It’s been more than a year since I got my hearing devices, and recently I met with my audiologist to discuss it. I just love that lady — she is a warm, caring person, and you can tell she really enjoys her profession. We had a terrific conversation, touching on all kinds of topics. She wanted to know how my transition had been this past year; was I comfortable with where the instruments’ volume was set? Did I have to adjust it up or down? How often? How was I doing overall? I told her that one of the hardest things for me was adjusting to sounds I’d never heard before and learning how to ignore them.
Let me explain.
From our earliest moments, even before birth, we respond to sounds of all kinds. We learn to associate some sounds with good things (music, laughter) and some with bad things (alarms, explosions). Our brain learns to tell the difference between sounds we should pay attention to, like the telephone ringing, and those we can tune out, like the hum of the refrigerator when the compressor kicks on.
For me, it was different: my hearing loss in the oh-so-crucial midrange of sound, where conversation resides, meant that I had to strain to hear sounds like voices, but higher- or lower-pitched sounds were sometimes uncomfortably loud. I remember a time as a teenager when I heard a strange, high-pitched buzz, sort of a whine, while at home watching TV. I muted the TV and tried to figure out where the sound came from. It took awhile, but I finally realized that what I was hearing was the frequency change when the TV changed pictures. The volume was off, but I could clearly hear the difference in the tone of the buzz when the picture changed. Weird!
Over the years my brain learned to adjust; life with hearing loss was all I knew. I learned to watch people as they spoke, so I could better ascertain what they said. I learned to sit close to the front of the class. I learned to sleep with the bedroom door open. When I moved out by myself, I got a dog to alert me to noises I couldn’t hear. I managed pretty well, for the most part. I didn’t know what all I was missing, so I guess I didn’t miss it.
In the last several years, my hearing was getting worse, and although I think I realized it, I didn’t want to admit it to myself. But it was becoming more and more apparent, especially to my family. Mr. Stuck might come in the house and say that the coyotes were ‘really going at it out there,’ urging me and the boys to go out and listen. Dutifully, I’d stand on the porch and strain to hear something — anything — that might be a coyote. “There! Did you hear that?” he’d ask. “No,” I’d admit. Then, “Shh….there it is again! You must have heard it that time!” Nope. Most of the time, I’d go back in the house without hearing a thing. Same scenario when the frogs were especially loud, or the owls, or even the baby eagle. When the dogs in the neighborhood treed a raccoon and barked nonstop for hours, it was the Mister who was kept from sleep while I snored contentedly beside him.
I knew I was missing out, but I didn’t want to dwell on it. Why worry about something that I couldn’t change? When I was fitted with my hearing devices, it is not exaggeration to say a whole new world opened up to me: I heard the breeze; I heard water running; and I could finally hear those crickets, frogs, and coyotes.
What a difference.
But I soon realized it was a mixed blessing; along with the sounds I was glad to hear, I also became aware of sounds I’d rather not hear, the normal racket of everyday life. Most of you can tune that out, but I can’t. I hear every click of the keyboard and mouse, every sniff and snort and throat-clearing by the people around me. I hear the clock tick-tick-ticking as my workday marches along. I hear it when my coworker puts his pencil down and cracks his knuckles. I hear people breathe and chew. Mr. Stuck can tell you that I am particularly distressed by whispering; his favorite hunting shows always feature someone whispering to the camera right before taking a shot at some big buck. Sibilant sounds are some of the worst for me to deal with. My brain hasn’t learned to ignore those things; it treats all these new sounds as important, even the ones that make me want to scream.
As I explained all this to the doctor, she nodded knowingly. No doubt she hears this from most, if not all, of her patients. She assured me that with time, my brain would be able to sort out the wheat from the chaff (is it coincidence that wheat has ears?) and things would settle down. I just had to be patient in the interim.
Well, if you know me, you know that patience is not one of my virtues. And separating what’s important from what isn’t has never been my strong point. I’m trying to change how I react to the sounds that distract and annoy me, but it’s difficult. I’m struggling.
Overall, the little technological marvels tucked snugly in my ears have given me fresh perspective and a whole new appreciation for the world around me. I am truly grateful to have my hearing restored. I still don’t hear normally, but it’s as close as I’ve ever been, and far surpasses what I had before. So while I don’t want to take away from that by complaining, it wouldn’t be fair to ignore the drawbacks.
And then I think about this wheat and chaff thing and how it applies to so many other parts of my life. Priorities. Decisions. Life changes. Weight loss. Health. Relationships. What is truly important, and what is not. What I want versus what I need. How do we sort through these things and stop wasting our precious time and energy on things that don’t matter?
As my brain learns to sort it out, so do I.
photo credit Johan Neven