Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Hearing

Today, I am going to jump back in time again, to an article I wrote in June 2002. And also again, I am going to start with an update, just so no one feels compelled to sob over my plight.

The holes in my eardrums are now closed. In the end, only one ear required surgery. Today, the hearing in my left ear is considered to be largely within the normal range, with only a mild hearing loss. My right ear was less fortunate. It did require surgery, and what is more, the surgery made my hearing worse and not better. The loss in my right ear is considered moderate to severe. I own a hearing aid for my right ear, and I should use it but I do not. (Do not ask me why—I really do not know). Anyway, I am in the process of looking into getting a new hearing aid—a small one that fits right in the ear. I am hoping that something small, sophisticated and comfortable might be able to breach this inexplicable mental block. In the meantime, with some minor adjustments for the disability, I function quite well sans machinery, though I suspect that my friends and co-workers would be quite happy if I start to use a hearing aid and stop asking them to repeat themselves. (Though as a reminder to any lurking friends—I still will not be able to hear you at restaurants or weddings. Hearing aids not helpful at noisy events….)

One more thing: there is no recovery process here. The recovery process is over. My hearing is not going to get better. It just is.

On the bright side, I have gotten smarter about what I tell people. Now, when someone asks me why my hearing is lousy, I adopt a surprised look, as though this seems like such a weird questions to ask, shrug my shoulders and reply: "oh, it has been that way for years". Which is true. Can I help it if they assume that I was born with a hearing loss?
______________________________________________________________
June 2002

I can hear the telephone. It goes “ring ring ring”.

The toaster also makes a ringing sound when the toast is done toasting.

Birds say “tweet tweet” and cats say “meow”. A bird is singing outside my window right now. I can hear it. The world is full of wonderful, interesting sounds, and I can hear them all.

Yes, I finally got my hearing aids.

I have what is called sub-total perforations in both of my eardrums from the bombing. I have a mild to moderate hearing loss in my left ear, and moderate to moderate/severe hearing loss in the right. My doctors say the holes and the loss are correctable, although that will require two surgeries over the course of a year. The hearing aids are to get me through in the meantime. The surgeries are considered to be routine, as surgeries go, and the loss is not considered severe. All in all, this is a relatively minor injury. However, this “minor” injury has had a profound, and even shocking, effect on my personality.

To understand the changes, it helps to understand what it means to have a “hearing loss”, and I will give credit to my audiologist, Rivka,, for explaining this to me. Eardrums perform two major functions. One, the eardrums amplify sounds as they come into your ears. Secondly, our eardrums allow us to filter incoming sounds. Your eardrums are the tools that allow you to sit at a table and simultaneously engage in conversation with A while half-listening to a conversation between B and C and blocking out the conversation between D and E.

Put it all together, and a hole in one’s eardrum means you cannot hear half of what is going on, and what you can hear, you cannot understand.

What has this meant for me? To start with the basics, if I am speaking one-on-one with a person, I generally have to ask them to speak up and to speak very clearly. The existence of any background noise, (i.e. music, traffic or another conversation) makes it very difficult for me to hear because I no longer have the ability to filter out unwanted sounds. Even the sound of my own chewing is disruptive and I have to avoid crunchy foods when having conversations. I find that I hear best when speaking with one or a few individuals, face to face, without background noise, and without people talking over one another. It is almost impossible to have a conversation with a person if they leave the room-even if they are speaking loudly. Rivka told me that this is because I am probably doing far more subconscious lip reading than I realize. Actually, once she said this, I realized that this is why my ability to hear has picked up with the improvement in my vision. For that matter, it explains why my ability to hear English is less impaired than my ability to hear Hebrew. I have 25 more years experience in English than in Hebrew.

But if the physical aspects of hearing loss are challenging, the mental and emotional impact has been devastating. I am isolated. The heart of the social scene in Jerusalem is the Shabbat meal, and the heart of the Shabbat meal is the conversation. I cannot participate in these conversations anymore because I cannot hear well enough to follow. Even if I try to speak only with the person next to me, the conversation tends to be somewhat stilted as the buzz of the surrounding conversations impedes my ability to hear the person I am speaking with. The same limitation applies to virtually every social situation involving group conversations, be it chatting with people after services when everyone gathers outside the synagogue to shmooze, going out with friends to a café or even just having a simple get-together in someone's living room. Sure I can participate, so long as no one minds if I interrupt the flow of the conversation every 5 seconds to ask “What? What?” And that is assuming that the language being spoken is English. If the conversation is in Hebrew…well, forget about it.

There is really nothing I can do about the situation, and so more and more, I find myself sitting quietly and saying nothing. What is the point? I do not even sing anymore. For those of you unfamiliar with Shabbat meals, it is the tradition to sing songs during the meal. However, when I sing now, I cannot hear the other singers, making it impossible for me to sing with them. Sometimes I mouth the words. More often, I do not bother.

As a result, those who have met me at group events since the bombing would probably describe me as quiet and shy. And indeed, I have become shy. I no longer feel comfortable engaging new people in conversations. Admittedly, even before the bombing I lacked self-confidence with Israelis, but now I feel that way with everyone. I feel stupid, awkward, tongue-tied and boring. The fact that I am self-conscious about my looks does not help, of course. So now, when I go to group events, I no longer try to meet new people. Instead, I hang out with the people I know. If I do not know anyone, I find a corner and sit there quietly with a vague and hopefully pleasant expression on my face, catching conversations as I can, and waiting for the time that I can escape and go home.

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to a Shabbat meal hosted by an retired couple that makes a habit of inviting singles to join them for meals. The guests included a married couple, myself and four other singles my age, —two women and two men—and like me English speaking immigrants. The two women were well dressed, well spoken, attractive, and exuded intelligence and confidence. Then there was me: scars on my face which I have yet to figure out how to cover, bad hair, a stupid looking headband, glasses, and of course, half deaf. The other guests were soon engaged in an animated conversation. I could not follow. What was I supposed to do? Stand up and scream that I may look like shit and be deaf as a doorknob, but hey, behind it all is intelligent, interesting, witty person? Hell, I do not know that I believe that myself. I did try. I made an attempt to talk to the guy next to me, but I could think of nothing to say aside from “oh, you are from Toronto? What a beautiful city”.

Oh yeah! That is some witty and intelligent conversation there! My, I must be the world's biggest dolt.

Maybe I am imagining things? Maybe I was always this boring, this retreating, this shy, this tongue-tied? Why do I feel like I was been transformed into someone else? I know I used to be too aggressive, and too argumentative, but I toned that down a bit and learned to be nicer. I know I used to feel stupid with Israelis, but I thought that was just with Israelis, and that it was because of the language barrier. Was I always like this? I couldn’t have been. There is no way I could have as involved as I was in D.C., had as many friends as I did in D.C., if I were really like this. I keep trying to remind myself of that.

But now I have hearing aids. They don’t help me filter sounds, but they do amplify sounds so that conversations are easier to follow. I wore them last night when I was at dinner with my cousins. So long as the background noise isn’t too bad, I can even follow multi-sided conversations. Okay-so I have a tool to bring back my hearing. All I need now is a tool to bring back me.

18 comments:

vedaal said...

"[The loss in my right ear is considered moderate to severe. I own a hearing aid for my right ear, and I should use it but I do not. (Do not ask me why—I really do not know). Anyway, I am in the process of looking into getting a new hearing aid—a small one that fits right in the ear. ... In the meantime, with some minor adjustments for the disability, I function quite well sans machinery]"


it's important for you to get the second hearing aid you're comfortable with, and start using it,

people who have differential hearing loss and leave it uncorrected, can develop gait problems, and find themselves veering to one side, as they do not process the sounds from the impaired side


it can feel very isolating and sad when not talking to anyone, (and much worse, when no one addresses you either)

some years ago,
after saying something really stupid, and making a fool of myself trying to fix it, and doing an awkward patchwork job,

i decided, one day in Elul, in preparation for the New Year,
to go on a Taanit Dibbur
(a 'word' fast,
to refrain from speaking for a day)

when people spoke to me,
i pointed to my throat, as if i had laryngitis,

and eventually it became as if i just 'wasn't there',
even though i could hear everything perfectly

by noon, i was already more miserable than i ever remembered,
and although i held out until nightfall,
i never repeated it again,
and even shudder now when thinking about it

people need to communicate and feel accepted, or at least, feel 'part of things'
and whatever can be done to improve it would probably make you feel much better

especially if you find yourself in surroundings with people who don't yet know you
(*their* loss, if they don't make the effort ...)

(do the Naot people make any fashionable 'in-the-ear' designer pieces? ;-) )

Katherine said...

not sure if you've had a look at other hearing aids, but in case you haven't. my father in law just recently got one, and not only is it tiny, it has transformed him as a person. he used to appear grumpy and completely disengaged from the conversation. These days he is able to follow it and actually interact, which makes a pleasant change for the rest of us! the hearing aid itself is really miniscule - maybe 2cm long, and less than a cm thick - or thereabouts. You can't see it when he is wearing it unless you're looking, and if you do see it it doesn't look like a hearing aid - just like a funky piece of jewellery. which admittedly is odd for my father in law but would be good for you :)
Its funny how we know there might be something which might help us but we're reluctant to use it - it took years to get him to get a hearing aid.

I had my hearing tested a year ago and it was perfect, but funnily enough since coming to Israel I have really struggled to hear people in just the situations you describe. So take heart a lot of other people might also be smiling and nodding and not be able to hear a damn thing too!

Shira Salamone said...

You might find some of the information and/or links here helpful.

If you have not already done so, you might want to look into (a) a “directional” hearing aid, which is designed to amplify primarily the sound that’s in front of you, (b) an assistive listening device, which might use a microphone to transmit sound directly into your hearing aid, and/or (c) a cochlear implant (I know, more surgery, but one for your bad ear might be worth it).

David, UK said...

As well as old men, etc, i'm sixteen and i have a friend about two years older than me who wears a hearing aid in one ear. I have never been able to actually see it,and, although i can't say how bad her hearing would be, she has no problems that i have noticed with the thing in her ear!

I dont think she was in a bomb, though ;)

Gila said...

Cochlear implant--my hearing is not *that* bad.

I actually do okay without the hearing aid (my left ear is normal to mild hearing loss). A hearing aid for the right ear would help in general. Or rather, using the hearing aid I have. Or buying a new, cool one.

:)

Shira Salamone said...

I'm glad to hear that your hearing is not that bad, and that you do benefit from using a hearing aid. So nu, use one, already! If buying a "new, cool one" would persuade you not to tuck it into a drawer, then start savin' your pennies, er, sh'kalim.

Yehudit said...

I have started having more trouble with multiple conversations and noise as I have gotten older and also I am sure exposure to NYC subways don't help. So my ears are technically fine but I relate to the trouble following conversations in difficult environments.

And even this little bit has made me more self-conscious in groups and I also am an outgoing talker.

But what has made the biggest difference in my demeanor is NYC singles events. Ruthless! Which is a subset of the larger problem of being invisible just because I don't fit several established demographics.

The idea of a Shabbat dinner every week! A couple who invites singles! Well, maybe in Israel you are also invisible if you are over 40. But I got tired of being snubbed and I stay home a lot, and am more quiet in groups, here in the most Jewish city in the world. Thanks a bunch Am Yisrael.

Anyway, sorry to be bitter, but there are many ways groups can make you feel like shit.

Yehudit said...

PS just one tiny example so you know I'm not the problem. I am commiserating with a friend who is also outgoing and an interesting person, about finding a Pesach seder or two, in 2 wks. We agreed that we would only go to any frumie group event together, because everyone comes with their families and just talk to each other. And you're sitting at a huge table surrounded by laughing talking people all by yourself. You don't have to have a hearing problem to be in that situation.

RivkA with a capital A said...

Wow, talk about bad karma...

Yehudit, we choose the way we want to feel.

No one can make you "feel like sh*t" unless you let them.

If one group doesn't work for you, then find another.

If NYC doesn't do it for you, then move.

And, seriously, you are not in the most Jewish city in the world. We are.

Miriam Goldstein said...

Is it terrible that my first reaction was "Poor Gila! She must have had to give up SCUBA diving!" Then I remembered that not everyone's life focuses around the peculiar habitat of breathing underwater from large tanks.

Yehudit - I used to live in NYC. I loved it, but I think the social scene, Jewish or no, is rather pathological. (But now I would trade all of the SoCal friendliness for a decent bagel and a black-and-white cookie.)

Yehudit said...

I don't want to steer this thread into a discussion of my issues so I'll just leave it at this: You can "choose how you feel" for so long, but it takes a lot of energy and eventually you get tired. I think most people who have been in pervasively unpleasant situations for a long time would say the same. In fact this blog is a diary documenting (among other things) that you can't always choose how you feel. I don't vent about this all the time, but I do relate to enjoying conversing in a group and wanting to participate and being ignored, and it came out.

About the centrality of NYC ... I wouldn't say that if I hadn't heard some bi-national Jews say it too, and they did have a rationale but I forget what it was. If it isn't a tie it's close. Does Israel have black-and-white cookies? :-)

I've only been in NYC for 5 years and I AM leaving for a few months, then we'll see. I do like living here for many reasons. Yes the entire social scene is pathological but maybe the Jewish one (maybe all ethnic ones) especially because at the same time there is all this talk of community and closeness and observing holidays that are simply not meant to be observed alone. So there's a lot of cognitive dissonance. If you're just Carrie Bradshaw you don't have that extra mind twist.

Gila said...

Quick reponse before I get ready for work:

Miriam-I do not scuba dive, but I do have a friend for whom that would also be the knee-jerk reaction. But when I found out I had to have another eye surgery this fall, my immediate reaction was "but what about biking?" I had been training for the Alyn bike ride, and this came six weeks before the start of the ride.

Shira-fortunately, National Insurance and my health insurance will cover most of the cost. It is just a matter of getting the approval from National Insurance--or rather, calling them up and finding out if the request I submitted a month ago has been approved.

Yehudit-I know what you mean about singles events-I do not enjoy them even when I am in the right demographic (am 37 now). I have never done well at them.

As for Shabbat dinners, I go to far fewer now that I am 1) in TA and 2) not particularly observant. One trick I employ is to host my own dinners--that way I get a group whose company I enjoy. :) In fact, the pancake dinner I mentioned in my last post is this Friday night...which reminds me that I need to actually get around to making sure I have invited everyone.

Re: Pesach--have you considered hosting your own seder? Seriously--a friend of mine did that last year. Again, that way you get a much better group. As for me, I am seriously considering leaving the country for the holiday! But then, I say that every year.

As for liking/not liking a city, I feel the same about J'lem. There are many things I love about J'lem. However, for me, being single there was so painful that it outweighed any potential benefits. Honestly, if I met a nice guy, and he wanted to live there, I would have no problem. But alone? No thanks!

And as for choosing as you feel--you are right, it does get exhausting, especially when you are not in a particular situation by choice.

Good for you for making a change. Where are you headed off to? Do you know people there? Maybe I (and the beloved dear readers) can help get you hooked up with people?

Baila said...

Gila,

Way back at the beginning of my career, I worked as an audiologist for two years. Most of the population I dealt with was geriatric, generally experiencing gradual decline of their hearing. Occasionally I saw patients with sudden onset of significant hearing loss. (Defining signifcant as hearing loos that affects daily functioning). Either way, most of these patients described the feeling of total isolation that you spoke about. So many were resistant to the hearing aids. But those who used them eventually realized how helpful they were. As you already know, hearing aids don't help in every situation, but the technology has improved vastly since I saw my last patient. Be aggressive about getting that tiny in-the-ear aid. Having "surround sound" is infinitely better than hearing out of one ear.

I'm glad the hearing has improved to the point that it has.

Kleine Maus said...

All I need now is a tool to bring me back?

"Houston, do you copy?"

Jack said...

I have a sister who uses two hearing aids. She has had them for severak years now. For the most part she does pretty well, but I have heard her make similar complaints to yours.

Overall she says that when she uses them she is able to follow the conversation right around her, but loud groups are a challenge.

FWIW, I still maintain that NYC is vastly overrated. I'll take my beloved LA over it every time.

Jerusalem Artichoke said...

Just chiming in to say that the point about chosing how you feel being possible but exhausting is a brilliant one.

To keep it on topic, I think Gila's whole story is a great example of this struggle.

She's shown that one can react to crappy situations in an upbeat and productive way an incredibly large percentage of the time, but sometimes, you just have to say, "Aww, c'mon, give me a break" and spend some time being grouchy, eating chocolate, avoiding dealing with things, or whatever unvirtuous response you choose. And sometimes you just have to get out of the bad situation rather than continuing to try to make the best of it.

Redhead Infidel said...

HI Gila,

I came over from Ace's, who featured your blog today. I just wanted you to know that you are a gifted writer and have managed to convey your experience with insight, humor, and intelligence.

Maryam in Marrakesh said...

G-
You are awesome. I would marry you but I am a woman and already married with 2 children (ah, the small obstacles). And I live in Morocco (another tiny detail). But I tell you........those guys are so missing out! I say ditch the headband and adopt an artistic demeanor... Your quiet will be mistaken for deep, artistic reflection.