I spent Christmas Eve 2014 in my Dallas audiologist’s tiny office. She examined my ears, spoke to me about what I was experiencing and then put me through a series of tests in a soundproof room. It took almost an hour, and as each test was completed more and more tears began to fall from my eyes.
I was young, and my 84-year-old grandmother could hear better than I could. I hadn’t blasted music on my iPod, stood by speakers at concerts or otherwise destroyed my ears with damaging noises. I was 23, and I had lost over 80 percent of my hearing in one ear and over 70 percent in the other. Thanks to an unlucky genetic disposition, my ears were essentially worthless and futile. I was dropping the ends of my words, couldn’t have normal conversations, was missing important meeting notes at work and had begun to retreat away from my friends and social outings.
The time had finally come. My formerly creative coping mechanisms were no longer enough, and as I watched myself miss more and more each day, becoming more of an outsider, I realized I didn’t really have a choice anymore. It was time. Time to ask for help, whether I wanted it or not.
I left the office with a pair of RIC hearing aids, equipped with four programs and fitted with the tiniest domes possible. I had a severe loss but very small ears. I wore them the rest of the day until I couldn’t anymore.
I had sound again but often the sounds hurt. They helped me to hear speech better but not to understand it. The speech hurt. The sounds hurt. And all I wanted by 1 o’clock in the afternoon each day was to rip the aids from my ears and scream. The whistling feedback, over-amplification and distorted voices on the phone began to overpower the formerly positive benefits of increased hearing and decreased effort.
It’s not easy to have hearing loss, and it’s not exactly easy to have hearing aids either. But, sometimes fate is sneaky. Sometimes fate throws us a curve ball and because we expect it to strike us out, when we find it gives us a home run, we are shocked.
Minnesota was my curveball, and Starkey gave me a home run.
Starkey has two big philosophies: “Hear Better. Live Better.” and “Better today than yesterday. Better tomorrow than today." I’d been at my new job a total of five days and despite the fact that there were a million things to do, my manager sent me to the Center for Excellence (CFE) for testing, impressions and fitting—all day long. She could’ve had me go another day, another time. She could’ve never scheduled the appointment. But that isn’t who she is and it isn’t the company either.
I had my ears checked and cleaned, a particularly strange and visually gross experience. Note to the wise: when you have this done, don’t make my mistake and stare with fixed fascination at the TV screen showing the innermost areas of your ears.
Testing didn’t take long, but it’s always the same and never fun. I sat facing the wall, inserts in both ears and a plastic clicker gripped tightly in my right hand, my thumb hovering restlessly above the button. It always starts with the beeps, those high-pitched beeps that, if you are like me and have some tinnitus, are indiscernible from the ringing already going on in your ears. I closed my eyes tight, trying as hard as I could to click when I heard the beep—or at least when I thought I did.
“Why are you clicking? I’m not playing any beeps,” my hearing professional Bill asked. Obviously I wasn’t doing so well.
He changed the sounds to try to make it easier, yet the tears had already started to come. And as I sat in the booth and did more and more tests, clicked for more and more beeps, and tried eventually to repeat one syllable words, the tears just kept coming. I thanked God that only an emotionless wall stood before me. No one could see my weakness, my sadness or my frustration. No one could see how much it hurt to once again feel helpless, disabled, inadequate, and abnormal.
I was angry with myself, even though it wasn’t my fault, and I was angry with my family for our genetics, even though no one can change that. I failed every test.
He took me for impressions next; what a strange yet somewhat comical experience. Soft and squishy at first, the gel-like mold enters and invades every crevice possible, and as it takes over your ear canal, the world becomes silent. You can hear nothing, no laughter, no talking, nothing.
And while becoming permanently and losing my hearing completely has recently become one of my greatest fears, sitting in that high, rotating black chair and being able to hear nothing at all became an experiment.
It was strange, almost like I was a fish in a glass bowl looking out at the human world. I couldn’t hear sounds but I could somehow feel them. I started a game with myself, watching conversations and trying to discern what was being said. If I couldn’t hear, why not try to improve my already sneaky and effective lip reading technique?
And because I couldn’t hear, I was suddenly more aware of everything. What an exquisite way to view the world. What a strange new feeling. When Bill came back to remove the impressions, returning my hearing to its usual level, I almost jumped out of that chair and ran. There was part of me that didn’t want him to take the molds out, part of me that wondered if having absolutely no hearing would be easier than having hearing loss.
The rest of the morning included Ray explaining my incredibly frustrating audiogram. I had a small range where my hearing was normal. Then there came a very steep cliff face over which my hearing tumbled to the depths below.
I needed 60 Hz to hear anything yet I was in pain at 85 Hz. My ears were extremely tiny yet needed incredible power. My hearing loss was severe, especially for someone at 24.
I didn’t like the way sounds were coming to my ears because my ears had never experienced amplification until just this past December. I got headaches and had pressure in my ears by each afternoon because my ears had both normal hearing levels and incredible losses.
Ray made me laugh, made me comfortable. He shared his knowledge and his own story with hearing loss, and I felt like I belonged. I didn’t feel ashamed or angry; he helped me to understand in a way that my hearing loss almost became comical.
By 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, I held my iPhone 6 up and snapped a selfie.
Two brand new Halo hearing aids with a clear, customized earpiece sat nestled in my ears. I hadn’t wanted people to see them, but I’d asked myself what Bill had said to me before starting my testing, "Do I want to hear or not?”
My old hearing aids had hidden well, so I never felt unattractive. And while I was ashamed for thinking the new ones could make me ugly if others could see them, and I worried about my boyfriend looking at me differently, I realized it shouldn’t matter and he shouldn’t care
In fact, he didn’t and doesn’t. I snapped him selfies of my ear molds. He complimented their color and said I should wear them all the time. I snapped him a selfie wearing my new Halos, and he called me beautiful. Later he wanted to see the Halos themselves, and when I showed him he was fascinated by their tiny size and the uniquely shaped earmold. He is also a huge fan of the fact that he no longer has to repeat things forty times on the phone or during FaceTime video chats.
I walked back to my manager’s office to thank her, and while I did, I cried. Tears of joy and relief left my eyes, and I smiled and cried and walked.
It’s hard to explain what it’s like to feel normal again, what it’s like to once again feel alive, capable and empowered. I never thought I’d be me again, to be able to do the things I loved without issue again, and yet here I am weeks later and I’ve yet to remove the aids.
I don’t have to take them out, and I don’t want to. I don’t have to wear them, yet I want to.
It’s funny isn’t it, how kind that curve ball fate throws can be? It’s funny isn’t it, how something so little can give you something so big?