What Norwegian Light Sounds Like in the Darkness

Norway is dark during the winter. Bleak, gray, and a bit Harry Potterish, so when you are standing at the bus stop at 7:45 in the morning, you expect the “Knight Bus” to pull up. It is Dark; as in the days feel like they take forever to get going and finish far too soon. The darkest time of the year is at Christmas during the winter solstice. Most Norwegians embrace the darkness, because you really can’t do anything else! Starting on the first Sunday of Advent, many windows reflect a star and a row of candles, as if someone has left a light on for those making their way home.  The soft, gentle glow in the darkness is very “koselig” as they say på norsk.

I understand darkness because a certain kind of darkness has hovered around and within me for a long time: since birth. I claim this darkness as my own and have wrestled with it for years. My darkness has shaped who I have become and how I have responded to the world. My darkness has bound me to the point that I have denied and hated it, but have never embraced it. Perhaps I have come close, but the darkness in this Nordic season of my life has urged me deeply that the time to grab onto it, is now.

You see, Norway has allowed me to hear light in my darkness.

What has been my darkness, you ask?

When I was three and a half years old, my mother noticed I was not hearing her in certain contexts or situations. When I yelled, “Mom!” from one room and she yelled back from another, I didn’t hear her. I became frightened and scared, and started to cry. At that point, I think she knew something wasn’t quite right with my hearing, so we soon visited the audiologist at the University of Minnesota, who put me in a sound proof booth to test my hearing. I can still feel the “whoosh” of the air against my face as the thick, metal door closed. I looked up and waited to see the audiologist’s face through the double paned glass window. The minutes from when the door closed to when she took her seat and saw me face-to-face, were filled with panic. The thought that I might be locked in there forever crossed my mind; a lump was felt in my throat and tears surfaced, not only that first time, but for many times and years to come.

“Listen to the tones and push the button when you hear the various beeps”, were words I would become familiar with every time I sat in the chair and looked through that double paned glass window at the face concentrating on the various dials in front of him or her. Visiting the sound proof booth the first time was just the start of this dark journey. In years to come, I would visit the booth often, waiting for results and wondering what it would mean for me. DARKNESS. I noticed that as the tones got higher and higher, the more they faded away. What would happen if I didn’t hear the tones at all? What would that mean for me? Out of that fear, I sometimes I pressed the button even when I didn’t hear the sound.   

The first audiogram indicated I was “slightly hearing impaired” and needed to be fitted for a hearing aid in just my left ear. My right ear hearing was within the normal range therefore, I didn’t need a hearing aid for that one. Within days of that appointment, I was different. Wearing a hearing aid made me different from the other kids. I was a kid of the 70’s, whose parents cut her hair like a helmet, so you couldn’t always see the hearing aid, but I knew it was there. The darkness began to hover and creep in, deeper and deeper.

 “Emily is hearing impaired” was the statement that was declared every time I went to school or  playgroup or gymnastics. “She needs to be up front and you need to look at her when you are talking to her.” My parents began to ask people to change their behavior to accommodate me and I didn’t really want that in any way, shape, or form. When people found out I was hearing impaired, they immediately treated and spoke differently to me. They often talked louder or articulated themselves more. I was the child who needed extra help. I had to sit in the front of the class, go to speech therapy, and being hearing impaired became the definition of who I understood myself to be. It was always my hurdle to jump over.  I became a slave to this darkness and began to tell myself I was not equal to others. Because I could not accept this part of who I was, it clouded how I looked at myself. I was less. Everyone else was more. DARKNESS. Why couldn’t I be normal? I sure didn’t want ANYONE to know ANY more about it than they needed to. So, I started to hide it whenever possible. If I didn’t tell anyone, no one would know and they would think I was just like everyone else.

As a child, my parents loved me to the moon and back and they still do. My parents did everything they could for me and provided me with appropriate resources so I could function and thrive in school. They affirmed and told me that there was nothing wrong with me and again, that there was NOTHING WRONG WITH ME. My sisters and I played, fought, argued, laughed, and they loved me too, hearing aid or not. My family did what families are supposed to do; love you to the core of who you are and support you in everything you do.

But I did not love me at all. I was ashamed of my hearing impairment and operated out of negativity, therefore that darkness overshadowed things for years to come. I was angry. I was pissed off. I was bitter. I hated my darkness and couldn’t possibly imagine how I could love or embrace it, ever.  So I tried to compensate. If I could look good on the outside, by dressing with the best clothes and having the attitude that came with being better than other people, then I might just be something to myself and this world. I wanted to be defined other than “Emily is hearing impaired.” You see, I wanted to be loved by someone else other than my family. I wanted to be accepted somewhere else, other than in just my home.  That would be light in my darkness.

The problem with thinking this way, is that I was looking for other people to love, accept, and define me. That was not very helpful. Duh. And I didn’t want other people to change their behavior when they were around me, even if it cost me the expense of not being able to hear them. Other people shouldn’t have to change how they interact when they are in a conversation with me, in order to help me. I’m not worth that much, at least that’s what I told myself. When you are never worthy, you are always “less than”. I can honestly say that operating out of that SUCKS because you are always trying to achieve something you never arrive at.

For many years, I managed quite well with one hearing aid, but when I was twenty-six, I had to get a second. As my life advanced in years, my hearing progressively grew worse because of a late in life diagnosis of EVA (Enlarged Vestibular Aqueduct Syndrome). EVA can cause you to lose hearing, if your head is bumped hard enough or experienced great pressure changes, like scuba diving or even, flying in airplanes. MORE DARKNESS. The visits to the sound proof booth with the audiologists just got scarier and funnier, all at the same time. In addition to listening to the tones, I also had to repeat sentences in a variety of contexts and voice settings. I really wasn’t clearly understanding all the words, as I listened, thought, and started giggling……”Goodness, that’s not appropriate. They didn’t say, “The girl played with the f**k!” Often, I would tell the audiologist, “I’m sorry, but I can’t even repeat what I’ve just heard, which is clearly an indication that I am not hearing exactly what I should be.” If there is one thing I’ve learned in this lifetime of hearing loss, it is this; you HAVE to have a sense of humor because it makes what you hear that much better, really.    

To top it all off, when I was thirty-four and our family moved from Washington State to Minnesota, as the airplane landed at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport, all the hearing vanished out of my right ear. I could see the mouth of the flight attendant moving, but could barely hear her. At the time, I was holding my three week old infant and two and a half year old as we walked off the plane together. The world suddenly got very quiet and that terrified me more than anything. My right ear had always been my stronger ear and now I could hardly hear a thing. My biggest fear was not hearing my children. EVEN MORE DARKNESS.  After completely losing all hearing in my right ear, I began, what took seven years to finally be evaluated and readied to be a candidate for a cochlear implant.  

In 2014, I received a cochlear implant from the Mayo Clinic. On my 42nd birthday, the cochlear implant was activated and I started the journey to hearing out of that ear again. The DARKNESS was off-set by a ray of LIGHT.  Today, I hear with two ears, one with a hearing aid and the other, with a cochlear implant. Hearing with both ears was like being reconnected with love. It was amazing, simply amazing. And it still is. LIGHT.

And it just keeps getting lighter. Since moving to Norway almost two years ago, I have discovered the blessing of socialized medicine. Upon arrival, I was approved to receive a new hearing aid. BRAND. NEW. HEARING. AID. FOR. FREE. Why? Because I needed a new one and providing this for people who need one is part of health care here. In the States, it would have cost me at least $2,500. While I was at my audiologist’s office, he said to me, “You know Emily, there is another audiologist by the name of Elizabeth that works here, who can help assess your home and work life and can make sure you get the best products to help you hear in those various situations. I’d be happy to give you a referral to her and have you find out what you can get.”

Wait. What?! There is even more goodness for me?! (Yes, I did hear that correctly.) MORE LIGHT.

A week later, Elizabeth, called me to set up an appointment. On a dark December night after work, I made my way to her office. With blonde hair, dressed in a scarf tied fashionably around her neck, and Johnny Depp like looking glasses, she welcomed me. She is of course, Norwegian, with an edge. A very good edge, I might add. I love Norwegians because they are truthful and honest right up front. You don’t spend a lot of time wading through the small talk we Americans do, you get right to the work that is in front of you. That evening I was nervous, as I have always been when I am with someone in the audiology world, mostly because our conversation was going to be about this delicate subject: my hearing loss.

She proceeded to share with me that I could “sync” both my hearing aid AND my cochlear implant with one simple device, that would make it possible for me to listen to music or talk on the phone using both ears. So, as Elizabeth shared this information with me and gave me this device, I plugged it into my phone and heard the Norwegian news out of both ears. AT. THE. SAME. TIME.  Up until this point, I couldn’t have something streamed to both, but only to one or the other. This is extremely helpful because it helps my brain to connect sound on both sides and grow in my understanding and hearing overall. LIGHT.

After that, she said to me, “You need to always ask people to look at you when they are talking so you can hear. You need to remind them that they need to face you.  They need to be reminded to not yell at you from another room. Don’t answer them if they do. Make them come to you and tell them that you need to be closer to hear them. You need to know that if people aren’t willing to come to you and speak to you, then they aren’t worth it. You are worth it. It takes a great deal of energy for you to listen, Emily. It takes more energy for you to listen than people with “normal” hearing. People have no idea how exhausting it is for you at the end of a day. Again, YOU are worth it.” WOW…..BLINDING LIGHT.

I could feel the lump in my throat. Someone just told me that I was worth it. Someone just told me that I need to ask for others to be engaged in conversation in different ways. Someone who works with people like me every single day and understands what it is like, just reminded me about the core of who I am. I am worth it. I am loved. If I am going to be engaged in relationship with other people, then I have to see myself as an equal and demand that we do this together. This is “Janteloven”.

Janteloven is this; we are ALL equal and no one is better than anyone else.  This is so very Norwegian and so very beautiful. Norway has shown me light in the midst of my darkness.

Hearing is more than just hearing. It is also listening. We listen with our ears, but we also listen with our hearts. UFF DA. Here I am almost 45 years old and it has taken me this long to really hear with my heart and see the core of who I am. (Well, I might have a ways to go ‘cause the darkness always seems to find a way to creep back in and also…..I don’t think I’ve really “arrived” yet.)

My familial roots come from Scandinavia and living here has brought me back to those deep roots of who God has created me to be. I am worthy and loved, by God, myself, my family, my friends, my church, my community, and my world. And, I might mention…… so is everyone else on this planet earth.

Did you hear that?

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”—John 1:5

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