- Healing Thyself
On Becoming, healing, hearing loss, invisible disability, disability, health, health system, mental health, empathy, deafness
On a plane ride home, I struck up a conversation with the man seated beside me. Among other things, I learned how my seatmate ran his own business refurbishing and selling trailers; that he had conducted a solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail; that he was deployed twice to Afghanistan. I learned that he disliked the military; that he had been directionless when he signed up and didn't know what else to do; and that he now believed it was a mistake to have joined, though it taught him many useful things.
Seated on my left, my hearing side, he told me a story: During training, a bomb detonated, exploding in front of him and another man. My seatmate ran a finger along a scar, two lines that made a ninety-degree angle on his cheekbone, as if someone had pressed a framing square through his skin. Along with a head injury that affected his cognitive function, he had shrapnel in one eye, hundreds of pieces that required he undergo multiple surgeries. His gaze was both discomfiting and magnetic, his eyes green and iron-flecked, as if the irises had absorbed the pigment of the metal surgeons worked painstakingly to remove.
My seatmate described how, after surgery, he had to go through lengthy rehab. At first, he couldn't remember anything, couldn't see clearly in that damaged eye. Still, he remained enlisted. He had made a commitment and he was sticking to it. He rejected the possibility of lost eyesight and reduced cognitive function, accepting only one outcome: He would heal.
Every day, he strained to see and remember better. As he said this his body pressed forward, his face tensing in the recollecting, his eyes growing even wider than they already were. Falling back into his seat, he grinned and slapped his knee.
Didn't you know—it worked! His memory was now fully intact; his eyesight perfect.
"And the other man?"
My seatmate sighed. The other soldier had some burning, damage in one eye. Minor injuries, all things considered. But he complained a lot, said things were only getting worse. My seatmate tapped his temple. "It's all up here."
As the flight descended, the pressure in the cabin got to be too much. My ears began to ache, and filled up so I had difficulty hearing in not just one but both ears. Ever since childhood, this has happened to me on flights, and I never aged out of it. No amount of chewing gum, earplugs, or antihistamines helped, but over time I learned how to live with the pain. Living with sudden hearing loss in my right ear was something I'd only begun to learn.
Once we were on the tarmac, my ears popped. I felt sound restored. Had our descent fixed my ailment? But when I stepped out of the pressurized cabin, I realized hearing had only been an illusion.
As I waited for the shuttle, I wondered what my seatmate might have said had I told him about my condition. Would he have said I wasn't trying hard enough? Was it as simple as a lack of willpower on my part, an issue only of attitude?
A month before that flight, on the day I was diagnosed with permanent nerve damage to my inner ear, the audiologist couldn't hide her look of surprise. "We don't normally get youngsters like you here," she joked. (In the waiting room, I'd scanned the other patients, most of whom were [End Page 102] retirees.) As she reviewed my test results, her lighthearted manner shifted to something more somber. When my eyes welled up with tears, her expression mirrored my own. Reflexively, I smiled, tamping my emotion, and made a joke about hearing loss saving me from a neighbor's incessant complaints. I did this for her comfort.
I have been called a naysayer, a skeptic, a party pooper, a fatalist, a pessimist. Outside of skeptic, I don't think I'm any of...