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Please Turn That Up

How I came to live with a disability of early hearing loss

You need only take your pick of seemingly any fast food restaurant and try to communicate over their loudspeaker to comprehend what an exercise in frustration is. Take something that sounds like a child mashed Play-Doh into the speaker grill, toss in some engine and external noises, and top it off with the person in the lane next to you — if you added insult to injury by choosing a double lane drive thru — also yelling their order into the same shitty system. Voila, dinner is served. This is also what it can be like living with hearing loss every day.

The struggle to understand simple conversation, and consequently even feel involved in it, is very real, and very embarrassing. It wasn’t always this way; the changes started subtly and slipped under not only my own radar but previous doctors as well. There is hearing loss in my family so no doubt part of this is hereditary, but as a kid I also got ear infections like they were going out of style. Unfortunately, nobody pushed for me to get tubes put in my ears, to the point where each infection — including a couple that sent me to the ER — in a cruel twist of fate was silently taking notches out of my overall hearing.

Like any person growing up into adolescence and adulthood, I also listened to my share of loud music and frequented a few night clubs. Although I’ve never been a fan of headphones, I made up for it with a very powerful stereo system back in the day, and in my haste and stupidity put it to “good” use. I should’ve been aware of my past and been more proactive in watching the volume levels, but I was young and impervious in my own mind to heed any warnings, even if I had considered them. And the whole time, more silent notches.

High pitched sounds, the most important of them being in the human voice, were becoming muffled even with someone speaking in the same room.

Eventually things were getting noticeable; volume on the radio and television being turned up, and the feeling that it was quiet outside and wondering where the birds or crickets were. Sadly, they were still there, I just couldn’t hear them. High pitched sounds, the most important of them being in the human voice, were becoming muffled even with someone speaking in the same room. As time went on, I had to be in the same room just to hear someone at all. And if there was any amount of background noise competing with the conversation in front of me, all bets were off.

I knew there was a problem, but sadly I was too embarrassed to tell anyone, or even ask them to speak up. I lost count of the number of times someone had spoken to me and I didn’t even acknowledge them because I couldn’t hear, meanwhile I’m thinking to myself that I look like I’m ignoring them, and therefore a complete asshole. Instead of reaching out and letting others know I had this condition, I hid behind that same embarrassment and used it as a shield. To this day, I’m sure there were conversations with me where I answered a question wrong, or completely misunderstood, and that person may have thought I was aloof.

Hearing loss is a very lonely and isolating disability.

All of those struggles being bad enough, the one that came next was the trigger that finally made me realize I needed hearing aids:

I couldn’t hear the fire alarm in our building.

My hearing loss had just become a matter of life and death, not just me missing out on things. Not only that, but untreated hearing loss can put you at higher risk of dementia due to the deterioration of the auditory neural pathways not being stimulated. Hearing loss is a very lonely and isolating disability. When everything around you is quiet and muffled, and even normally joyous sounds are no longer accessible to you, it’s even easier to sink back into your own bubble and retreat from the world.

The first time I wore my hearing aids in the evening and stepped out the back door, I was greeted by a literal orchestra of nature. I was almost brought to tears upon hearing all these things I had forgotten even existed, and rediscovering how alive everything around me was. Birds, crickets, even the cool evening breeze that previously I could only feel half the time but not hear. Like a child speaking his or her first word, it was a groundbreaking moment for me that hammered home how I shouldn’t have let my shame deter me from dealing with this for so long.

I’m not just living with this disability, I’m overcoming it. And in doing so, I’m casting off that lonely silence once and for all.

Posted in #SeptemberScrawls - Day 15

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