My Hearing Journey #3

But over the years, with the help of medication and therapy, the depression and the anxiety that had ruled my life were under control. I’d successfully shaken off any of the white-trash-trouble-maker habits my parents had laid on me. I had a great job, go to Al Anon meetings, have written two novels, my credit rating was excellent. On the whole, I was happy. Except now, I had this Audiologist telling me I was damn near deaf….

Dr. Carson scheduled a follow up appointment with me and when I left her office I called my friend Susan. I’ve known her for 30 years and I thought I was going to drop a bombshell on her, but she wasn’t surprised by the news.

“You do miss a lot,” Susan told me. No I don’t, I thought, stubbornly holding onto my denial. Okay, I’m a little hard of hearing, but mainly I don’t pay attention. My mother was a loud and obnoxious shrew, so I have a gift for tuning things out.

But…I do hear better with my glasses on. Although I’m a very funny and entertaining, I have a hard time making connections with people one-on-one. I can dazzle a crowd, but I don’t have many friends I share quiet, intimate moments with. But that was a common problem among adult children of alcoholics; it wasn’t because of a hearing problem.

Yes, I used the closed captioning on my TV, and I hadn’t been to a movie theatre in years, but that was because the background music was always so loud that it was hard to follow the dialogue. But I’d heard several people voice that complaint over the years.

I was in such denial that it occurred to me that perhaps I didn’t try hard enough during the hearing test. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention and I needed to tell Dr. Carson to re-run the tests.

I returned to her office a week later and she presented me with two small hearing aids. She showed me how to change the batteries, and made sure I could put them in my ears correctly, and then she disappeared.

Before she put the hearing aids in my ears, I could hear the receptionist talking in the front of the office, but it was a wordless drone — like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons. With the hearing aids in, I could hear some of the words she was saying, and it made me uncomfortable; I felt like I was eavesdropping.

I fidgeted in my chair and put my hand in the pocket of my jeans. There was a small amount of change and a crumpled up receipt. I pulled out the receipt, prepared to throw it in the trash can, but instead, I was captivated by the noise it made. I’d handled receipts all my life and was familiar with the noise of receipts, but this was different somehow. It seemed incredibly loud, but more than that, it was a sharper noise; it seemed….closer to me. I held the receipt on either side and moved my hands back and forth and listened to the crisp crackle of the paper. I would be 50 years old in just a few hours — but I had never heard that sound before.

“It will take some time for you to adjust,” the Audiologist told me when she returned. “We hear with our brains, not our ears. When your brain hears new sounds, it makes a decision whether it’s harmful or not. And when the noise is deemed harmless, then it gets filtered out and you won’t pay any attention to it anymore. But there are a lot of sounds that your brain isn’t accustomed to hearing, so it might be a little scary for a while.” That was not good news for me. I grew up in an abusive home and carried a lot of fear and anxiety with me into adulthood. But I’d learned how to keep myself safe, and how to address my fear and anxiety in healthy ways. How hard could this be?

I left her office and got in my car on my way to Susan’s house; her grandsons were throwing a birthday party for me. As I pulled onto the highway, my heart began to pound in my chest because my car was making strange noises. There were hums and ticks and whirs that I’d never heard before. Within a week, I took it to my mechanic and spent a lot of money to learn that it was in perfect working condition.

Before I got to Susan’s, I decided to stop at the 7–11 for a cold coffee. I felt overwhelmed and tired and needed a caffeine infusion, so I stepped into the convenience store, and headed towards the refrigerated cabinets. Now I’m no stranger to cold coffee, and I’ve walked in convenience stores all my life, but the place felt foreign to me. I was surrounded by a cacophony of noise. Footsteps, the rustle of potato chip bags, ice dropping into plastic cups, the door opening and closing, the cash register beeping. It’s not that I hadn’t heard these noises before — I had. I could identify most of them, but the noises had always been something that was happening OVER THERE, in the distance, away from me. Now, the noises were happening right on top me, right behind me, right next to me. I felt engulfed and encased by the noise and it felt disorientated.

My anxiety levels were climbing as I stepped into the check-out line. Every noise I heard caused me to turn my head in that direction, and I realized I must look like a twitchy, insane person; looking right, left, up, and down as each noise assaulted me. I paid for the iced coffee, and retreated to the safety of my car, frustrated with myself.

I am not some delicate flower, who simpered with fear in a corner. I was a strong and capable woman, and had spent a lifetime mastering the purchase of cold coffee — I shouldn’t be feeling fearful! After a few minutes of deep breathing and berating myself for my anxiety, I drove to Susan’s house.

Susan’s grandsons were 13, 8 and 6 years old at this time, so of course, the noise levels are always off the chart, even without hearing aids. They’re great kids though, and it was a great evening, but I spent most of it with my new hearing aids in my hand. As the evening progressed, the boys started to get ready for bed and the adults gathered at the dining room table to talk.

Susan’s daughter, Leslie, was sitting next to me. I’ve known Leslie since she was 8 years old, and I noticed that she would touch me every time she talked to me. She would touch my arm or my leg, I’d turn towards her, and then she’d talk. Although I’d never noticed it in the 30 years I’ve known her, I saw it happen over and over again that evening. Leslie didn’t even realize she was doing it; but at some point in her life, she realized that if she wanted to communicate with me, she needed to get my attention first. Even as a small child she saw that I needed to be looking at her in order to understand her.

Although I’ve spent plenty of time in Susan’s house in the last decade, it was full of foreign noises I’d never heard before. As I walked across the hardwood floors, I heard an obnoxious crunching and squeaking noise. I stopped and looked around, trying to pinpoint its source. I took a few steps backwards, listened, and then took a few steps forward. Yes, that noise was definitely coming from the floors. Every time I took a step, the hardwood floors crunched and squeaked underneath my feet. Susan assured me that the floors had always made that noise, but she doesn’t notice it anymore. This is an example of “filtering” in action, something that Susan’s brain does, that mine doesn’t.

When I was driving to Susan’s house earlier in the evening, my focus had been the noises my car made, but driving home in the dark, all I noticed were the sounds of traffic. There was an 18 wheeler in my right side mirror, but the noise coming from it sounded like a freight training coming through my rear window. I could hear the sounds of a motorcycle, but when I checked my mirrors, I couldn’t see it. For all the years I’ve been driving, when I heard a motorcycle I could find it in my mirrors, but it wasn’t there that night. Even with the windows up, the noise levels that surrounded me made the familiar trip home disorientating, and a little frightening.

I finally made it back to my apartment and breathed a sigh of relief as I pulled the hearing aids out of my ears. I guess I should have been celebrating my new-found hearing ability, but I wasn’t feeling that. The entry in my journal that night reads, “Headache. Anxious. Overwhelmed. I’m not sure I like this hearing thing.”

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Kay Boeger here, living and working in Fort Worth, Texas with a couple of cats.

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Kay Bollenger

Kay Bollenger

Kay Boeger here, living and working in Fort Worth, Texas with a couple of cats.

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