The Last Thing I Heard

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When we were first starting storytelling, we studied with The Amazing Margot Leitman (although she just goes by "Margot Leitman"). She would often use extraordinary stories and bits of stories to illustrate her points, so we almost didn't notice when she mentioned something strange was happening with her hearing. We did notice when it developed into a full medical mystery. A year later, she told this story at one of the early Story Collider events. Listen to the audio above, or read the transcript on the next page.

—Erin Barker and Ben Lillie

It was Boxing Day 2009, and I was doing what it seemed the entire universe was doing that day, which was going to see Avatar. I went, and thought it was fine, blue, 3-D. I was remarkably unmoved by the whole thing.

I came back to my parent's house in New Jersey with my husband after, where we were staying. They were asking how was the movie, and I was giving that same review: "Fine, blue people, I was unmoved." As I was talking, my parents were talking to me, and I'm hearing a beep after everything they say. Almost like pushing a button on a cell phone. They were going, "Really, you weren't moved at all?" And I'm hearing, "Beep, beep beep beep beep." This is going on for a little while, and I ask everybody, "Are you hearing this same beeping?"

Nobody hears it, and then I very abruptly go completely deaf in my right ear.

It was a really strange feeling. I was like, "What, what?" And then I closed my left ear, and if I closed my left ear I heard nothing. I start freaking out that I've lost my hearing, on one hand. On the other hand, I have this other emotion which is: If I've gone deaf, for real, that means the last thing I've heard to its full extent was James Cameron's Avatar, and [that is so] disappointing for me.

So, I'm trying to communicate to them what's going on, and I'm really nervous, and so the next day I get an emergency doctor's appointment. I go in and the doctor tells me I have a bad ear infection and gives me very expensive antibiotics that are about thisbig, and she puts me on them, and I assume that it's going to go away.

About four days into those antibiotics I still can't hear anything, and that makes me very, very, very nervous. At this point I'm like, "Science and medicine, you'd better work." Because prayer is not an option for me. I'm not one of those people.

I'm hoping this will work, and it's not working, so I go see a second doctor, and he puts me on some steroids. After a few days on the steroids a tiny part of my hearing comes back, but with it comes a feedback in my ear that sounds like someone's constantly banging pots and pans together in my ear. That makes the subway really exciting when you're waiting.

That's what's going on, and now I start freaking out, and people start praying for me, which isn't really how I roll. People start calling me, all of my friends start calling me, because word's gotten around that I've lost my hearing. And they all start offering me medical advice, which is funny because I'm not friends with any doctors at all. They all have things to say.

One friend calls me and she goes, "I've heard you've lost your hearing, I'm so sorry to hear that. Have you tried a Q-tip?"

Another friend, who was a massage therapist and really into the mind-body connection, calls me and says, "I'm really sorry you've lost your hearing, but have you thought about how maybe you're really not happy in your life, and maybe you caused this to happen?"

Another friend, to cheer me up, sent me a book, Gray's Anatomy. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it's a book by storyteller Spalding Gray, about how he went blind for no reason in his right eye, went on a giant quest to find out why and to cure it, and ends up at the end of the book blind in his right eye with no cure and no reason why it happened, only to jump off the Staten Island Ferry ten years later and kill himself.

So that was to cheer me up.

I'm freaking out, and my mother-in-law, she used to be a nun. She hates me, to say the least, but she starts praying for me as well. At this point I'm like, the feeling is mutual, but fine, I'll take your prayers if that's what you're going to do.

But for me, I keep going to science. I go to a specialist now, because all I have is this little pot and pan thing going on in my ear. And the specialist does everything possible. He puts those suction things on my head and something happens. [I have] no idea. Blood is taken, there's an MRI. Everyone is like, "Why are you deaf?" Nobody can figure out why I've gone deaf.

Eventually after about the fifth or sixth visit with me, the specialists says, "I think you have something called Ménière's disease, which is caused by too much salt in your diet."

I thought, You know, that makes a lot of sense, because I have eaten enough salt in my life to cause myself to lose my hearing. Really, I have. I love salt. I love it. A couple weeks ago I was in the Poconos and I saw a salt lick, and I had a desire to lick it. I love salt, and I put it on everything. I thought, Yes! I have eaten enough salt to make myself go deaf. This explanation makes total sense.

So, he tells me that for a month I can eat no salt at all. If, at the end of that month, my hearing comes back, that means that I do have Ménière's disease, and we'll know how to treat it. However, I can never have salt again. Or, my hearing will not come back and I will be deaf. However, I can have salt. So it feels like a lose-lose situation for me.

So I go and I remove salt completely from my diet, which is really, really . . . I mean, you could have said remove sex, drugs, coffee, alcohol, every other vice. Anything but salt.

I'm miserable, and then the earthquake happens in Haiti. And now I'm watching the footage of Haiti and I'm a mess over these poor people losing all this stuff. And I start thinking, I can't feel bad that I've lost my hearing. This is much more serious.

So now I'm not eating salt, watching nonstop news coverage, but not allowing myself to have any emotions at all about losing my hearing because I feel terrible about the world. This is insignificant in terms of what's happening around us, so I'd better not feel bad at all. I shouldn't feel bad at all.

A month goes by over this. It's a very depressing month. It's winter, it's January. I go back to the doctor's after a month of no salt and they test my hearing. If you've ever had a hearing test it's "Beep, beep, beep." I go in, and I've issued all the beeps with this hand, again.

They tell me that I've just lost my hearing in my right ear, and I don't have Ménière's disease. The good news is I can have French fries. Ahh.

They tell me that there's a 50 percent chance that I'm going to be half deaf the rest of my life, and there's a 50 percent chance it may just come back, and there's a small chance that I might just go completely deaf. They don't know.

Then my doctor said that he's done all he could and that I couldn't come back anymore, because there was nothing else that he could do. He broke up with me. He was like, "There's nothing else I can do for you, you are a medical mystery." He sent me on my way, saying that basically I was going to be half deaf for the rest of my life.

I'm still not allowing myself to be upset, because I feel bad about the world. So, I go to Whole Foods on my way home, and I'm standing there and I go to the buffet. I get the saltiest meal: I get mac and cheese, I get fried chicken, and I put salt on it. And I go up to the register to ring it up, and as I'm standing there, there's a sign on the register and it says, "Make a donation to Haiti — five, ten dollars."

At this point, even though I have insurance, I've spent probably a couple thousand dollars on various medical things for this hearing problem in the past two months. So I'm pretty much out of cash. I look at the sign to help Haiti, and I say, "Oh, I'd like to make a donation." And the woman says, "How much?"

And I go, "Fifty dollars." And she goes, "Oh, you're a good person."

I'm standing there with my lunch and I just start weeping, at the register at Whole Foods. I'm going, "I am! I am a good person!" Suddenly I'm overcome with, "I am. Nobody is a better person. There's nothing greater a person could do than give fifty dollars to Haiti. Who's better than me? Who's greater than me? Who's more selfless?"

And I'm just standing there, weeping, thinking about what a wonderful, wonderful person I am. I do not know how much time passed, but I think it was at least a hundred and twenty seconds. Finally I look up, I'm just weeping, and the woman is just standing there with my lunch. And she just goes, "Okay." And hands it back to me.

I walk out of Whole Foods into the snowy winter day, knowing that the worst possibility has come true: The last thing I've ever heard to full capacity was Avatar.But on a positive note, I sort of reveled in the fact that my mother-in-law prayed all she could. And my fucking hearing didn't come back, and I'm like, "I'm right! You know what, I'm right!"

So, at least I have that.

Margot Leitman is a comedian and writer who recently relocated to Los Angeles. She is the co-host of the nationally touring Stripped  Stories, now in its fifth year, and is a four-time Moth StorySLAM winner and a Moth GrandSLAM winner. Her stories have been featured multiple times on NPR, and  she can be seen playing numerous roles on upcoming VH1 sketch show Stevie TV.