Growing up, I sometimes felt like an alien. I didn’t understand what motivated people to say and act the way they did. I had a lot of friends at school, but I found myself mostly wanting to spend time on my own playing piano or reading a book. Although I easily got A’s in high school, I struggled to get B’s and C’s in college, putting in twice as much time as my peers. I felt as though I was apart from everyone, that I was lost in space in some way and couldn’t achieve the same mental agility as those around me.
My issue was my genetics: I was born with poor hearing, and I didn’t realize how little I heard compared to everyone else. In 4th grade, I took a hearing test with other classmates at school. In a small trailer, we sat with headphones on and were supposed to raise our hands when we heard a beep. I knew I had bad hearing then, but I didn’t want to be revealed. So, I cracked my eyes open and watched as everyone raised their hands. I couldn’t hear over half of the beeps that everyone else heard, but I raised my hand anyway.
In my early 30’s, a friend convinced me that I should get my hearing checked. I had been going through a lot of stress-related illness and was studying with her to become a yoga teacher. As I was learning Sanskrit chants, I would become frustrated to the point of tears because I couldn’t seem to replicate the sounds. I felt like a complete failure when I couldn’t distinguish between d, p, or t. While I realized that my hearing wasn’t the greatest, I insisted I didn’t need it checked because I didn’t want to wear hearing aids—I didn’t want the world to see that I required help to hear. At the time, my vanity was a good enough reason not to wear them. I had gotten through two science degrees and successfully embraced the working world. Why would I change now as an adult? She told me I had to go because I couldn’t become a yoga teacher if I couldn’t hear my students. Fine! I took myself to the audiologist for a hearing test and was floored when I tested with only 10% of normal conversational hearing. Wow—no wonder I felt so lost! I had been living in a world of silence without realizing.
SO, I CRACKED MY EYES OPEN AND WATCHED AS EVERYONE RAISED THEIR HANDS. I COULDN’T HEAR OVER HALF OF THE BEEPS THAT EVERYONE ELSE HEARD, BUT I RAISED MY HAND ANYWAY.
The first day I put on my new hearing aids, I was amazed! I could hear birds singing and leaves stirring in the wind. Better yet, I could hear every word of a conversation whether whispered, behind me, or with multiple people. I no longer had to sit immediately in front of the person I was speaking to and read their lips—I could simply let my ears, rather than my eyes, do the work! All this time, I had hidden my poor hearing because I was self-conscious of not being like everyone else. Now, my hearing aids showed and people could see for themselves what I am: someone who uses machines to help me hear.
My yoga teacher called them my earpieces; I thought of them as my ear “peace.” It was something to watch when people realized I wasn’t as normal as I appeared. Some people were cool with it; others weren’t. Some people treated me like I was stupid if I missed part of a conversation or couldn’t remember directions to a place I’d never been. They would get impatient and act as though I was trying to annoy them. But, it didn’t matter to me what people thought. I could hear the Sanskrit sounds now, and eventually, I mastered several. Learning those unfamiliar sounds focused my mind on the power of sound as a healing tool.
When I first got my hearing aids, I was working from home as a freelance scientific writer for the government. After spending many years moving around in pursuit of a fast-paced career, I decided I wanted to focus on building stability for myself and so I bought a house. I wanted to live in the same place for awhile and continue my yoga studies. I gained a lot of satisfaction working from my own home. I was able to concentrate and adjust to being able to hear every little noise with my earpieces. A home, I didn’t have to worry about background noise. I occasionally would go into a local office for meetings, but mostly worked independently. I told my immediate supervisor and a couple of office colleagues about my hearing upgrade but chose to keep it from most people I worked with. Given a choice, I opted to keep my special needs under the radar.
NOW, MY HEARING AIDS SHOWED AND PEOPLE COULD SEE FOR THEMSELVES WHAT I AM: SOMEONE WHO USES MACHINES TO HELP ME HEAR.
Two years later, my boss got a big promotion and moved to another state. After she left, there was a management decision to no longer allow freelancers to work from home—we would now be required to come in and work at the office two full days a week. The established workstation for me was in the noisiest part of the office: a small cubicle next to a copy machine and three loud phone talkers. I immediately informed the office manager of my situation, needing low background noise for effective work. I requested a few options to help me function as well at the office as I did at home, and I never received a reply. No one called me back. I had been successfully working with this group of people for five years—I couldn’t understand why no one was talking to me. The situation got labeled as “secret, ” and nobody was at liberty to reveal information.
I had been working on 12-month contracts for five years, and my current contract was due to expire in two months. A few weeks after I requested for accommodations, the decision was made that my contract would not be renewed. My three bosses assured me the decision of letting my contract lapse was completely financial. So I resumed operating as my alien self, not understanding what was going on around me and simply focusing on the work. Two days before my last day, I received an email advertising the contract I had just lost. The truth of my situation came crashing down around me. On my last day, I went and collected my books from my small desk at the office and cried from humiliation and shame.
Up to this point in my career, I had been extremely ambitious and goal-oriented. I worked in many different challenging environments, and my work ethic to buckle down and achieve had been driving me to this point, though it felt like a constant struggle. How could I put this in perspective, and not let this temporary setback prevent me from achieving success? I wasn’t being treated like a person, so why should I take the situation personally? I thought about all of the other people out there that couldn’t hear. Maybe some of them never went and got hearing aids, and they remained socially isolated. Many older people I’ve met with hearing difficulties simply decide that they can’t hear, they don’t like to wear hearing aids, and that they’ll just lead a quiet life. I couldn’t sit back and not participate in life because I couldn’t hear: I was too young! I had an adult responsibility of paying the mortgage. I needed to figure out how to earn a living and stay in my house. My former boss offered me a contract job in her new office, and I appreciated the gesture but didn’t want to sell my house and move. I just wanted to tend my vegetable garden!
I COULD HEAR THE SANSKRIT SOUNDS NOW, AND EVENTUALLY, I MASTERED SEVERAL. LEARNING THOSE UNFAMILIAR SOUNDS FOCUSED MY MIND ON THE POWER OF SOUND AS A HEALING TOOL.
The same encouraging friend who convinced me to get earpieces also reminded me that I had an incredible talent that I could turn into a livelihood. I am a classical pianist; I began playing at the age of 2 following the Suzuki Method. Music has always been my refuge from the world. As a scientist, I felt unfulfilled, disconnected from the world somehow. But, when I am in my music, I am joyous. I relish the challenge of learning new pieces and bringing them up to performance level. I decided that I could at least try this new avenue and see how it went.
I put up a hand drawn piano lesson flier around town. Within a month, I had five clients. I began to trust that it was possible to support myself as an artist. Like my hearing, I had always been in the closet about my musical abilities. I wanted to be seen as smart and logical, as someone who should be taken seriously. I was scared to be seen as a musician and having people see that I wore hearing aids. What if people thought I sucked? I was self-conscious about my musical abilities, but giving into fear and not trying wasn’t an option financially. By letting go of the fear, I found that it felt completely natural to become a piano teacher because I had always been a musician.
In my community, there were regular art evenings where local artists showcase their work and musicians perform live music. To build my client base, I needed to participate in art evenings, but I faced an obstacle: zero locations provided piano music because no one had any pianos. I thought it would be great networking for me to find a way to bring pianos to local businesses during art evenings and also great for audience members, too! I named the concept Project Piano and opened up a question to the universe: is this possible?
One day as I stood in line at the bank to pay the mortgage, I realized that the building had great acoustics. The bank was open for art evenings with an upstairs art gallery. Even though I had never spoken with the manager, I went up to him and asked him if he would consider purchasing a piano for art evenings. He immediately said yes, on the condition that I come in and play. Six months later, we found a baby grand piano for an incredible price to which the owners only would sell to an accomplished pianist. I found out the bank manager is a closet piano player himself and wanted the piano around. Whenever I play, he’s always there with a huge smile on his face. The bank has since become a perfect venue for piano recitals.
I NAMED THE CONCEPT PROJECT PIANO AND OPENED UP A QUESTION TO THE UNIVERSE: IS THIS POSSIBLE?
A few months later, I was gifted another baby grand piano for my home music studio, and by following Spring, a third Project Piano materialized. A friend’s ex-boyfriend left it behind after their breakup, and she needed it out of her house. It was taking up the whole living room, and she wanted to get a couch instead of look at an instrument she couldn’t play. I found a classy bar to accept the instrument on the condition that I play for art evenings. Three pianos! I was beyond the moon.
Being hard of hearing, it is ironic that sound became the vehicle to get me into my new professional life. As a music teacher, I form a community around the Suzuki concepts of positivity, love, and artistic expression. I have been able to use my talents and achieve something that helps others. Before I got the hearing aids, I worked hard to hear without letting on that I couldn’t. With the ear peace, I no longer have to do that work. I appreciate the beauty of human connection. I am accepting of others who are different from me, and I have compassion for those with struggles of their own. I feel as though I’m doing what I’m supposed to, instead of struggling.
I finally got a second pair of hearing aids, and these don’t show. I don’t tell people about my hearing unless they announce they are hard of hearing. I encourage everyone who thinks they’re hard of hearing to go out and get their own ear peace to open up their worlds. Hearing bird song, human whispers, and piano music—it’s possible to achieve personal freedom and independence as a person of special needs.