Louise’s story, part one: “Losing hearing”

“To me, the world of sound was almost everything.

From a young age, playing the piano and singing in the school choir were sources of great joy to me. Creating and hearing the richness of notes in their infinite possibilities was the ultimate in creative expression. Listening to music ranging from classical to rock, it brought a light to my soul. Did I think I had good hearing? Of course I did. I must have. When I was young I could remember pointing the locations of “silent” alarms as I accompanied my mum to jewellery stores, those set supposedly to high frequencies inaudible to the human ear. My opinion in music was valued. I was the first female rock DJ for my university’s radio station during the coveted 4-5 Friday afternoon time slot. I knew what I was doing because I could hear what was going on.

Do I know when I first started losing my hearing or why? No, I do not. I suspect it was from going to rock concerts and standing close to the massive speakers, but I can’t be sure. But I do remember starting to notice in my mid-40s that when I went to parties and luncheons where there were a lot of people talking around me, I often couldn’t understand what someone standing near me and talking to me was saying. I have to also admit I noticed that other people were not having any trouble understanding each other in these settings where I was struggling. I noticed it but I also dismissed it as not meaning anything. I had fabulous hearing after all. There was no issue in my mind. No problem at all.

I do remember by the time I was 50 I began to feel uncomfortable in groups of people where there were multiple conversations going on. I was vaguely aware that I was always struggling to maintain a dialogue with someone I was very close to but was quick to dismiss. Endlessly asking someone to repeat what they had just said and then still not understand it. Pretending to follow a conversation when I didn’t have a clue what they were saying. I cupped my ear to capture more noise. These were strategies I adopted to cope with noisy social situations. But it wasn’t fun and at best I was only picking up on every third word. I remember feeling isolated and frustrated that I wasn’t able to connect with the people around me. Now at night, when there was supposed silence all around me, I could hear a roaring in my ears, I noticed when I was really tired it was particularly loud. What was this from? What was this noise I never investigated what I later learned was tinnitus, a common complaint for those experiencing hearing loss. All of this was so gradual, that I just didn’t connect the dots. All the signs were there, I just didn’t look at them.

Without realising what I was doing, I began avoiding these social gatherings where I had to hear more than one voice at a time. If friends wanted to get together, I mad a point of seeing them solo. How else did it affect me? My husband and my daughter used to complain that I would turn on he TV too loud. I thought they were being precious. The sound on the new TV just wasn’t as good as the old TV. And as for music, well, I just turned the speakers up in the car full volume.

My eyes were opened to the fact that I indeed did have a hearing loss through a freak accident in which my left eardrum was punctured. I was washing my husband’s car in the carport that was right next to a small garden filled with sword ferns. When I leant over to wash the car’s undercarriage, I somehow turned my head to the perfect wrong position so that a sword fern spike went through my ear and perforated the eardrum so I could no longer hear at all through my left ear. A quick trip to the doctor reassured me that my hearing would go back to normal once the perforation healed itself in a few weeks. I became very conscious of what I was hearing and not hearing, and recognised that I simply could not hear as well as I used to. My doctor sent me to an audiologist where I underwent the standard hearing “beep” test. My second appointment with the audiologist to get the results was very revealing.

“I have some good news and some bad news, ” he told me. “Which do you want first?”

“The good news,” I said/

“Your ear drum has completely repaired itself and it is infection free.”

“So – there is bad news?” I wondered out loud.

“You have significant hearing loss in both ears, and this is not related in any way to your punctured eardrum,” the audiologist told me.

I was genuinely astonished.

“No, I don’t,” I told him.

“Yes, you do,” he replied.

“No, I don’t. I pushed the buzzer every time I heard a sound.”
“You missed the sounds at the higher frequencies,” he told me.

“Why? Will my hearing come back?”

“We cannot be certain but most likely it was from overexposure to a series of loud noises. And no, your hearing will not revert to normal hearing.”

I still couldn’t believe it. But upon returning home a quick discussion with my husband confirmed what the audiologist was telling me. My husband told me I was always insisting on having the TV and car radio at an almost intolerably loud volume. So I now knew what my reality was. This meant I could no longer hear music the way I once did. But as far as I was concerned, that was the end of story. I was not what you would call a happy camper to have this new knowledge. Wearing hearing aids was not going to be an option for me. I wasn’t going to be one of “those” people (whatever that meant) because not only was I too young to need them (again, whatever that meant) but I somehow imagined that music would now sound like an early recording – tinny, reedy and not very true to what was being played. I loved music and how it made me feel. I wasn’t going to have it ruined by what I was sure was inferior sound quality. Nope, I wasn’t going to do anything about this.”

You can read the rest of Louise’s story, and others like it, in my book Sound of Silence.

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