Hear, Hear!

I’ve done a lot of thinking about whether to write about this, and ultimately decided it could be therapeutic to me and potentially helpful to others. So here I am, writing about something I have almost never discussed publicly, and only very rarely even with my most trusted family and friends.

Over the past couple of decades I have been living with very gradual but persistent progressive hearing loss. The process has been so slow that – like the proverbial frog in the pot – I often didn’t consciously realize it was happening, or at the very least, the extent to which it was happening. Admittedly, there were moments when, despite my best efforts at self-delusion, my worsening ability to discern sounds that had once been crystal clear became inescapable. Sometimes I would invoke pathetic little rationalizations: My ears must be dirty. It’s those allergies. I can’t hear a thing through these thick walls. Why does she always mumble? But on an unspeakable but omnipresent level, there was always a part of me that knew.

The effects of aging don’t usually upset me. Year after year since fifth grade, I rejoiced at the opportunity to order new glasses frames, never concerned about my advancing myopia. I wasn’t remotely perturbed on the very specific morning when I could suddenly no longer turn over in bed without the aid of a hand or foot. And the arrival of presbyopia – and with it, my first pair of “seamless transition” bifocals – was little more than a source of amusement.

But my hearing is another matter altogether, a critical facet of my identity and sense of self-worth that is fraught with emotional baggage. I have never excelled at sports or visual arts, never been tall or muscular or dexterous, never been entirely comfortable or conversant in popular culture. But I have always taken pride in the keenness of my ears and in the skill and delight they have given me in both language and music (particularly singing), the only two realms in which I can present myself to others with complete confidence. Hearing, not sight, was always the sense that I trusted: I’ve always been horrible with faces, but great at recalling and identifying voices. I often can’t replicate the simplest physical gesture or pose, but I can effortlessly mimic voices and accents to perfection. In all of those contexts and more, the relentless decay of my hearing felt like a kind of slow, shameful death, a gradual loss of self, a slow descent into oblivion.

Once or twice, I briefly considered the possibility of hearing aids. But the thought of wearing them felt like a public admission that I would never again be my true self. And on the two occasions when, on a whim, I dragged myself into a commercial hearing aid outlet for evaluation, I was subjected to a traumatically offensive combination of heavy-handed clinical ignorance and smarmy hard-sell salesmanship that left me feeling violated and angry and ashamed.

Sometime over the past year, my perspective began to change. It’s hard to pinpoint when and why. I suspect that the multiple health challenges I have faced and overcome (and seen others overcome) in the past few years may have changed my thinking about physical abilities and disabilities and their relationship to my identity. The most dramatic of these was a severe injury to my foot, requiring three surgeries and a three-month recovery period in which I could neither walk nor stand. In its wake – perhaps as an aftereffect of the injury itself – came sudden clinical dysphonia, which left me practically unable to sing. I worked tenaciously to defeat these setbacks, and defeat them I did.

Whatever the reasons for my evolving outlook, I recently decided to revisit the idea of hearing aids. This time, I resolved to treat my decision and its implementation with all of the urgency and commitment that it and I deserved – just as I had done with my other health issues. Rather than casually wandering into a dealership as I had previously done, I consulted with an otolaryngologist, and also with trusted, experienced friends and family members. In particular, I sought and received crucial advice from my own brother, who has always lived fiercely and fully and proudly and victoriously with profound congenital hearing loss.

This week, I underwent a comprehensive hearing exam by a highly recommended audiologist, who prescribed and dispensed a pair of state-of-the-art invisible hearing aids. And I do mean invisible: They sit deep inside my ear canal and can only be seen if you are peering into my ear from about an inch away.

The difference is life-changing, in the most literal sense. Every waking moment sounds different from anything I’ve heard for decades: listening to or performing music, engaging in conversation, watching a play, walking down the street, or simply going about the routines of daily life. Everything. Again and again, the smallest unexceptional sound will surprise me so intensely that I will break into a grin or audibly laugh: The creaking of a chair. A finger snap. A snippet of conversation from a group walking past me in the street. The chirp of a sparrow a hundred feet away. My sock as I pull it over my heel. And of course, numerous forgotten subtleties of musical orchestration, running back to greet me like old childhood friends as I listen to songs and classical works from which they have long been absent.

I sense that it will take me some time to assimilate and fathom the depth of this dramatically transformative experience. As that process progresses, I will undoubtedly have much more to say (as I so often do).

Meanwhile, I keep asking myself why I waited so long. To the extent that I consciously know the answers to that question, they are not simple. But the more important question is: What other choices am I avoiding that could potentially bring happiness and fulfilment to myself and to others whose lives I touch?

I hope to engage profoundly with that question in the days to come, as perhaps all of us should.

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