I’m 43 years old now, I have been steadily losing my hearing since I was 5 and have been wearing hearing aids on-and-off for most of that time. Here’s my story:
Childhood Hearing Problems
At the age of 5 my parents took me to the local doctor because I was sometimes not responding to them when they talked to me, the doctor referred me to the ENT department of the local hospital. I was diagnosed with a sensorineural hearing loss and came away with a pair of BTE (behind the ear) hearing aids that had full-shell molds, the piece of the aid that went behind my ear was pretty big and bulky and the bit in my ear took up the whole space and pressed against the sides — I hated it and didn’t want to wear it.
Making Everything Louder
As this was 30 or so years ago, the hearing aid was an analogue device and did not have the sound quality and speech recognition that today’s devices do, it basically just made everything louder. My parents made me wear the aids to school and I do remember wearing them in class, but my Mum said, years later, that I didn’t wear them at school for long.
I used to wear them up to the school gate and then take them off for the day, only to put them back in at home time so Mum didn’t realise. I remember being teased by the other kids about them, not a lot though, nothing sustained or evil, just the usual level of joshing that kids do with each other — some other kids got teased for being overweight, having ginger hair or other minor reasons, I got it for my hearing loss, to be honest I don’t remember it bothering me that much.
Just Stopped Wearing Them
So after a short while, I stopped wearing the hearing aids, I guess even though I wasn’t too bothered about teasing I still wanted to fix it, to be normal and not to stick out. At the age of 5 I had a minor hearing loss, I missed the odd word and probably didn’t hear people at times when they were not in front of me. I left education at 18 and I didn’t wear my hearing aids at all after that initial period. All through school and college I was sitting near the front of the class so I could hear the teacher.
During those years my hearing was getting progressively worse, what started off as a minor loss became a moderate one and as each year passed it became more and more difficult to hear in noise, in groups and when people were not directly in front of me. During my early teens, my parents took me to a private hearing aid dispenser and I got a pair of small in the ear (ITE) hearing aids that were by no means invisible but were much less noticeable than the old hospital ones.
They were also a lot better at blocking out noise and allowing me to hear. By now, I was a teenager and the need to be cool and to fit in with the group was way more powerful than the need to hear, so I didn’t wear any hearing aids, despite it starting to become a real problem to hear every day.
By the age of 17 I was missing quite a lot of what people were saying so I was trying to cope in different ways. Lip-reading and watching the body language of the speaker were two things that worked incredibly well, over the years I’ve become very adept at lip-reading and when you watch someone’s body language quite closely it is surprising how much you can understand about the meaning and intention of what they are saying.
Hiding My Hearing Loss
I did things that were less useful, I laughed when someone finished saying something I didn’t hear, I changed the subject if someone told me something and then a while later asked me about it I would say I’d forgotten about it instead of saying I never heard it. Often, rather than asking someone to repeat themselves I would just respond to what I thought they’d said — their laughter when I said something stupid was crushing and entirely my own fault.
Withdrawal and Lost Opportunity
Looking back, I realise I started to withdraw from group conversations quite a bit, simply because it was the easier to do that than try to follow. I can remember the dread of being in a group and worrying someone might turn to me and say something like, “so, what do you think, Steve?”, to which my only answer could have been, “eh…I have no idea what we are talking about”.
I guess some people who knew me back then must have thought I was weird, rude or stupid. I must have answered some people with some things that were totally out of context with what they were saying, I must not have heard a lot of people and misheard a lot more. I also wonder if I would have gotten better grades at school if I’d worn my hearing aids, the grades I left with were decent but could I have done much better?
Just One Hearing Aid, and a Hat!
At about the age of 19, I knew the game was up, I needed hearing aids. I started to wear one hearing aid, an ITE device, and I wore a hat to hide it. During this time I built up an awesome collection of hats! Wearing a hearing aid made so much difference to how much I could hear but it was still a stupid move on my part, I have hearing loss in both ears and needed to be wearing two aids.
Wearing just the one is like getting a pair of spectacles and removing one of the lenses. I continued with that setup for some time, lots of hat wearing and one hearing aid, which worked OK but I was still not really accepting my hearing loss and hearing aids, I was still trying to hide them and deny the problem.
Realisation and Acceptance
Sometime after that, I finally gave in and started wearing two hearing aids. I’ve owned numerous pairs since then and have seen hearing aid technology advances in leaps and bounds — not only are they now much better at allowing me to hear speech in noise, they can stream music from my Android phone, stream audio from my iPad, allow me to take phone calls directly in my aids and much more.
It is still a battle though, as hearing aid technology gets better, my hearing gets worse. My hearing loss has now degraded to the point that it is classified as a severe hearing loss, which basically means I cannot hear anything without my aids. Even though I’ve been wearing aids almost of all my life it still amazes me that I can go from hearing almost nothing to being able to hear pretty comfortably most of the time with my hearing aids.
It is common for people with a sensorineural hearing loss to gradually lose more hearing over time, it’s known as a progressive hearing loss. It is also common for us to have tinnitus, which I do, mostly in my right ear. Nobody has been able to fully understand tinnitus or find a cure for it. The ringing and buzzing in my right ear is pretty strong and is there constantly, although wearing hearing aids does mask the noise out and I only really notice it when I’m not wearing them. Another good reason to wear hearing aids!
Tinnitus is a condition of the brain, it is believed that the brain is in some way trying to compensate for the lack of sounds coming through the ear. My tinnitus gets worse when I think about, it has flared up while I am writing this, when I stop writing this piece and do something else it will die down. Luckily it doesn’t bother me much, I’ve learnt to ignore the noise, it doesn’t stop me sleeping — I count myself lucky with that as tinnitus can be torture for some people.
So, that’s where I am today, trying to balance out improving hearing aid technology against my degrading ability to hear. Wondering when, or if, I will need to use a cochlear implant instead of a hearing aid, whether there might be some miracle cure for hearing loss (stem cell research looks promising) or whether hearing aid technology will continue to improve enough. As I get older, age-related hearing loss is going to quicken the decline and things are going to get tougher.
I wondered: would my life be any different if I didn’t have a hearing problem? If you had asked me that 20 years ago I would have said yes and would probably have told you all the things that I couldn’t do because I couldn’t hear so well. But now, the answer is a definite no, I have a lovely family, like my home, travelled to where I wanted to go and have been employed in jobs I loved.
Balancing The Voices in Your Head
I realise now that it was my own negative thoughts, my own worries that may have held me back in some small things, not my hearing loss, that was just my excuse that I could have easily fixed had I had the self-belief to do so. I should have worn hearing aids at an earlier age, should have embraced it and told everyone I couldn’t hear so well, turns out no-one is really bothered about it, it was just my own concerns. So, I don’t think my life today would be any different if I had perfect hearing, but I could have made the journey a lot easier on myself.