A Little Bit of Background

Ahh…College, the days of experimenting and exploring yourself and others. Most students probably use the phrase “find yourself” frequently in their college days. I was no different.

As a student at Gallaudet University, I was constantly questioning my identity. For those who don’t know, Gallaudet University is the premier college for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Gallaudet has been described as the mecca of deaf culture. I think I’m getting ahead of myself here…I’d like to share with you my first experience of getting a cochlear implant and then I can tell you all about how my life has changed at Gallaudet.

When I was fourteen, I got my very first cochlear implant (Nucleus Freedom for you curious fellows out there). I remember two very specific events from my first surgery. I remember the day I was activated, when they turned the cochlear implant on for the first time. Now there are youtube videos of people’s reactions to hearing their child’s voice or the sound of their name for the first time and weeping with joy. My experience was VERY different and it’s important that readers understand there is a wide variety of reactions to the activation of one’s cochlear implant.

The day I was activated, my parents were REALLY excited. For two weeks prior to activation I was rendered completely deaf and it was a struggle for my non-signing family to get their message across to me not to mention I was recovering from head surgery. They were anxious to get me back into the hearing world and to be normal again. The doctors warned us that it may not be a pleasant experience but nothing could prepare me for the absolute pain I had gone through upon activation. The doctor turned on my cochlear implant and immediately hated it. I heard, EVERYTHING. I was in a sound proof booth and I remember feeling like the sound of my doctor’s key chain was pounding into my skull. Everyone’s voices sounded like Marvin the Martian…what had happened to my mother’s beautiful soft voice or my father’s strong military tone? I immediately got into fetal position in my chair and had the absolute WORST headache I have ever experienced.

My parents had fear in their eyes. Had they made the wrong decision to get my cochlear implant? Would it ever get better? When we got home, I worked hard to wear my cochlear implant on a day to day basis. I tried my hardest to find sounds that I liked in my home. I knew that I HATED the sound of electricity running through the lights and how absolutely LOUD it was…don’t believe me? Sit in a silent room and just listen…it’ll take a while but for me, my brain was still trying to piece sounds together…what was important? what wasn’t?

It took a relatively good period of time for me to get used to the cochlear implant. Weekly visits to adjust the maps and constantly find the words to describe sound…how do you expect a deaf person to describe a sound? Is it good or bad? I don’t know I’ve never heard it before!

This brings me to my second experience … I remember it clearly. I was watching television with the volume so low that not even my hearing mother could hear it. I stood up to get a drink from the kitchen and mom was making spaghetti. “What’s that SOUND?!” My mom had been accustomed to me asking this and immediately had a worried look on her face…It’s fine, I’ll turn it down don’t worry about it, she responded. “No mom…I like it…what is it?” My mom’s face lit up with a look of pure relief. It was the water boiling in the pot and it was beautiful. From that day, I felt so much better about my cochlear implant and I was ready to take on the hard task of re-learning how to hear again.

I was ready to take on the world with my new Cochlear implant. Wow…what a long post. I wasn’t expecting this. Well I guess next week I can tell you all about how I ended up here at Gallaudet.

So I posted this blog on facebook and got really positive reviews however nothing caused me to react quite as strongly as this:  Lisa Stone Gleason: I think I’ll comment on these blogs…mostly because while you tell the story so well, I’m not sure it is in your nature to highlight just how strong you are Alyssa. When you say you were “recovering from head surgery”…I see you watching a similar surgery on the internet, the night before your own so you’d know what to expect! I see you in the front seat of the car, choosing to leave the hospital ON THE SAME DAY after a 6 hour grueling operation. I see your car seat laid back and your sister holding your head in her hands so you wouldn’t feel any of the bumps we drove over. I see you lying on the couch, head fully wrapped in bandages enjoying the time off to catch up on LOST … understanding the show only with the miracle of Closed Captioning. I see you with short hair you cut off your waist length hair to donate a week before surgery, because they were going to shave yours anyway. I see you SILENTLY sobbing two weeks later when they activated you … but then nodding quietly when the doctor told you that if you left in on, it WOULD get better, and you did… and it did. I see you cringing at dishes clinking together (still today) .. but standing over ANY boiling pot of water, because it sounds so beautiful to you (still today). I want everyone to see how deep your strength runs!!

Putting tears on my face at 7:30 in the morning. GO MOM!




Looking for Something I Didn’t Know Was Missing

Two years after my first Cochlear implant, I was doing FABULOUSLY! I had just finished my sophomore year of high school in Kailua, Hawaii and I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.

My dad, a United States Marine, got stationed from Kaneohe Bay MCBH, Hawaii to the Pentagon in Washington, DC.  This was our Nth move (I can honestly say I have lost count throughout the years) and for me, well that’s life. For 14 years, my sister and I had never complained about moving but you can bet your butt this was one move we didn’t want to make…seriously who wants to leave Hawaii?! But we did what we had to do, packed up and moved into a beautiful house in Springfield, Virginia.

My new high school was only a mile away from my house but that didn’t stop the school from recommending that I attend Woodson High School (a mainstreamed school with a deaf program) over half an hour away. Of course, I had been accustomed to that kind of attitude and simply stated that I did not have any desire to attend a deaf school when this school was so close and the appropriate accommodations would need to be made for me. (An FM system, Closed Captioning on the televisions, and speech therapy) After deciding that I would in fact attend R. E. Lee High School, it was time for me to choose my classes. It was determined that some of the classes I took in Hawaii would not transfer over to Virginia, so I ended up taking two science classes and two history classes in my junior year of high school. All I had left to decide was which language I wanted to take.

Lee High School at that time offered over five different foreign languages including Japanese and German. There was one class I wanted to take, partly because I thought it’d be easy, American Sign Language. Readers might be surprised to know that I had never used American Sign Language growing up. I had only taken one course when I was fairly young with my mom and sister at a community college for fun and I had a dictionary that I learned specific words from once in a while but I never became a fluent user of ASL simply because I never felt I needed it.

When I went to my first ASL class, I made sure to arrive before the other students so I could tell my teacher that I had hearing loss and would need some special accommodations made for me. She promptly looked at me and said, “so?” It took me a while to realize, Oh! it’s a sign language class, I didn’t need to hear in this class. It was determined that I would not use the FM and I would be watching films in ASL for the most part so Captions would be added for the benefit of everyone in class. I learned vocabulary, etiquette and deaf culture and it ended up being one of my favorite classes.

I didn’t make a habit of telling students that I was hearing impaired and typically tried my best to hide it from people ESPECIALLY because I was already the NEW girl…I didn’t want to be the NEW girl with the THING on her ear…and that’s me being nice.  One day in ASL, my teacher was explaining that there were deaf people who used American Sign Language and there were deaf people everywhere. One boy rose his hand and asked the teacher if there were any deaf people in our school and the teacher stared at me and said “I don’t know, are there?” That was my cue…I answered with “huh?” (I didn’t HEAR the question!) Then I realized what I’d missed and said OH YEAH! I’M DEAF! and everyone’s jaw dropped clear through the floor.

I had done such a good job of hiding it that no one even suspected that I had any kind of hearing loss.  From then on, I got all kinds of curious questions and comments. One of my favorites was “You can’t be deaf, you can talk.” My teacher spent a little bit of time talking about cochlear implants and the anatomy of the ear. She also talked to us about Gallaudet University, the only university for deaf and hard of hearing people. My immediate response was “WHERE IS THAT?!” I had never heard of Gallaudet, nor did I know where it was located or what programs were offered but I knew then that I wanted to go.

Can you believe it? Gallaudet was only a 30 minute drive from my home!

During the Summer before my Senior Year, I attended a four week summer immersion program at Gallaudet University to learn American Sign Language.  That was the summer that changed my life. Yes receiving my cochlear implant was pretty life changing but coming into my deaf identity where there was none changed my future.