Silence isn’t always golden – coming to terms with a permanent hearing loss

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In the last six weeks, I’ve gone from being hard of hearing to hardly hearing. In late December, my specialist inserted a tube into my right ear to help to equalize the pressure in my eardrum and allow any fluid lurking in my middle ear to drain. I’ve had this procedure done at least a dozen times in the past with very good results. This time, however, all the tube did was suck most of the hearing out of my right ear.

Since I’ve only got 15%-25% of the hearing in my left ear, I’ve always counted on my right ear to function. Having been hard of hearing for many years, I’ve developed a fair number of coping mechanisms, like reading lips and sitting at the front of the room or during a meeting, as close to the speaker as I can. Even when my right ear was giving me problems, I could usually hear well enough to follow the conversation. Not any more. I don’t hear the phone when it rings on my desk at work – I sit less than a foot away from it. Conversations are challenging – if I’m in the same room and looking directly at the person, I can catch about 50-60% of what he/she is saying. That’s provided they’re speaking clearly. But if the person speaks softly, or even worse, covers their mouth when they talk, I may only pick up every 3rd or 4th word. I know they’re speaking because I can hear sound and see their lips moving – I just can’t decipher what they’re saying.

Given the extent of my ear problems, I always assumed that my hearing would likely deteriorate as I got older. I wasn’t prepared to lose my hearing so suddenly and so profoundly. Aside from the practical aspects of trying to navigate in a noisy world, there’s an emotional cost to not hearing that I didn’t anticipate. Hearing is one of our most important senses – it connects us to the world and to those around us. I can’t hear M when he whispers that he loves me when he crawls into bed in the morning. I can ask him to repeat himself but we’ve lost that special moment between the two of us. I went to a family dinner a couple of weeks ago and I couldn’t follow the conversation. I don’t know how my cousin’s children are doing in school or my aunt’s travel plans. These seem like little things, but they’re the threads that weave people together. The reality is that if I can’t hear the conversation, I can’t participate. I’m silent.

The upside of the situation is that I’ve finally accepted I need hearing aids. I’ve resisted getting one for my left ear for years, despite suggestions from family and friends. This was due in part to an unpleasant experience with a hearing aid 25 years ago – it never fit properly and was horribly uncomfortable. But the real issue was that it made me feel like there was something wrong with me. It was clearly visible in my ear and I felt other people judged me. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly when you consider that I’ve worn glasses since I was seven years old. I always wear my glasses (or contact lenses) because without them, I can’t see 2 feet in front of me or read a book. Over the years, I’ve convinced myself that getting a hearing aid was a sign of weakness. Hearing aids were fine for other people, but not for me. There are a number of stages involved in coming to terms with hearing loss and I was firmly stuck in denial.

A recent hearing test confirmed that the hearing in my right ear has deteriorated significantly since October. My specialist has no idea why and has referred me to one of his senior colleagues to try to determine what’s going on. But I’m not waiting around to find out if my hearing can be restored. I’ve decided that hearing is no longer optional and I’m getting hearing aids for both ears as soon as possible. I know from my past experience that there will be a period of adjustment. My ear canals are pretty beat up from all the surgeries I’ve had over the years and it may be challenging to get them to fit properly. People may look at me funny. So what? I’ll be able to hear M and his dad when they talk to me. I can’t wait.

 

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