Jared happened upon the I Am More exhibit earlier this year at NorthShore Mall, and after recognizing our former mayor of Gloucester, stopped to read the essays. He sent me a quick note, saying it was “quite wonderful,” and after looking him up I was embarrassed to see he was a professional portrait photographer who regularly contributes to The Wall Street Journal and many other publications. He asked if he could pitch a story to NorthShore Magazine about the project and soon enough he was in our yard taking photos of me for the April article. I noticed a black shiny object on the side of his head, and he admitted that the reason he connected so much with the exhibit was because of the struggles he had gone through with hearing loss. I immediately wanted to learn more and soon enough the tables were turned and I was in his studio hearing his story:
In 2018, after an overseas family vacation, I woke up to endure my first (and hopefully only) bout with vertigo. My wife, Alison, thought I was tired and sleeping in, but I never sleep in and I’m always the first to rise. Somehow our dog Lulu intuitively knew something was wrong and Alison came upstairs to see what was going on. Somehow I navigated a world turned on its axis spinning at hyper speed into oblivion to make it to her car so she could drive me to the emergency room at Salem Hospital. There was nothing left to throw up but I continued to anyway. As we drove the short distance from Marblehead to Salem, I kept having the thought that would become for years the same thought: just let me die. I was taken in immediately and put on two heavy drugs to stop the vertigo. I slipped in and out of a hallucinatory dreamscape that I wished to keep stepping into and realized after a couple of days I would need to leave. As the drug wore off and I regained my senses I noticed that I couldn’t hear anything out of my right ear. Both my wife and I let them know, but no doctor treated me for sudden hearing loss, a condition commonly treated by high doses of Prednisone. The doctors were confident that the hearing would return and prescribed physical therapy to help regain my balance as the vertigo subsided.
I left the hospital with a clear path: I just needed to do the PT and my life would slowly come back to normal. After a week I followed up with my general practitioner, who showed no alarm at my continued loss of hearing, and I casually made an appointment with a specialist at Mass Eye and Ear approximately one month after the vertigo attack as I wrestled through photo shoots, keeping my balance and desperately hoping that people didn’t think I was intoxicated as walking straight was still a challenge. One of my first jobs back was literally walking backwards through the streets of Boston documenting several politicians. The second job was photographing an indoor polo match as horses charged past me and I was sure I would end back at the ER.
A month passed with no return of my hearing and a battle within myself to cope with what I describe as an alien parasite: 24/7 tinnitus. I still dealt with it all right as I was hopeful that everything was going to be okay with time. I met with Dr. Rauch, a renowned audiologist, and my heart sank, exploded and imploded all at the same time when he informed me that I should have been seen far earlier that there was no treatment to offer and my hearing would never return, thought the tinnitus would go away, and I should “soldier on.” A soldier returning from combat typically suffers from PTSD that causes all kinds of psychological warfare that, untreated, can lead to severe depression and often suicide. ‘Soldiering On’ is an unfortunate way of bypassing realities that, left untreated, become a pathway to emotional and physical breakdowns. Becoming deaf–becoming an amputee with a loss invisible to the human eye–has its own set of disadvantages. The brain cannot know physiologically that the body has lost a core component and, much like a person who has lost a limb, tinnitus is the version of a phantom limb feeling but with a chaotic jumbled mess of a jigsaw puzzle of sounds that add up to only distraction, isolation, fear, resentment, and, as I articulated during the vertigo, an absolute and daily wish I could just pass away.
Family life became even more stressful and fractured as I often preferred or would have preferred to hide away. Many noisy environments with background noise could make me mostly deaf as the tinnitus would rise like a wave and cancel what my good (left) ear was taking in. For a year I tried using hearing aids but beyond the initial jolt of feeling like I was doing something, this clearly became nothing more than an expensive piece of equipment that had little impact on improving my hearing and my health.
Despondency over the situation ballooned me quite literally–I ate at night as sleep, a long-time issue, became even more difficult with the tinnitus. Using sound machines often did little to ease my mind. I was knocking on 300 pounds when I realized something had to change or farther down the rabbit hole I would slip. I made a decision to get as healthy per day as possible and I would look into the possibility of a cochlear implant. After watching a study that done at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill on adults almost exactly my age who had lost hearing in one ear within a three-year span and suffered tinnitus showed that all experienced massive improvements to their hearing, overall health, and relief from tinnitus. I knew I had to try as nothing else was working and my body, mind, and soul were taking a massive beating three years after my inner ear infection. After spending thousands of dollars on testing to see if I was physically viable to receive a cochlear implant (under the hood), I got the positive news I was hoping for and then the next hurdle: insurance. Dr. Jung, my surgeon said it would probably be a back-and-forth fight but with studies like the one coming from UNC clearly demonstrating the vital benefits for SSD patients he was confident it would happen. Much to my shock, the surgery was approved two weeks after my meeting with Dr. Jung. I kept making my son Emmet read the letter as I was sure it couldn’t be true.
Then COVID. All non-essential surgeries would be delayed. Mine was essential, and I wish the path had been laid out and presented to this “soldier” no more than a year after I lost my hearing. November 6, 2020, two days after the presidential election I was to go under the knife for my implant.
When the nurse confirmed the surgery I was there for she noted that almost all cochlear implant patients are the cheeriest, almost giddy, and this was the case with me. One month later (waiting for the scar to heal) I met with my audiologist and the magic began. As soon as she placed the audio processor that goes on the outside of the ear the tinnitus was swallowed up as my brain became too busy trying to decipher the electronic code being sent from outer to inner processors down these electrodes into my cochlear. Although I will never hear normally again, and although I don’t hear as well as a normal hearing person does, I don’t feel I’m missing anything. I only feel this absolute solitary horror has been metamorphosed into a cyborg-like version of myself. I like it, I am more than the side effects of a random inner ear infection.
To see more of Jared’s photography visit his website.
To see Jared’s portrait in person along with 19 others, visit The Shops at Chestnut Hill from May 9th-June 5th.
I Am More is made possible by donations. To make a tax-deductible contribution visit fiscal sponsor Ocean Alliance’s donation page and choose “I Am More” from the list of programs.