The sound of silence

It occurred to me yesterday that most people don’t really understand what it’s like to lose your hearing. I imagine a lot of people think they do, but they don’t really understand it, so I thought I’d write about losing mine.

I was born with great hearing. In fact, for a long time, my hearing was honestly the best physical part of me. As a vocalist, I took voice lessons, which further trains the ear to distinguish between the tiny musical steps that make up songs. I never had perfect pitch–that’s for my best friend, Tiffany, to have–but I had extremely good relative pitch. (Meaning you could play a note and I could go from there to find another–like, play a C, and I could find the g sharp.)

Part of the CF regimen is IV drugs to save your lungs from going kerplat, and when you’re taking them, especially as I was toward the “end” of my life with my old lungs, the thought process went like this:

Hmmmm…..dead with great hearing, alive with no so great hearing. 

I’ll choose the “alive” part.

Eventually we realized I was losing some of my hearing. It started with softer sounds and upper ranges–when people called my name, I might not hear it if I was reading or involved with something else. Post-transplant, I finally was fitted with hearing aids when I realized I was missing more than just people calling my name.

I didn’t want a cochlear implant, initially, because I didn’t want to lose the rest of my natural residual hearing. But when I was singing in church one day and realized glorious music sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher, I decided to get one as soon as possible.

So, here’s the thing people might not realize–it’s a gradual loss and trend toward silence. If I hadn’t had my hearing aid, I would’ve lost music and other things much earlier, and had a lot of quiet. When you’re losing your hearing, things don’t sound bad; they don’t sound at all. It’s when you get hearing aids and implants that things start to sound off, initially.You have to re-adjust to it. Without the aids, though, you’re hearing nothing. Silence.

(Side note: While you are in the process of losing your hearing, things might sound off, because most sounds–in fact, all sounds, probably–are like piano notes–multi-stranded. When you tune a piano, each key has three strings that make the total note you’re looking for. Slowly, bits of the ‘note’ (in this analogy) go away and the sound because thinner, distorted, and then eventually gone. By the time you need a cochlear implant, the majority of your hearing is in the ‘gone’ range).

I realized that the CI often pitches me sharp in certain passages of my voice, so I have to go against my years of training and adjust my mouth and tongue to do what, to me, is like singing flat. But I’m not. I’m singing the right note. Sight-reading is a bit harder than it used to be, because my sense of relative pitch is sort of wacky, and I only have one implant (I don’t have bilateral ones, because then I’d have no hearing without them, and that would make life much more difficult). If I had two, that might make life better, not just musically, but also in being able to tell where a sound is coming from. (Now I just sort of swivel around like a periscope looking for it).

It does take time to adjust, but the more you work at it, the better it gets. I’m noticing continued improvement even now, when I’ve had this for a good number of years, and the technology for the processors keeps improving. It still isn’t as good as real hearing, but it keeps getting better. And I’m glad I can hear at all, as opposed to just 20 years ago, when that wouldn’t have been happening. Hearing aids just magnify sound, they don’t help you understand it. Cochlear implants do, and that’s a huge step forward.

This morning, without my implants, I heard the grass being mowed. Right now, there’s still the hum of the mowers, and birds chirping above it. I hear the keys click as I type this, and piano music on my iTunes app. I’ll go to musical rehearsal this weekend and sing more music. Technology is a great thing and I’m glad for it. Losing your hearing doesn’t mean you’re sentenced to silence, but it does mean you have to learn to listen in a slightly different way.


2 thoughts on “The sound of silence

  1. Listen in a slightly different way. In my opinion, it’s quite the fruitful gift (when not taken literally of course). And why didn’t I know this? Did I forget?

  2. Pingback: Seven Quick Takes No. 49 | Living Adventurously

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