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

More Unintended Consequences.

harvest moon

As you might have guessed, I’ve been very happy with my hearing devices and the world they’ve opened up to me.  It’s been an adventure on so many levels.  However, unintended consequences have revealed themselves, too.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know how much I love music and my iPod.  I work best when I have music in the background, which, unfortunately, is not often possible for me at work unless I wear earphones.  That presents the first problem: my ears are scarcely big enough to accommodate both an ear bud and a hearing device, so sometimes I have to choose.  Same with the Bluetooth headset: either I can remove the device and just wear the earpiece, or I can try to put them both in and hope for the best.

The next, and by far the biggest, byproduct of my newly-improved hearing is the constant and annoying onslaught of noises I never heard before.  Sometimes my life sounds more like a battlefield, a nightclub, or the trading floor of the NYSE – seriously.  Everything makes noise, I swear!  Who knew?

It may seem ironic that while I have serious hearing loss, I also have extreme, sometimes excruciating sensitivity to certain environmental sounds.  I clutch my head in distress while noise rattles and echoes inside it.  I can hear people now, and that makes me wonder if their very (gum-chewing, pen-clicking, coughing, yawning, sniffling, eating, throat-clearing, typing, knuckle-cracking, nail-clipping) existence is designed to drive me insane.  Admittedly, it’s not a long trip, but still… The Lord teaches us patience by putting irritants in our paths; witness the pearl.  Ladies and gents, I am no pearl.  But I’m working on it.  Ahem.

I don’t like to complain; hearing is precious, especially to those of us who need devices, and I am grateful for my hearing aids.  But living with hearing loss lulled me into complacency; I didn’t hear a lot of the bustle and clatter of everyday life.  It was easier to tune out the world when I couldn’t hear it very well.  I spent a lot of time lost in my own thoughts.  When I got my hearing aids, I felt like Dorothy opening the door and stepping from black and white into Technicolor.  All of a sudden, things were clearer and brighter (and louder), and now I was lost in the cacophony.  Clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk!

 

Sometimes I’d like to go back.  There are times when I so crave peace and quiet that I remove the miracle devices from my ears and I can almost feel my blood pressure sink.  The racket symphony of life drops to pianissimo; voices slip back to the murky depths, and I can once again pretend that I’m Dorothy, back in Kansas: it may be dull, but at least they know me there.

Unintended Consequences.

I started to write a post about how my life with hearing devices is going (and I was on a roll) when I looked something up online that pointed me in a slightly different, but more interesting, direction…

While researching a condition called Hyperacusis, where a sensitivity to certain sounds (also called a lowered Loudness Discomfort Level, or LDL) causes discomfort or pain, I discovered something:  I have a set of symptoms that correspond to a recently discovered (well, around 2000 or so) neurological disorder called Misophonia, or Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome (4S).  I’ve had these symptoms for many years – so long that I can no longer recall a time I didn’t experience them.  When I hear certain sounds, I get an immediate, irrational, extreme fight-or-flight reaction: rage, panic, severe anxiety, hate, and disgust…over something as simple as someone whistling or clicking a pen.  Sometimes even visual stimuli can cause the same reaction as auditory triggers.

While we all have certain sounds that bother us, this isn’t like that.  This is a reflex; I can’t stop it from happening, nor can I control it.  My stomach tightens, my heart pounds, I feel provoked to fist-shaking anger, and I cannot ignore the sound.  It is so distracting to me that it becomes my sole focus.  My best bet would be to avoid the stimuli (‘triggers’) that cause the problem, but that is not always possible; in fact, it is rarely possible, especially in a work or social environment.  

Every day is an opportunity for trigger sounds, in every environment.  I go to a meeting, and someone is absentmindedly clicking his pen.  I go to the store, and the teenager in front of me in line is snapping her gum.  I go to the movie theater, and the people behind me drive me crazy with the wrapper on their snacks.  As much as I try to keep my emotion in check when it happens, I usually fail miserably and end up glaring at the person making the sound.  Most of the time, the person doesn’t even realize they’re doing it and has no way of knowing how violently it affects me. I feel guilty and embarrassed to have such strong reactions to such innocuous noises, and I know that it makes me seem cranky or bitchy, but I can’t help it.  

When I was young, my mother’s whistling spurred me to inexplicable anger every time I heard it – it was as if she had provoked me to fight.  She couldn’t understand it, and I couldn’t explain it. Whistling was something my very musical mother truly enjoyed, and she did it without thinking.  If I could, I’d go somewhere else, but that wasn’t always possible.  She tried to comply when I’d ask (or angrily tell) her to stop, but it made no sense.  To this day, I loathe the sound of whistling.  Likewise, the sound of chewing gum, especially with ‘snapping’ or ‘cracking’ noises, sends me into orbit; for that reason, I have always told my kids that if they have gum, I don’t want to see it or hear it.  

Through my (limited) online research, I discovered that I am not alone in this affliction. While it is not an official mental disorder, it is a defined set of symptoms and has been suggested for classification as a discrete psychiatric disorder in the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) spectrum, for the purpose of official diagnoses and treatments as well as better recognition and research by the professional medical community.  It was first identified in the research and treatment of tinnitus.  It is neither a result nor factor in hearing loss; rather, it seems to relate to the limbic system, the structure of the brain that controls emotion and behavior.  A small number of studies and reviews have been conducted, but research seems to suggest that misophonia may be a result of dysfunction in the same cortices of the brain where Tourette’s is also indicated.  There is also data to suggest it might be a form of Synesthesia, a neurological condition where stimulus to one sense gets not only the correct response in that sense, but a simultaneous reaction in another sense; for example, some people ‘hear’ colors or ‘taste’ sounds.

I am thrilled that there is a name for what I have suffered with for most of my life.  I don’t know where it came from or whether I will ever find relief, but it is good to know that my wildly disproportionate reaction to certain sounds is not a result of me being unreasonable and bitchy.  It is not because I am in a bad mood.  It is not because I am controlling, selfish, angry, judgmental, or annoying — although I might well be all of those, they are not the reasons why I might throw you out the window if you decide to chew ice or crack peanuts next to me.

Just sayin’.

 

photo credit timparkinson