By Jen Pastiloff
You know how when you ignore something it just goes away? Like your hearing loss or grief or your toothache or the fact that you hate your job so much you want to pull all your hair out?
Oh, right. It doesn’t go away. It crawls into your ear and gets louder and you get more deaf and your tooth rots and the grief settles in and stays. And the job? You wake up and that summer job has turned into the 13 year job at the same restaurant. That’s what happens.
I had a root canal once when I was in my early twenties. I never put a crown on the tooth. It started to give me trouble after a couple of years. I ignored the toothache until eventually one day the tooth broke as I was brushing my teeth. I hit the toothbrush against my tooth and the tooth broke in half like it was taking a stand against my inertia. Enough the tooth said as it cracked in half and fell down the drain of the sink. Even that didn’t take me to the dentist.
I was scared and thought that by avoiding the situation it might magically rectify itself. My tooth might grow back like a child’s.
One day the rest of the tooth gave in and dangled by the root as I ate a pickle. I let it hang for two days before I finally went to the dentist to have it pulled.
I am missing a tooth. Did you read that?
I. Am. Missing. A. Tooth.
And you know what? I still am.
I never got a replacement tooth or whatever people do when they lose teeth as adults. If that even happens to real adults. I have no idea because I pretended it didn’t happen. I close my eyes and say Go away and hope that my desire is strong enough to handle my wish. It never is. I am still missing a tooth.
It’s pretty classy, folks.
I started to notice my hearing was getting bad when I was 22, in acting school. I would move to the front row as we watched the scenes being performed in class. I blamed not hearing well on getting sick. Or maybe just having flown. Or a concert. The ringing was because of something loud or congestion. Whatever I could think of except hearing loss or tinnitus. The acting school was a Meisner training program so there was a lot of repetition as it was. I like your shirt? You like my shirt? I like your shirt. You were meant to repeat what the person said in a way that reflected you understood what was really being said under the I like your shirt. The problem with me was that I could never hear it in the first place so I always felt a little lost. They’d just repeat it again since they were called “repetition exercises.”
I will not think it or say it out loud and therefore it will not exist. My hearing loss would not exist to me during those years.
And yet it did. I had to move in closer and closer and look hard at mouths moving in O’s as I tried to decipher what was being said. I got in real close and took a good look and what I saw was that I could not hear. So I looked away. I backed up and started running until I was at the bottom of a river, my ears filled with water.
Years later I was at a Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house and we were playing some kind of horrible post-turkey game where you drink and tell stories and try to figure out if the person next to you is lying. I ended up in tears. The combination of alcohol and the fact that I missed all the stories kept me asking What? What? Until someone snapped at me and said that I didn’t listen. I just can’t hear I whimpered.
My friend, whose house it was, begged me to go to the doctor. I swore I would.
I didn’t go.
I didn’t go to the audiologist until years after that emotional Thanksgiving escapade. Not until I absolutely could no longer avoid my hearing loss did I go by myself and sit in a coffin of a box to test my losing ears.
Inside the box, I had to raise my right hand when I heard a beep and my left hand when I heard a hum. I couldn’t hear the directions the man outside of the box was telling me so I panicked and had to take off the headphones. There was no sound in the box and I was certain the rest of my life would be that kind of quiet. The kind where everyone is laughing and you have no idea why so you just laugh along but it’s so quiet in your head that you think you might just die from quiet as you laugh and nod with everyone else.
I missed most of the beeps and hums and high pitched sounds and was told what I had been avoiding for probably most of my life. That I was very very hard of hearing. That I needed hearing aids. I tuned the man out by closing my eyes and heard only the words You need and you can’t and you should.
When I was 8 and my father died I threw a doughnut onto the kitchen floor before walking around the block. As I walked I memorized houses and the people who lived in the houses and their kids names and I pretended my father had never existed and by the time I got back to the kitchen the doughnut was cleaned up and everyone had gone home.
The job. It took a nervous breakdown for that one to get faced. The unavoidable.
I had my nervous breakdown behind the restaurant where everyone went out to smoke once the tables had their food and seemed to be as happy as they would ever get during a meal.
It was that little secret cove for the smokers that I found salvage in, oddly enough. I leaned against that red brick wall and slowly slid down it onto dirty butts.
My chest heaved. I started to drown in cigarette butts. There were millions of them and they were smothering me with ash and nicotine and lipstick stains and sticky bird shit that had been on the ground with them. There might have been bubble gum as well, but when you are drowning you don’t pay attention to anything except oxygen and that is what I couldn’t find anywhere. Somebody help me my brain told my mouth to say but my mouth was drowning and closed and nothing came out except the word Enough.
That’s what happens eventually. It piles up. You may say maybe if I just don’t look in that corner of the room it won’t be there in the morning but it always is. The corner gets filled and the unavoidables start spilling into the center of the room and you can step over them for a while. Until you can’t. Until you can no longer climb over all the stuff you’ve been avoiding like they’re boxes you just haven’t unpacked yet from the move. Enough.
You fall and the boxes fall on top of you and although you might go What? How did all this stuff get here? Where did it come from? you’ll know it’s been years in the making. Enough.
You can’t avoid me anymore says the unavoidable.
That grief? Get a fucking shovel and dig it out. Go get your tooth fixed. Face the music, you are pretty deaf.
This is the good news, trust me.
The Enoughs weighs about three grown men and sit on your chest until you shove them off. That’s the good news. With the shoving off comes the freedom.
You can’t avoid your life. I tried. I tried and the bastard caught up with me. My life was in the pile of unavoidables under bills that I hadn’t paid and the grief and the broken tooth and the job I hated and when I finally pulled it out from the bottom, I didn’t recognize it. I went This is my life? Come on? No way is this my life. It’s all dusty and bent and crumpled and it’s deaf as hell.
But it was my life. I had avoided it for so long it had become unrecognizable.
The good news, I know. I am getting to it. Here it is: I got to remake it.
Oh, you think you are my life? I asked it before I started to smooth it on on a flat surface like a wet sweater I didn’t want wrinkled. I don’t think so. I am going to show you! I am going to iron you out and hang you out and show you who’s boss.
And I did. I faced it. My life and all the other unavoidables.
But seriously, do you know how long I lied to myself about not being able to hear? At least 15 years. 15 years of straight up lying. There gets to be a point (hopefully) where you say Enough.
And when you do, when you look square in the red eye of whatever it is and say I will no longer avoid you, you realize that you move over to the driver’s seat. All of a sudden you take the steering wheel and go all the places you were afraid of.
You can start over or turn around or park at the top of the hill if you want, but you are driving. And all those things you avoided, they are in the rearview mirror getting smaller and smaller.