Silence brought me community and escape

Every night when I get home, rush into my house and rip my hearing aids out of my head. No matter where I’ve been, the routine is the same. Sometimes I’m in such a rush that I can’t even bear to go through the power button settings, so I open the battery doors instead. Then I store them on a high shelf out of my toddler’s reach, where they stay until the next time I venture out.

Removing my hearing aids is a relief, much like freeing my feet from a long day in dress shoes, except the thing that’s squeezed is my brain. I choose to wear hearing aids in various work or social situations, but they create a dull thump around the circumference of my head. For all the technological power and benefits that aids provide, I recently discovered that their greatest value lies in the pleasure of removing them.

I haven’t always been deaf. I was brought up in a hearing world, and in a house overflowing with music, which at the time had a much more imposing physical presence – records, tapes and CDs were stacked on the tables and shelves in every room; stereos, boomboxes and subwoofers lined the walls of our home office. Deliverer and without athletic talent, I fell into the extracurriculars of the choir and the musical theater: I was a good singer, but more than that, my friends were there. The music classrooms had become my refuge. That’s probably why, when I failed a hearing screening at school around age 12, I tore up a pink slip that said as much instead of taking it home as instructed. Like everyone I knew, I understood deafness as a deficit and saw myself as a broken version of the person I had been. I was losing access to sound and others.

My hearing loss progressed slowly over the next decade. It would take me even longer to unlearn the mainstream wisdom about the Deaf world that I had internalized and learn to listen to other Deaf people – and myself – instead. I spent my high school years trying to make it, clinging to normalcy and fearing that losing my hearing would threaten the friendships I had forged in musical spaces. When I finally discovered the deaf community and American Sign Language (ASL), I realized that silence didn’t have to mean isolation – it could mean community and conversation, just like sound l had done before.

Feeling depressed one Sunday while in college, I walked into a church service and noticed a sign language interpreter in the front corner. She and deaf parishioners signed as the band played, making them momentarily visible. I slid onto the bench next to them, shaking with fear and excitement at the thought of having found others like me.

Then I introduced myself to one of the group members, using the stop ASL I had picked up off the internet. I can’t remember what either of us said, but after months of expelling every ounce of energy trying to communicate with hearing people at school, even this awkward interaction seemed a relief. I wasn’t hiding anymore and he didn’t fire me. My poor writing skills didn’t matter, because he and most deaf people I’ve met since understand what it means and feels like to be in this body.

“Deaf people don’t believe in silence,” writes deaf poet Ilya Kaminsky in his collection “Deaf Republic.” “Silence is the invention of hearing.” I suggest a review: To fear of silence is the invention of hearing. I don’t believe in silence as a vacuum. It’s additive, forcing me to engage in my thoughts without distractions, challenging me to participate in the world differently, to use my remaining senses to the fullest, in ways I certainly wouldn’t if I had remained hearing.

Deafness made me a better writer. While hearing people using music and podcasts to support them during their commutes, downtimes and everything in between, I let my mind wander, writing sentences in the air. Sometimes it’s boring to be alone like this, but boredom encourages me to study the atmospheric details of my daily life: the shine of broken bottles and bags of crisps, and the nose wires of discarded masks in the South Philly gutters, refracting the morning sun when I walk the dog. Things I probably wouldn’t have noticed when I was hearing – at least not enough to remember – now fill a rich store of images to choose from when I sit down to write.

The company maintains that I am broken and have sought to rehabilitate my ears through various devices. But I’ve seen people who hear their ears plugged every waking moment, looking for what I already have: a buffer between me and the crushing day. What I once thought was “normal” I now see as a burden – never being able to stop listening, even while sleeping. Deafness certainly presents challenges in a majority hearing world, but I feel lucky to have the ability to mute. While I can’t exactly recommend deafness, what I’ve learned — see different sensory experiences not as failures but as examples of human diversity; stop confusing majority experience with superiority; finding the good in what really scares you at first – should be a lesson for everyone. Do not mount the headphones too quickly. Adopt silence, or at least some time without constant consumption of content. You might even get bored long enough to hear what your mind is saying.

Sara Novic is the author of the novels “True Biz” and “Girl At War”. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.

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