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The Hungry Butterfly

After waking up deaf one day, well into adulthood, Angela R. Mitchell reflects on life after metamorphosis.



People often use the butterfly as an analogy for aging, celebrating the beauty, joy, and freedom in flight that come with metamorphosis. However, some butterfly and moth species emerge from this transformation without mouthparts or the ability to eat. Does the butterfly feel hungry? Do they remember the sensation of eating? Are they confused or shocked? Recent studies indicate these animals can recall and replicate tasks from their caterpillar form, suggesting a memory of their former selves.


//deep breath of contemplation//


Well into adulthood, I woke up deaf on an average day, devoid of any highlights or fanfare. My situation was exceptionally rare—an unforeseen genetic vulnerability allowed a bacterial infection to destroy my hearing. I felt no sickness or pain, no warning preceded it. I had done everything right. There was no technology to predict or repair it, no trauma or accident to blame. It was simply a consequence of living. It happened.

A childhood friend put things in perspective, saying, 'Are you telling me you were just one bad cold away from being deaf our entire lives?' Yes, that summed it up.

 

//I whistle to myself but I have no idea if it succeeds in making any sound//


But aren't we all just a hairline between something and nothing? As much of a miracle as it is that we entered this world, it's an everyday miracle that we stay. That was reality. Being angry about my deafness felt as pointless as being upset about having a foot at the end of my leg. It was just how it was. I wasted no time pondering how I arrived here.

Suddenly, I found myself in a new phase of life. I wasn't just losing my hearing; I was effectively mute. I had to relearn balance, communication, and navigate a world where I could no longer sense the presence of those around me. Someone could be beside me and I had no idea they were there. And likewise, I felt a presence in a space where there was clearly no one. I became jumpy and favored my back to the wall. On top of that, I lost friends and family due to their guilt, confusion, or lack of understanding. In the immediate aftermath, I was left without music, use of a phone, and even silence—replaced by relentless tinnitus. I lost my means of self-soothing and meditation. Time itself bent into two clear divisions: before I went deaf and after.

Confiding in a friend, I asked, 'Are people talking about me?' Yes, but with concern. There was grieving on multiple levels. Much of the early advice given to me was incorrect for my situation, but I had to navigate that journey myself. We were all trying to adjust to the new normal, but it wasn't simple. None of us had the resources to prepare for this. In that way, we were all isolated in our experiences.

There seems to be a widespread belief that modern society has resolved the challenges of deafness, that its complexities were conquered long ago. From my own journey, I can attest: that notion is far from the truth. Deafness stands tall like an ancient mountain giant, overlooked in the bustling valleys of everyday life. It's a reality that's challenging to share unless the audience is open to receiving it. There's a comforting illusion held by many—that the needs of the deaf community are adequately addressed by others. The discomfort arises when confronted with the truth: it's up to each individual to navigate this terrain, to learn how to truly engage with a deaf person. Mere kindness or patience doesn't equate to genuine accessibility.


 

//I find myself humming a melody, a tune whose name will forever elude me//


As a mature woman, I was suddenly a child again. Was this an insult or open possibilities? I turned to children's programs to learn basic sign language through movements and rhythms. Familiar places took on new significance. The library and bookstore, once replaced by television and computers, made a comeback. My teachers became a new generation of mothers. Life was a daily struggle, yet it was also slowing down. Drastically. How had I ever moved at that previous speed? I'll never know.

Before losing my hearing, I excelled—possessing a work ethic that could take down a charging buffalo. I was dependable, creative, and independent. But despite my lifelong exemplary record, once I became deaf, I was engulfed by stereotypes about the disabled: crazy, mean, entitled. If I had known earlier that my 'permanent record' would be riddled with such misconceptions, I would have been gentler with myself.

Doctors mentioned my brain needed time to adjust and heal from the loss. Not hearing my voice or footsteps made me feel like a ghost in my own life. Was that the front door? Did someone say hello? Was someone doing the dishes? My brain reached for the data it no longer had, resulting in phantom sounds. In the days that followed, I was haunted by friends who had recently passed away. My emotions spilled out as delusions while I struggled to differentiate between wakefulness and dreams.

My world was so distorted and bewildering one day, I found myself staring out the window at the garage. I needed to take out the trash, yet I couldn't find the way outside. I cried, as if my tears could somehow grant me the ability to walk through walls.

I didn't transition smoothly from the hearing world to the deaf world. I tried, but I didn't fit into either. The hearing world considered me deaf, while the deaf world considered me hearing. Doctors are trained not to use either term because they understand its impact on natural development. 'Should I get a deaf or hearing therapist?' I mused while blending laughter with tears. I existed in a state of purgatory, facing judgment at each door, waiting to prove my worth to enter. It was within that realm that I decided to paint the walls.

From the hush of silence emerged an eruption of creativity, perhaps sparked by a brush with mortality. In the absence of sound, my mind sought to fill the void, propelling me into a whirlwind of writing, illustrating, sculpting, and painting. An abundance of emotions and ideas clamored to be expressed, compelling me to move past the sense of disconnection. In those initial months of newfound deafness, I ventured into self-publishing a book, into carving wood, constructing magnificent garden walls, and crafting imaginative landscapes by maneuvering massive rocks. Sensing the earth beneath my fingers was invigorating. I devoted myself tirelessly, digging a vast cavity, the rhythmic beat echoing like a heartbeat throughout mornings, afternoons, and nights, eventually transforming it into a flourishing frog pond. Amidst this joy, I felt both elated and drained, yearning to bridge the gap with others.

But there, in the midst of it all, lay a revelation: the world is more than just human connection. It's in the expanse of the sky, the solidity of the earth, the fluidity of water, the essence of animals, the mysteries of time, the laws of physics, the enchantment of gravity—there lies beauty. Life no longer adhered to the logic it once did. Why are our homes constructed in squares and not shaped like trees? Why do we obediently follow painted lines while driving, entrusting others to do the same? Why do I not carve out time each evening to witness the sunset? The world seemed a tapestry woven with threads of absurdity, or perhaps, I had stumbled upon my own brand of madness.

I began contemplating the science of the universe. Reality, I realized, is an illusion shaped by our perception. So much of my identity was tied to casual abilities I never truly understood. Many people have tried to tell us about this illusion, to allow us to peek behind the curtain, but without the experience, understanding eluded us. And yet there is so much freedom in understanding. Lowering that curtain can allow us to be so much more of ourselves and so much less of our worldly influence. That weight you carry each step through life can be so much lighter. There are no words to describe it. Surely, Stephen Hawking understood this as he lost control of his body to ALS, yet his mind soared through the cosmos. Here I stood, at the window of a new perspective—enlightened.

However this new perspective further isolated me. I would often ask myself, 'What am I now?'

It's been a while; I've tried numerous approaches to navigate an ever-changing path, and now I dub myself 'the worst deaf person.' But that's okay because I say it with confidence and relief. I'm done striving to fit into the requirements of deaf living—sign language, captions, interpreters, rights, justice, kindness. I found the best way to coexist in this world is to minimize the need to be understood. I may never fit the mold of the deaf person people expect, but I will still be.

Does the butterfly feel hungry? Yes, I believe it is. While everything old becomes new again, some things will forever remain out of reach. It's a poignant longing, both sad and sweet. Here, the butterfly is closer to an illuminated inner world that others can only imagine. And it embraces it. Through metamorphosis, it arrives at itself.


 

Lady Angela Rose Mitchell is a distinguished artist renowned for her award-winning creations and serves as the visionary force behind the acclaimed Chesapeake Mermaid series, encompassing impactful environmental books and programs. With a lifelong commitment to animal rescue, her compassionate endeavors have left an indelible mark. Lady Mitchell resides in Southern Maryland alongside her husband, where her passion for creativity and dedication to environmental causes continue to thrive. Learn more at https://chesapeakemermaid.com.


Photo Credits:

Butterfly at the window by Jian Xhin

Blue butterfly on green grass by Martin Vysoudil

Blue butterfly in flight by AARN GIRI

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