‘You will never become anything,’ my doctor said. I was going stone-cold deaf. ‘What now?’: Woman loses hearing to infection, vows ‘deafness will not define me’

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“The worst feeling is sitting in the soundproof audio booth for hearing tests. My hearing aids are removed, tubes are pushed down into my ear canals as the door closes tightly behind the audiologist. I have been profoundly deaf since I was 3 years old, I know the drill. Different beeps and frequencies play into my ear. If I hear something, press the button.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

Without hearing aids, I am missing 85-90% of hearing in both ears. The soundproof box and silence is suffocating as I sit. I can see, out of the corner of my eye, my mother’s puzzling face as she processes the charts showing up on the screen. I discovered I could not repeat most of the words and I could only hear the rushing blood through my body. I clung to a button to click for tones and sounds, but only found empty silence. Tears burned in my eyes.

My heart is pounding so hard and fast that I’m able to hear. I try to calm it down so I can hear something else. The soundproof box is still silent; my ears can only understand a few low tones. Suddenly, the test is finally done. I walk out praying to not discover another significant drop that requires new hearing aids or the hard reality of why my favorite songs suddenly sound different again. My life is an uncertain waiting game of, ‘What if I lose the only hearing I have left? What now?’

The doctor shares ‘Your low tones are going.’ The only hearing I have left is disappearing, dropping more and more. The possibility of becoming completely stone-cold deaf is always a reality and the audiogram is starting to point to the same thing. My loss has always been in higher tones, I am bottoming out of sound in most decibels. My one lifeline of hearing and communicating in the hearing world is my low tones and that is slipping from my grasp.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

Justifiably, I could choose to be angry. I could shut down on life and on the people around me. I could keep a list of where I’ve been wronged and how unfair it is to struggle in communicating every minute. Every time I ask, ‘What?’ I am acutely reminded that this hearing is fleeting. It could terrorize me. Yet, I have chosen to live freely with great joy and purpose. God has used what the world thinks is most broken about me, my ears, to showcase that I am fully who I am because I am deaf. I would not be ‘Emma Faye’ without being deaf; it has made me who I am, but it does not define me.

When I was young, I became very sick with a high fever associated with an infection and lost the majority of my hearing. Life felt unfair and hard as a little girl. I had to adapt to every situation I entered because of hearing loss. There were many signs of hearing loss, but my parents had never been around anyone deaf or hard-of-hearing and did not connect the dots until after I was diagnosed at 3 years old.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

There were signs. In ballet as a young girl, I would dance in a corner by myself. Literally danced to my own beat. I was so behind in speech development and in reading comprehension. Instead of saying ‘puppy dogs,’ I would say things like ‘happy dogs.’ Finally, a teacher suggested a hearing test and everything clicked. My mother describes the whole experience as being ‘out-of-body.’ There were no resources or deaf communities in our hometown. She and my dad were on their own.

A year after my diagnosis, my hearing dropped suddenly and significantly. Doctors stated that I would never function ‘normally’ in the hearing world or become anything my parents dreamed for me to become. Our family was at a crossroads. Would I become what statistics say about deaf people on education, employment, and quality of my life, or would we refuse to be boxed in by experts and fight a good fight?

At first, I had no idea I was different. But as I grew older, I became acutely aware of my loneliness. At sleepovers, all the lights would turn off which meant I could no longer lip-read to communicate. I would pretend to be asleep feeling the vibrations of voices around me outside my sleeping bag. That perfectly embodies my life at that point, the world carried on without knowing who I really was.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

After 10 years of speech therapy, I could no longer change my ‘funny’ voice and I could not hear anything without my ‘ugly’ hearing aids. I started noticing comments and how I struggled day-to-day more than my classmates. I would have to come home and reteach myself the material because I would completely miss concepts. I would come home from school, exhausted from lip-reading all day, and have to completely re-teach myself from the textbooks. My peers would take an hour for homework, it would take me 5 hours to re-teach myself and figure out what had just happened in class that day. I remember sitting in class feeling like I was in an ocean, unable to understand what was happening.

Around 5th grade, I began feeling so hurt and left out. I would isolate myself farther to appear untouchable and protect myself. Doctors diagnosed me with major depression and anxiety as an adult and pinpoint this timeframe as the starting point of it in my life. I felt left out of conversations and games, so I spent hours swinging by myself, watching all the other little girls playing. Longing to be invited. It would have been transformative…

My speech and hearing aid started being pointed out. I was terrified to do cheerleading because I knew I’d have to wear my hair up and show my hearing aids. I became self-conscious of my voice, and it became hard to want to speak. My mispronounced words felt so heavy and judged. I started having meltdowns and would come home crying almost everyday. I became angry and would often lose my temper with my classmates.

Lip reading is my main source of communication. My brain is in overdrive trying to understand what was said or why we’re laughing. I’m a great pretender. There are many sounds I don’t hear – P, H, G, K, F and S. My aids are digitally programmed to fill in the sounds I miss.

As I grew older, I became legally classified as ‘deaf’ and that opened my eyes to being a part of much larger community. It was never an option in my household to use my deafness as any sort of crutch. If I had a really hard day of being left out or feeling alone, my mama would always say, ‘Today, you are allowed one pity party tonight and to feel sad for yourself because life is hard and unfortunately you found out at a young age… but tomorrow you are going to pick yourself up and carry on to keep loving people.’

One of the major sources of insecurity in my life growing up were my hearing aids. They were the only visible signs of my deafness and hidden disability, and it separated me from my peers. The wind blowing was the bane of my existence in middle school because that meant people could catch a glimpse of my aids for themselves.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

When I was a freshman in high school, the language requirement was to take Spanish. It took me 10 years to properly speak the English language! It was devastating and an eye-opening year of growth for me. The teacher did not understand the profoundness of my hearing loss and would play audiotapes in Spanish and then expect me to repeat it. I spent the year embarrassed and humiliated because of the many times I was called to stand up and speak the language I could not hear in front of my classmates.

On one test in particular, I completely bombed the oral part of the exam and with tears streaming down my face, explained to her how horribly unfair this was, she looked at me and said, ‘I thought you wouldn’t want to be labeled as different.’ That was the final straw on how I was going to allow myself to be treated.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

I needed some modifications to be successful, but that did not mean my brain did not work. When people talk to me as if I am dumb or incapable of speaking for myself, I change the situation by saying, ‘My ears don’t work, but my brain works just fine.’

There is a misconception that the deaf require special treatment. The only thing I need is for someone to communicate well with me and I can do the rest. People talk through my friend or family, thinking they will translate the conversation back to me. I used believe every ounce of being ‘disabled’ but now I know my lack of hearing is my story to proclaim freedom against that label for others. What was seen as a ‘disability’ in my life has become my greatest ability. I know most people don’t know about deafness and are curious to know more. Now, I see people’s questions and curiosity as an opportunity to share my story and truth over the situation.

At the end of that year, I went before the administration and wrote a formal petition for ASL to be taught for any deaf and hard-of-hearing student that went to the school. The following year, my foreign language was sign language through an online college and that is where I learned about deaf culture. Learning of my background and heritage as a deaf person was true freedom. I am part of the ‘hearing world,’ but legally deaf. I know my purpose is to bridge the two worlds together; to close the gap.

In my background, I had been raised to love God and went to a Christian school, and I had become the great pretender of being ‘OK.’ I could pretend to hear sometimes and try to be a part of conversations but I was in my own little world without anyone knowing of the hurt I was experiencing. I went into a darkness and great anger towards God. I couldn’t understand that if God was supposed to love me, why couldn’t He make me normal? That if He was the big God of miracles in the Bible, why couldn’t He heal me? I wanted so desperately to be normal and to fit in. I became angry, depressed, horribly insecure and so lonely I could hardly stand it. I knew I needed to change, for this life of sadness was not worth living.

At 14, I signed myself up for a local Christian camp and learned about God and His great love for me. Something clicked at camp and a transformation began to take place. A major turning point for me was reading these words: ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’ My life is a constant struggle, but I wouldn’t be the person I am without these hardships.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

Since that day, many years ago, I became a new person. I started looking at my hearing loss as a part of me and as the most beautiful thing about me. One of the first things I did after this massive shift within was wear my hair up for the first time! What the world thought of me no longer mattered anymore, and my insecurities started slowly vanishing.

My hearing aids have become my badge of honor to tell others what I’ve been through and what hearing loss is about. Hurtful comments come, but I take the opportunity to correct them. What I have experienced the most is people yelling and over enunciating at me, which only makes it harder to communicate. As long as the person speaking to me is facing me and talking at a normal pace and volume, we are going to be fast friends.

The beginning stages of my life felt like the most tragic thing that would ever happen to me. Looking back, I now see the big picture and that my deafness is not tragic but the greatest blessing that has ever happened to me. My label is not the ‘deaf girl’ or someone with a ‘disability.’ I am wonderfully-made Emma.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

If you have hearing aids or even a cochlear, you are wearing your story. People can be inconsiderate and make comments, but it is only because they don’t understand or they will choose not to. However, the choice is yours whether or not to take that as your identity. Always be ready to forgive those who hurt you, because that frees you from resentment and the hold that person has on you. This is your platform in life to change the world. It is the most beautiful thing about you.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

In 2010, I began to intensely study piano and music theory. For pleasure, I started guitar, ukulele, singing lessons and actively performing in my community. In 2015, I added the kick drum to the list of instruments.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

This was in preparation to compete in the pageant circuit to establish a national platform for hard-of-hearing and deaf. In February 2015, I won the title of Miss San Antonio and am proud to have been the very first Miss San Antonio who is deaf and the first one to win twice since 1923 in 2017.

Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin
Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

A beauty pageant required me to face the very insecurities of my past about my appearance and speaking head on. From that experience and exposure, I speak in front of people everyday in my very different voice and in my language of American Sign Language. The beautiful part is that I am living in the redemption of my story. The things that I used to let prohibit me from fully living are now propelling me into succeeding on the behalf of helping deaf and hard-of-hearing children and teenagers.

Growing up, I had access to many resources in order to succeed and not be held back by what was labeled as a disability. The vision for the organization was spurred after falling upon statistics about the deaf. They are shocking and unreal. So, in January of 2015, I started my own nonprofit, Aid the Silent. It has been a dream of mine for years to be able to give back to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, and now I can.”

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Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin
Courtesy of Emma Faye Rudkin

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Emma Faye Rudkin of Aid The Silent. You can follow her journey on her Instagram and her website. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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