WHAT'S IT LIKE TO SPEND MOST OF YOUR ADULT LIFE FIGHTING TO HEAR EVERYDAY SOUNDS, THE SHOUTS AND WHISPERS THAT MOST OF US TAKE FOR GRANTED? LISTEN . . . AND LEARN.
Date: Sunday, March 16, 2003
Edition: Broward Metro Section: HEALTH & FAMILY Page: 1E
Byline: By Howard Goodman Staff Writer
Listen. If we're going to talk about this, you'd better speak up.
If you don't, I'm afraid I'm not going to hear you.
I wear a hearing aid in each ear. They're pretty well-hidden in the thickness of my hair, so maybe you didn't realize it.
But no day goes by without my hearing problem being a problem.
There are things I'm not hearing and things I'm only half-hearing and things I'm mishearing.
If you're in the back of the room in a class, I probably didn't hear you right.
If you're talking to me in a crowded party, or in a room with a high ceiling or if someone else is trying to speak to me at the same time, I probably didn't hear you right.
If your back is to me, or you're yelling from the next room, I'm not going to hear you right. If the words you're using have the "f" or "s" or "th" sound, chances are I'm not hearing them right.
If you come over to my house, you'll hear my TV turned on louder than you can stand, even though I'm also reading the closed-captions. You'll cringe every now and then at a high-pitched whine, feedback from the aids' tiny microphones.
I don't envy my wife and son, whose frustration grows every time I ask them to repeat themselves. They're always after me to turn down the stereo. Me, who could listen to music all day long.
My son is 13 and he's learning a lot about tolerance from living with a father who often asks him to be his translator. But the lesson costs a lot. He tells his friends, in words that protect him from embarrassment and mean to protect me as well: "Be prepared if my dad can't hear you -- but he's cool, anyway."
But I know it disturbs him to have a less-than-100 percent dad, and it scares him that someday he'll lose his hearing, too. For he knows it's hereditary, though usually passed through the maternal line.
My mother has it, as does one of my two sisters: otosclerosis, a hardening of calcium over the stapes bone, the vibrating part of the anvil-and-stirrup in the middle ear. When the bone doesn't vibrate, sounds don't get amplified into the inner ear.
It hit me young, when I was in my mid-20s. My roommate in my grad-school days noticed I wasn't hearing him. Soon, an audiologist was telling me I had an unwanted precociousness: a hearing impairment that usually waits until middle age.
I had surgery. It failed. I tried again and the surgery failed again. So at 29, I started wearing a hearing aid.
Damn, the world was noisy! The thunder of typing in a newsroom! The roar of airplanes overhead! How was it that nobody else noticed the din?
Soon I learned. Just as the eye adjusts to the blinding afternoon sunlight after you've been in the dark of a movie matinee, the brain eventually processes out background sounds, and you're left hearing the things you must heed most.
That was in the late 1970s, and I've been wearing hearing aids every day since, upgrading to new technologies as they've come along. You'll now find $4,500 worth of digital equipment behind my ears, processing thousands of bits of sound per second to keep me from losing connection with the world beyond my head.
They are small miracles. Without them, I'm in a TV show with the "mute" button on.
My friends and family and I make a lot of jokes of the "What'd you say?" variety, but that's because we know the situation isn't that funny.
When I'm in a hotel room alone, I don't dare sleep without an aid in one ear. I wouldn't be able to hear the wake-up call or, worse, a fire alarm. Wearing a hearing aid to bed isn't comfortable -- you feel it pressing into your ear no matter how soft the pillow -- and it's unsanitary never to take it off. And when you're used to shutting out sound at night, the way you shut off the lights, an unfamiliar hotel room is an aggregate of knocks, clicks, rumbles, buzzes and groans that can keep you up for hours.
I like swimming even less than I did as a kid, because I must go deaf at the pool or the beach; a hearing aid can't get wet.
At other times, you can be in dire trouble and I won't know it. I once got a phone call from a friend at work, during dinner, and she suddenly asked: "What's that noise?" I didn't know what she was talking about. Then I looked around, and it was my former wife, choking. My friend could hear by phone what I could not hear three feet away.
I live at the mercy of very small and fragile things. I'm lost when a battery runs out or a plastic tube breaks.
It's painful to use the phone or headphones for more than, say, an hour.
At a party or work, I'll shy away from the group because I'm always missing part of the conversation. I'll smile and nod a lot, even when I'm not fully understanding you, because it's too tiresome to ask you to repeat yourself over and over.
I work as a reporter, a profession that requires that I know what's going on. I do my work with the insecurity that maybe I'm not hearing you correctly when I'm quoting you.
I have my strategies. In an interview, I'll bring a tape recorder for backup. When you speak to me, I'll tilt my head so I can hear with my right ear, the slightly stronger one. If we're walking down the street, I'll position myself at your left side. When on the phone, I'll often turn off the hearing aid in the ear I'm not using, to block out ambient noise.
You'd think that with the blotting out of one sense, my others would be sharper. It doesn't work that way. I don't have X-ray vision or super-sharp taste buds because my ears are useless.
On the contrary, I live more within the confines of my own head. I rely more than normal on the printed word. I am less connected to the small interactions of chat and confidences that help people be close to one another.
My hair is graying now, and I get fewer curious looks when people realize I'm wearing hearing aids. I'm starting to look the part.
And now that I live in South Florida, having a hearing aid isn't so unusual. At the Walgreens down here, the batteries are right in the front, next to the candy bars and National Enquirers.
My peers, the Baby Boomers wading into their 50s, are starting to catch up. I'm taking some comfort in knowing I'm just a step ahead of them: part man, part circuitry.
Before long we'll all be sporting designer hearing aids. When the demographics warrant, marketers will make hearing aids hip. They'll come in cool colors and shapes, like eyeglasses.
They'll be waterproof.
They'll record conversations, play MP3s, bring in radio shows.
Don't snicker. You'll be wearing one, too, someday.
Sun-Sentinel photo: Scott Fisher