The Wheat and the Chaff.

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.

 

***If you haven’t read my hearing story, you can find it here (in Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV) as well as here and here.

 

 photo credit Johan Neven

Part II – You Spin Me Round.

This is what vertigo feels like.
This is what vertigo feels like. Only worse.

(reposted due to problem with first post)

I suffered many bouts of vertigo over the next couple of years, events so sudden and violent that they would cause me to fall to the floor.  Some of these ‘drop attacks’ were quite scary.  Following an episode, I would sleep for 12 or more hours, waking up exhausted and foggy the next day.  I tried medication, but the Meclizine made me groggy, the diuretics had no noticeable effect, and the Valium only seemed to take the edge off of the anxiety I experienced with an attack.  It was miserable and frightening and hard to explain.  One MD patient described vertigo like getting really drunk and then getting on a carnival ride.  Sounds fun, huh?

My equilibrium was in constant flux; some days I would walk holding the wall to keep me from tipping over, and some days my horizon would shift and I had to tilt my head to the side to compensate.  Even on days with no vertigo, I never felt ‘right’ – it’s hard to explain, but it was almost like I was always in suspense, waiting for my next round of extreme spinning and nausea.  My drop attacks had been coming around once a month for quite a while, but it was unnerving when I didn’t know what to expect, or when.

Meniere’s disease can go into remission for weeks, months, or even years; unpredictability is its nature.  Finally, just as suddenly as they had begun, the vertigo episodes stopped.  It is an uneasy pause, though, because I don’t know if or when it will return.  I still have what I call ‘the woozies,’ where I get what feels like the precursor to a vertigo attack, but the vertigo never comes.  My eyes stop focusing, my balance seems to leap, and mentally, I fade.  Sometimes my ears feel full, like I need to yawn to make them pop, but they won’t clear.   These symptoms are very common with Meniere’s sufferers.

Hearing loss associated with this disorder is generally at low frequencies, or sometimes at both low and high frequencies.  Couple that with my existing mid-range loss, and I knew I was in trouble.  I began to worry about total deafness.

I found myself struggling more and more to hear people talking to me.  I hated to use the phone, I tried to avoid crowds, and I relied on the closed-captioning option on my television.  I complained to no one in particular that people were mumbling; and I started to rely on the ‘smile and nod’ to get me through conversations I couldn’t hear, rather than continually asking the speaker to repeat himself.  I’m sure that sometimes I appeared uninterested in a group conversation; people who didn’t know about my hearing might have thought I was rude or not paying attention to them. 

I knew I was missing a lot of things: my husband and sons would summon me to the porch to hear the frogs, or crickets, or owls, or coyotes in the night.  Rarely did I hear them.  The rain would have to be coming down in buckets before I could hear it from indoors.  I missed a lot of jokes and conversation because I could not keep up, and I didn’t want to ask and expose my disability.

Sometimes, I just wanted to be by myself with my silence; it was so much easier than straining to hear, and mis-hearing anyway.  Often my mistakes in hearing were pretty funny; the difference between what I thought I heard and what was actually said could be quite amusing.  I remembered Pa doing the same thing, and suddenly, it wasn’t as funny as I thought.  We would all laugh, but he was doing the best he could, and now, so was I.

Continued in Part III

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