more warmly and respectfully, I felt even more proud of the way I’d handled becoming deaf. The liberating effect of the implant on my everyday life highlighted the barriers I had faced in the past. My being able to hear made me more engaged and less withdrawn.
Ironically, this transformation educated my hearing family and friends about how deaf I actually was. They realised, in hindsight, the impact that deafness and the dominant hearing culture had on every aspect of communication. I’ve bonded more deeply with loved ones and got to know my (hearing) husband better, even though he had always signed to me. When I first started being able to follow speech again, I was overcome with imposter syndrome. I felt the urge to run away from conversations with friends and relatives. I didn’t know how to have a conversation like a hearing person. I soon found out no one else does either. I’ve learnt ‘active listening’ is key.
The life changing effects are huge and I still feel like I’m playing catch up. Meeting up with long neglected friends after I was switched on, felt a little like I’d got out of prison and everyone’s lives had moved on – and I felt ashamed. Have all my problems gone? It does feel like it. It seems easier to resolve problems because I can follow speech independently. Crucially, at work, I’m no longer exhausted at the end of the day. My career mobility has increased, for many reasons, but partly because I can do small talk now. I also have an intensified sense of agency. My sister and I compare notes on the liberation and we process the past together. When we’re with our deafened mum (who has not implanted) we sign and speak to each other, using Sign Supported English, same as we always did. Implanting is a personal choice. No one deaf person is the same, and we prefer different ways of life. And not all deaf people get the same results from implants. The implant has made me feel free and happy in a way I’d forgotten was possible. It’s been life-changing in every way. I love being a cyborg because I have the best of both worlds