Part I – Listen Up!

The phenomenal Helen Keller in 1948.

Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people.
Helen Keller

My life changed last week, in a big way.   I’ll tell you how, shortly.

First off, some background: as a child, I suffered from frequent ear infections.  It seemed that every cough, wheeze, or sneeze heralded a virus that ended up lodged deeply and aching in my middle ear, where my only relief was couch time with glycerin drops and a heating pad.  I spent a lot of time on that couch.  During that time, I realized that I always had a ringing or buzzing in my ears that nobody could hear but me.  My father had it, too, and he taught me the name for it: tinnitus.  When my elementary school administered hearing tests to the students, I was sent home with a note to my parents, encouraging them to take me to a doctor for further examination.

I remember having the hearing test with the booth and the headphones and the tones of varying range and volume.  When I came out, the doctor showed me what he called my ‘cookie-bite’ hearing loss: normal hearing at the low and high ends of the spectrum, but a deep U-shape curve in the middle, demonstrating mid-range hearing problems.  The mid-range is where conversation takes place.  He explained to me and my parents that I had ‘nerve damage’ hearing loss, and he said there was nothing that could be done about it.

Over time, I got used to not hearing what others heard, and I tried to become a better listener to compensate.  I would sit at the front of class in school and take copious notes.  I tried to focus closely on what people said, and it helped a lot if I could see their faces.  I often asked people to repeat what they had said, or I would ask a person beside me to relay the information.  Before long, it was second nature to me to compensate for my bad ears.

Fast forward to a little more than ten years ago.  I was sitting at my desk at home when suddenly it felt like someone had come up behind me and tipped my chair backward.  I called out to my husband and clung to my desk for dear life before realizing I wasn’t tipping over and there wasn’t anyone behind me. 

Mr. Stuck came to help me out of my chair, and I soon realized that my balance was gone, my vision was distorted, and the room felt like it had gone sideways.  Any movement of my head caused a swell of nausea; I told him to take me to the bathroom in case I had to throw up.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but I sat on the bathroom floor against the wall for half an hour, trying to figure out what had just happened to me.  Mr. Stuck put me to bed, where the vertigo eventually calmed down. 

I went to the doctor and after several different tests was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease (MD).  Meniere’s is a disorder of the inner ear, characterized by vertigo, ringing in the ears, a feeling of ‘fullness’ in the ear, and progressive, intermittent hearing loss.  It can be treatable, but is not curable.  I noticed that when I had a vertigo episode, it seemed as though my ears were stuffed with cotton.  I read everything about MD that I could get my hands on; all of it said the same thing: most sufferers will experience intermittent temporary hearing loss, but for some, the loss would be permanent.  Great — just great.

To be continued in Part II

photo credit uppityrib