From time to time, I find that a particular article will pop up and alert me to my own health issues. And that is exactly what happened when I looked into deafness and hearing loss around a year ago.
I was going through the questions a doctor might ask during diagnosis, and I was staggered to find that as few as 5 percent of them did not apply to my own ears.
Sure enough, I took these issues to a doctor, and entered the referral process for treatment by an ear, nose, and throat specialist.
After 8 months of waiting, I now have two hearing aids. At the time of writing, I have only been wearing them for 2 days, yet their impact is already significantly greater than I could ever have imagined.
To recap, I’m lucky enough to have retained at least half of my hearing in each ear. At present, I can lead a mostly active, healthy life, I don’t need to communicate with sign language, and my work is unaffected.
However, it’s all too easy to dismiss the impact of a gradual, creeping condition such as hearing loss. It can develop suddenly, or, as in my case, take 20 years to reach a diagnosable level.
I will be 30 years old this year, and those 20 years mark a hugely important period in anyone’s life.
Whether you are trying to make an impact as a young professional starting out, rounding off your formal education, building a family, or all of the above, you will undoubtedly be taking account of parts of your life that are becoming increasingly important and complex.
Communication is a huge part of navigating this formative stage. If any element of communication is lacking, it can have a significant impact on the way your personality develops, and the methods you use to connect with the outside world.
The big kicker with gradual-onset hearing loss is that you are not aware of how it’s changing you until the physical symptoms have become moderate to severe.
Every pang of guilt or embarrassment after saying “what?” or “huh?” might lead to another night when you don’t risk going out to socialize. You end up distancing softly-spoken colleagues, friends, and even family members, simply because the effort it takes to process their speech can become draining.
I’ve forgotten what it’s like to chat with a friend at a concert or even a bar. Very often, I will have great difficulty separating conversational frequencies from noises in the environment, making it almost impossible to fully focus on what people are saying.
Something as trivial as needing subtitles when watching television programs and movies with other people can create an isolating feeling of being stigmatized.
Even though your friends are probably understanding, and although subtitles exist to significantly improve the viewing experience for people who cannot hear as well as others, it can still be hard to ignore the underlying feeling of being ‘different.’
As a result of these fleeting moments and hang-ups, I developed subtle, invisible coping mechanisms to anchor my social interactions.
For example, I cycle between a set of 10–15 stock phrases that I wheel out based on tone of voice and general context.
“I can fully understand that.”
“Tell me about it!”
None of these seem out of place in a conversation. However, once they become a substitute for genuine responses and coherent conversational flow, they develop into a cornerstone of shame and awkwardness in daily encounters.
Until you start looking at hearing loss as a condition, it simply feels like part of your worldview. Even if it hasn’t yet reached the stage of impairing daily function, it can still strip at least 30–50 percent of the human experience from your day.
After writing the MNT article on hearing loss, I followed this journey to hearing aids on my doctor’s recommendation.
Even though I’m missing only one layer of frequencies, the difference is remarkable.
My new hearing aids are discreet yet powerful — sometimes, to my underused ears, excessively so.
A packet of chips opening 20 feet away sounds like it’s crinkling next to my head; I can hear the wheels of a stroller from a balcony five floors up; even the cacophony during bathroom breaks sounds like a National Geographic documentary.
There are unexpected changes, too. My experience of food has completely altered — the additional frequencies adding a lightness of bite and extra crunch that I was previously unaware of.
Using a hearing loop system for the first time at a concert was emotionally overwhelming. My balance and spatial awareness have also greatly improved in these first few days of wearing my hearing aids.
My hearing no longer feels impaired — that is, until I remove the hearing aids. Those few moments in the day without them, such as going to the gym or grabbing a shower, are now pretty draining by comparison.
However, I have heard about 20 birdsongs for the first time in the last 48 hours, and I’ve listened to the phasing hiss of the sea as I’ve never listened before.
And, I was hit by a hailstorm that might genuinely be the single most impressive thing I’ve ever heard, although until 2 days ago, the bar was not all that high.
I have a lot to learn about life with hearing aids, but my first lesson was that no one close to me sees it as a negative life event. Everyone has been congratulating me as if I’ve just become a parent for the first time.
I’ve realized that however self-conscious you might feel about wearing hearing aids, people only see it as a connection with the world, and this is a huge deal. I see my hearing aids as an opportunity, rather than as debilitating or cumbersome devices.
There’ll be occasional squeals of feedback, and keeping them wedged in my ears can be a challenge, especially while moving around. However, I’m in the early stages of treatment and already connecting with the world more closely.
While my hearing aids are not perfect yet, they remain a genuine game-changer.
If conversations have started to become a struggle for you, or if you’ve passed on getting a hearing aid because of the visual aspect, then I urge you to look into your options. Visit your doctor, speak to your insurer about coverage, and weigh up hearing assistance as a real option.
Sound is 20 percent of your experience as a human. Conversation, music, and background noise are all part of keeping a steady headspace and progressing with your day. Protecting and enhancing that is a life-changing step to take for people who can’t process sound as well as others do.
I cannot wait to stick these bad boys in upon waking up tomorrow and seeing what else I can discover for the first time.