It’s post-five o’clock and cafes in New York City are still in a brewing cacophony. Files of people, with books and laptops in hand, order up a second round of fuel amid a soundscape of coffee-bean grinds and milk steams.
It’s this type of explosion of frequencies, as well as the desolate absence of them, that fascinates Ysabelle Cheung about this city. A fresh, month-long resident of NYC, who bears an enthusiastic smile to prove it, Cheung enjoys illustrating chaotic sounds with her written words.
“In a lot of my writing, I find that I’m very descriptive with sounds in my stories and I keep a journal as well,” confesses Cheung. “I’ll jot down observations of the day, most of the time they’re visual, but a lot of the time [I write about the] sounds that I hear during the day.”
Her experience with sound, however, is a unique one that goes beyond literary curiosity. Three years ago she was diagnosed with a rare hearing condition called Meniere’s Disease (MD) and may likely become deaf by the time she reaches her early forties.
At the age of 26, Cheung felt void of a community or outlet to comfortably communicate her experience. Through writing, she has developed a sense of understanding of her condition and her brain’s ability to archive sounds into long-term memory–even once she is deaf.
“I remember feeling like I really enjoyed articulating my thoughts because they had been in my mind for so long and I don’t really talk to my friends about this or my family either,” admits Cheung. “It’s not a very universal thing, especially at 26 years old, I can’t go to a party and be like, ‘Today I was really deaf what about you?’”
Due to a buildup of fluid in her inner ear, Cheung experiences vertigo and tinnitus, or a ringing sensation in the ear. She was also born unable to recognize high frequencies, like the shriek of an alarm clock or Taylor Swift’s voice hitting soprano notes.
To better cope with her isolation and fears, Cheung decided to pitch a story to Narratively, an online platform dedicated to “untold human stories.” She sought to connect to others with a similar condition, as well as speak with doctors to understand how silence and sounds manifest themselves in the brain once deaf.
Doctor Tracy Peck Holcomb, the director of Clinical Services at the Hearing and Speech Center of Northern California, was one person Cheung reached out to about the brain’s ability to store sound memories.
“The ears and brain are not able to fine-tune sounds enough like a normal working system would to achieve clarity–these sounds are ‘lost,’” Dr Peck told Cheung. ”But our auditory memory still ‘remembers’ some of these sounds, and we are also very good at using other cues to help us figure out what is being said. Even if one loses hearing function, they still recall what that might sound like.”
A patient of Dr. Peck with the same MD condition was also a source of insight. The 51-year-old writer and reporter named Erica Sandberg shared her trouble with the symptom of tinnitus and how she listens to “brown sounds” (low tones) to ease her ear drums to build a bridge to “lost” sounds.
“One really interesting thing as well is that I never met these people face to face–actually, the only phone call I ever conducted was with the Japanese doctor,” explains Cheung. “We are all losing our hearing so it was all written communication and it seemed like I was talking to a friend or someone through a support group or through a different community.”
Cheung began to have a new sense of intrigue at the life that lies ahead. She began building an archive in her mind of sounds she doesn’t want to forget.
Cheung wrote on Narratively: “The only control I have over anything is to listen harder, to try to archive already fading sound memories like my baby sister gurgling at bath time, or one of the dozens of singing-bird music boxes my grandfather used to collect. Or maybe simpler, humbler sounds of the everyday: a glass of water being poured. A clock ticking. A sneeze.”
Sarah Katz, a poet that she reached out to for her story, inspired her to think of more creative ways to use her misheard sounds.
“When I spoke to that poet Sarah for the story, she brought up something interesting which I haven’t really done before: she was writing down sounds that she had misheard and then turning that into her poetry,” Cheung marvels. “Today I misheard something and everyone was laughing at me–but it makes life almost more interesting if you jot down the mishearing.”
Cheung admits that while she is still fearful about the inevitable deafness in her future, she is thankful for her new intrigue, as well as her community, both of which have helped elucidate what life could be like without sound.
“I think I came to a realization that there was another part of me that lay ahead but was different from everyone else’s that could be interesting,” wonders Cheung. “I realized that my brain is actually working with me than against me and my ear is really a tool or a receptacle, if you will, to receive all these sounds. The brain is an untapped fountain of creativity and it’s so crazy how it finds all these different ways to make things happen.”