A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss

A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss

by David G. Myers

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300194654
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 841,753
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

David G. Myers is John Dirk Werkman Professor of Psychology at Hope College. His psychology textbooks are studied at nearly a thousand colleges and universities. He is the author of The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, published by Yale University Press.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

From Sound to Silence                                                                                                                                                                              5 AUGUST 1990

On one of those treasured visits to my parents' home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, I use a magic pad to communicate with my eighty-year-old mother, who four years previously took the final step from hearing-impaired to deaf as she gave up wearing her by then useless hearing aids.

    "Do you hear anything?" I write.

    "No," she answers, her voice still strong although she cannot hear it. "Last night your Dad came in and found the T.V. blasting. Someone had left the volume way up; Ididn't hear a thing." (Indeed, my father later explained, he recently tested her by sneaking up while she was reading and giving a loud clap just behind her ear. Her eye never wavered from the page.)

    What is it like, I wonder. "A silent world?"

    "Yes," she replies, "it's a silent world."

As with Mother, so, I expect, with me. I have known for many years that I am on a trajectory toward the same deafness. When tested as a teenager, my hearing pattern mimicked Mother's—an unusual "reverse slope" pattern of good hearing for high-pitched sounds and poorer hearing for low-pitched sounds (making soft male voices harder to discern than higher female voices). From upstairs, I can hear the high-pitched microwave oven timer, though my wife, Carol, snuggled beside me in bed, cannot. But I cannot recall ever hearing an owl hoot. Carol touches my leg at each hoot: "There, can you hear it? I hear nothing.

    When I was a graduate student, my peculiar hearing loss made me a case for study and discussion in front of twenty doctors and residents at the University of Iowa Medical School's hearing clinic. It was a foretaste of what Dr. Seuss predicted in You're Only Old Once!

You'll be told that your hearing's so murky and muddy, your case calls for special intensified study. They'll test you with noises from far and from near and you'll get a black mark for the ones you can't hear. Then they'll say, "My dear fellow, you're deafer than most. But there's hope, since you're not quite as deaf as a post."

    In my early forties, an audiologist (a specialist in assessing and alleviating hearing loss) wondered aloud how I was able to cope with life without a hearing aid. But my coping is far from perfect. Already, at forty-seven, I seek seats front and center at lectures, meetings, and the theater. In restaurants, I prefer corners or a seat against the wall. In the psychology classes I teach at Hope College in Michigan, students occasionally snicker when I answer a question inappropriately. At home, I sometimes miss what my children say. On visits to Scotland, I ask Carol to handle telephone calls; she can better discern words spoken with a brogue.

    At the moment I have a 1980s-vintage hearing aid, but it magnifies all sounds—including those high-pitched sounds which I hear reasonably well. The clash of silverware becomes distracting, irritating, almost painfully loud. Part of that "loudness" may be relative to my adaptation to a quiet world, rather like the sun's seeming brightness that we complain about when we emerge from a movie. Bothersome loudness also results from a common but little-known oddity of hearing loss. Damaged hair-cell receptors within the inner ear may fail to respond to soft sounds yet respond normally to loud sounds (with a boost from neighboring hair cells that also begin to respond). Normal hearing progresses through sounds that range from quiet to moderate to loud and very loud. But once a person with significant loss is able to hear something, increasing loudness all too quickly becomes very loud and then uncomfortably loud. A person with hearing loss may therefore miss soft sounds that others hear but hear loud sounds quite normally. When all sounds—including loud sounds—are amplified, some noises are uncomfortably loud. (One doesn't need a hearing aid at a rock concert—an event that the hard of hearing will want to avoid anyway, to protect the inner ear's remaining healthy sensory receptors, the hair cells.)

    Moreover, merely magnifying sound far from its source hardly improves its clarity. It's like a microphone recording a speaker from across a room: it records the reverberations of the voice and all the intervening sounds as well. You also have to put up with the distracting sound of your own distorted voice. So I seldom wear my hearing aid. (A friend reports a similar experience with his unused hearing aids, which "so greatly magnified the noise of chewing that I couldn't eat and converse at the same time.")

    But my resistance is bound to melt. And surely, having lamented my mother's embarrassed social isolation, I will suffer similar distress. "Not having understood what was said in a group," she reminisces, "I would chime in and say the same thing someone else had just said—and everyone would laugh. I would be so embarrassed, I wanted to fall through the floor." Increasingly, her way of coping was to avoid getting out onto the floor in the first place. She shied away from public events more and more and found excuses not to mix with people who didn't understand, or, when she did go out, would signal my amiable father to take her home while the evening was still young.

    Will I do the same? Will I break my private vow not to repeat her past?

    In the world of the hearing-impaired, those who have been deaf since birth are my distant cousins. I empathize as I read their stories. But I would not trivialize their experience by identifying it with my own. A great divide separates those who are natively deaf or were deafened before they learned to speak and those who are hard of hearing or were deafened later in life. I can hardly imagine the consciousness of those for whom in the beginning there was no word, only silence. I can no more imagine congenital deafness than a nearsighted person can imagine blindness. Unlike people who have been deaf most of their lives, I have known, and still know, the sound of waves splashing, of symphonies playing, of children laughing. Thus, those most akin to me are the millions of fellow travelers anywhere on the slow voyage from sound to silence, from hearing to nonhearing. It is for them, and for those who love and wish to understand them, that I record my journey toward a silent world.

The Beat Goes On                                                                                                                                                                                             28 JUNE 1991

My twenty-one-year-old son Andy returns home from a weeklong visit with Seattle relatives. While chauffeuring his grandmother, he discovered a positive side to her deafness—he could play any music as loud as he wished. I chuckle at the image of my ultra-conservative eighty-one-year-old mother riding around Seattle with Led Zeppelin blaring from the car stereo. Then I reflect: Will he—or his child—someday drive me around to the beat of heavy-metal bands? Please, my child, make it Vivaldi.

    Remembering how my extended family had already welcomed my older son, Peter, on his successful move to Seattle, I ask: "Did they try to cajole you into moving there?"

    "Some of them did," I think I hear him say.

    "Some of them did?" I say.

    He gives me a blank look.

    "Some of them did?" I say again, hoping to confirm my understanding and to draw him out.

    Without ever answering, he and his mother exchange smirks. "I know what we need to get Dad for Christmas," he says, "one of those magic-slate writing boards, like the one grandmother has."

    Flushed with embarrassment and irritation, I drop the question.

Anxiety and Triumph                                                                                                                                                                                   27 AUGUST 1991

I have just returned from the American Psychological Association convention, where I delivered an invited lecture in a two-hour prime-time block. As I concluded, I dreaded the twenty-five-minute question-and-answer period with the large and responsive audience. Because the session was taped, I also had to repeat each question into the microphone—a can't-fool-'em hearing test.

    Bless my colleagues. Mature, confident people all, their booming voices carried to the front. With few problems, I heard and replied to all their questions.

    But today, the first day of class after a year-and-a-half leave from teaching, proves distressing. I enter the classroom wondering whether I will notice any hearing decline since my last semester of teaching. Before asking the thirty-five students in my first class to say their names, I disclose my impairment and ask them to make themselves heard by the people in the back row. That way, they'll hear, and I'll hear, too.

    In spite of my request, the diffident first student says her name softly. I apologize and ask her to repeat it. The next name I hear, but the following one I miss. One for three. Progressing through the other thirty-odd students, I bat no better than 50 percent. As my distress increases—my body tensing, perspiring—I find myself occasionally pretending that I hear, while desperately searching the class list for a name that sounds like the one I think I heard. I'm most assuredly not learning anyone's name. Nor do I need to, for I also take photos of the students and have them sign a sheet according to where they sat that day.

    The next hour I meet with a different group of students. What relief! This time, the first student does exactly as I request—turns and speaks clearly to the person farthest across the room. The second and third students emulate her example. I hear!

Another Way of Teaching?                                                                                                                                                                      5 SEPTEMBER 1991

Alas, during the several ensuing class sessions I sometimes discern students' comments, sometimes not. If it is imperative for me to hear and respond, I seek clarification. If I take the unheard comment to be intended for the whole class, I smile and nod, on the assumption that the speaker and the class have already benefited from the remark, even if I haven't. Why embarrass myself and take up their time by having the statement repeated just for me, when perhaps I still wouldn't hear it?

    More and more I find myself dreading class. I compare the stress of it, and the distraction of preparing for it, to the pleasure and significance of teaching through my textbooks for introductory and social psychology, whose success has been gratifying.

    Keeping up with the whole field of psychology for new editions every three years is nearly a full-time job, I tell myself. Why not make it full-time? What could be more fulfilling than helping teach this personally relevant discipline to several hundred thousand students a year? How many teachers are afforded a more stimulating challenge and meaningful responsibility? Leaving behind the stresses of classroom instruction would be not a retreat from teaching, but an affirmation of my teaching through writing. Who could ask for a more satisfying mission or avenue for creativity? How fortunate I am—I don't need to do my teaching live in a classroom, for I am blessed with a calling and a means of support that fuel my work outside the classroom.

    Or so I indulge myself in thinking after a stressful day in class. But no, insists Carol. It's important for your students—and for your writing—that you stay connected with people who represent the unseen ones you write for. It's also important for your family relationships, she remarks for the 273rd time, that you explore the new hearing technology.

Connection                                                                                                                                                                                    5 SEPTEMBER 1991 (Later)

"Only connect!" begins Henry Kisor's memoir of deafness (quoting E. M. Forster). "Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die." I cannot deny it. Several years ago I wrote, with Martin Bolt, a little book of social-psychological essays titled The Human Connection.

    So, today, I yield to the pleas and nagging of my family. I call the local ear, nose, and throat office and request, as Carol's internist has suggested, a referral to a "tertiary center." The receptionist can't imagine what I'm talking about. I explain—a place that evaluates patients and specializes in outfitting people with the latest in hearing technology.

    "How does that differ from what we do?" she asks. I feel as if I've just called a nearby restaurant and asked the hostess to refer me to a place to eat—a place that serves good food. The medical receptionist kindly says she'll check with the audiologist and call me back.

Waiting                                                                                                                                                                                                      5 NOVEMBER 1991

For nearly two months I hear nothing back. At least, though, I have my family off my back. After I made the call, the ball was in someone else's court. Until a couple days ago—when the audiologist finally returned my call and invited me to go in for a hearing evaluation.

    Today's testing reveals (in comparison with previous test records dating back twenty-five years) a further deterioration in the hearing in my left ear, but little change in the right ear. I hadn't realized that I have, relatively speaking, a bad ear and a better ear. Carol has been wanting me to explore the new programmable aids ever since reading about Ronald Reagan's. The audiologist, who concurs that I am a candidate for one, refers me to a Grand Rapids clinic. There, the next day I experience another round of testing and am fitted for an $1,100 instrument for my left ear.

Selective Amplification                                                                                                                                                                      21 NOVEMBER 1991

I return to Grand Rapids to receive the aid, which the audiologist programs. This, I'm told, is one of only 9,000 in-the-ear programmable aids in the nation.

    A computer, through wires attached to the aid, first generates and records sounds, automatically adjusting the aid's output in response to my ear's acoustical structure. I am given a hearing test recording my hearing threshold for each of thirteen frequencies. Finally, a check is performed to minimize feedback (the whistle sound that hearing aids sometimes make when covered). Then, at the touch of a button, the computer program is transferred to the microchip in my ear. The microphone goes on, amplifying sound selectively (rather like the graphic equalizer in a stereo) in response to my hearing loss at each frequency.

    Driving home, I find the "roar" of the car and the wind distracting. If this be hearing, give me silence! Even more distracting is the sound of my own voice. It's like talking with your head in a bucket. Or like having a bad sinus cold, which amplifies the resonance of your own voice. (Don't be shocked at this, say books on hearing loss: if things sound "unnatural" with a hearing aid, it's by comparison with the now impaired definition of "natural.")

    On the positive side, I must admit that I also hear better things I want to hear better. I turn down the car radio. At home, I hear the television at a lower volume—a fact that, by itself, would justify the $1,100 as far as Carol is concerned. (I also sometimes use a remote-hearing device that, by receiving an infrared signal from the television, allows me to dial my own volume, independent of the volume on the set.)

Adjustment and the "Earlid" Effect                                                                                                                                                       24 NOVEMBER 1991

I return for a follow-up appointment with the audiologist. After a week of using the hearing aid, I acknowledge that I can hear better, but lament the amplification of my own voice. Is that something I will adapt to, much as I've adapted to a new glasses prescription? Yes, it takes time, he says.

    And once I have adapted, might I then use the instrument selectively? When we were living in Scotland, it took months for driving on the left-hand side to become automatic. After it did, I feared that back in the United States I would have to readjust to driving on the right. But no—I retained my "schema" for driving on the right and had no problem, except for occasionally starting to get in on the wrong side of the car. When we revisit Scotland, I am still comfortable driving on the left.

    Might I similarly become comfortable both with and without the aid in my ear? I could use it when connecting—when teaching, in meetings, at home—and I could not use it when I was working in my office and wanted to shut out distracting noises. God saw fit to give us eyelids to shut out unwanted light but not earlids to banish unwanted sound. Are hearing-aided people, who can turn sound up or down, enjoying the closest approximation to earlids? (The Scottish biblical scholar-writer William Barclay noted, in Daily Readings with William Barclay (1973), the benefits of not hearing: "I am almost completely deaf. But this means I can sleep without trouble in a noisy hotel by a railway station! And I can concentrate far better on work and study for I have no distractions.... A handicap has its compensations.")

    Yes, you could try using the aid selectively, like an earlid, says the audiologist.

Hits, Misses, and Spousal Involvement                                                                                                                                               28 NOVEMBER 1991

After Thanksgiving dinner I mention to Carol that I think I hardly hear better with the aid—I miss as much as before. The arrival of the aid has hardly meant "here today, hear tomorrow." I am reminded of the man who expounded to a friend on the wonders of his new electronic hearing device. "That's wonderful!" replied the friend. "What kind is it?" Looking at his watch, the man said, "It's ten past two."

    Carol responds as the audiologist did: What you haven't previously heard you don't count as a "miss." (It's hard to notice the dog's not barking—the clue that enabled Sherlock Holmes, the only person who noticed, to solve the Silver Blaze case.) The spouse who says something and gets no response records a miss. The nonhearing person does not—but scores as "hits" things that are heard. Thus, the perceived hit-to-miss ratio is deceptively high for the hard of hearing.


What People are Saying About This

Mary Pipher

In shared affliction, there is great comfort. With this book, psychologist Dave Myers invites us into his life to share his experiences of hearing loss. He is the perfect guide to a quiet world. He is honest and aware of the difficulties, and yet optimistic and humorous as well. As Dave comes to grips with his hearing loss, he has a wry, engaging sympathy for himself and his family. This book educated me in the true sense of the word. I am a different person now, with new ways to behave when I am with loved ones who are facing hearing loss.
—(Mary Pipher, Author of Reviving Ophelia )

Mark Ross

A delight to read. The author's rich repository of anecdotes sensitizes the public to the impact of a partial hearing loss.
—(Mark Ross, University of Connecticut)

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