Do You Hear What I Hear?

Grace and I were watching The Voice the other day. She loves that show. During one of the performances, she saw me wince. “Why’d you do that, mom?” she asked.

“Because,” I said, “He missed a note.”

After a pause, she whispered to me, like she was letting me in on a little secret, “I can’t hear the difference.”

“Well,” I said. “Even though you can hear the difference between notes that are further apart, your CIs don’t let you hear the differences at smaller intervals. So if he’s off by a half-note, you can’t tell.”

It was a reminder that she hears differently.

We are both hearing impaired. About five years ago, I was driving the girls home from school. It was autumn, when my allergies are worst. As we headed up a steep hill, I felt a sudden clog and pop in my right ear, and felt the kind of pressure pain you sometimes get on a plane. I was already stuffed up, and my first thought was that the strangeness in my ear was related to my sinuses, my allergies.

All day, my ear throbbed, and I had a lot of trouble hearing on that side. When I lay down to go to bed, the pressure got worse and I swear I could hear the blood pulsing through my head.  I felt awful for days. Sounds were terribly muted, as if I had cotton stuffed in my ear. Then, three days after the right ear went, the same thing happened to my left one.

I finally went to the doctor. The physician’s assistant said it didn’t look like I had an ear infection, but she gave me a mild antibiotic anyway. It didn’t help. I made an appointment with an ENT. By now, the pain had subsided, as had the disconcerting whooshing pulse every time I lay down. My biggest complaint, the one I wrote down first on the form where it asked me to “describe what brings you in today” was the “stuffiness” I felt in both ears. That cottony thing, followed closely by an incessant high-pitched ringing.

The nurse looked in my ears. He asked me to describe what was going on. He asked how long I’d been experiencing my symptoms. And then he took me into a sound booth, where an audiologist ran a hearing test.

When the doctor came in to see me, I immediately brought up the incredibly annoying sensation of stuffiness I felt in both ears. And the ringing. He cut me off.

“You have a more serious problem here,” he said. “You have a significant hearing loss in both ears.”

I knew all about audiograms. I had seen dozens of them, interpreted and explained, throughout the course of Grace’s life. My own audiogram depicted a moderate hearing loss on both sides, at about 40dbs.

“Maybe if we can get this stuffiness to go away…?” I asked.

But what he believed was that the stuffiness I was describing was caused BY the hearing loss, not the other way around. He said he didn’t know what had caused me to lose hearing suddenly, but that his best guess was that it was a virus. The ringing (called tinnitus) I had in both ears now was also a result of the hearing loss. He said that he thought the damage was permanent.

Eventually, I was fitted for hearing aids. They help a lot. But I have a love-hate relationship with them. They make my own voice sound canned, so that it perpetually echoes. I can’t hug someone when I’m wearing hearing aids without the crackle of static interfering. Sometimes the ear buds irritate my ears and they become sore and itchy. But at least I can hear better with them, and at least they help with the tinnitus.

Losing some of my hearing has been a little weird. Not as scary as it might have been if I hadn’t experienced hearing loss with Grace. People automatically assume that my own hearing loss is related to Grace’s, although, as far as we can tell, it’s coincidental. Hers is caused by a recessive genetic difference, mine isn't. Soon after I got my hearing aids, I went to a birthday party for my good friend M. She came over to me shaking her head. She said some of her friends had asked why I was wearing hearing aids. After she'd explained to them what had happened, one of them said, “Oh, we thought maybe it was to show solidarity with Grace.” I guess they had no idea how expensive hearing aids are, and how difficult it is, virtually impossible really, to get insurance to cover them.

Losing my hearing has made me appreciate how frustrating it can be to have to ask people to repeat themselves, often three or four times, before the smudged edges around their words get sharp enough for me to make out what they're saying.

When Grace was in second or third grade, she had a speech-language pathologist at school who had become frustrated by Grace’s tendency to nod and say she’d heard something when in fact she hadn’t. The SLP kept trying to get Grace to advocate for herself, to speak up when she’d missed something. We worked together to come up with new solutions to encourage Grace to do this. But it is only now that I often miss things people say myself that I realize just how difficult it is to bring yourself to ask someone to repeat what they’ve said. Over and over again. Just this morning, for instance, I heard Kali calling from her room upstairs, “Mom, can I __ oh __??”

“What?” I call back.

“Can I __oh __uh __s??”

I move closer to the foot of the stairs.

“I’m sorry, honey, one more time?”


I understand now Grace’s tendency to just let it go and not ask for repetitions.

Our exchange on the couch in front of the TV was a reminder to me that although we both hear less than other people, we also hear differently from one another. I haven’t lost the ability to discern tiny differences in pitch. I’ve just lost a degree of hearing, especially at the higher frequencies. Kali, who has a higher, softer voice than Grace, is hardest for me to understand. Television is also challenging. Grace who, with her implants on, hears better in many ways than I do without my hearing aids, can’t make out the difference between a C and a C-sharp. And sometimes she hears something, like a leaf-blower outside, or water running in another room, and says, “What the heck is that noise?” She has no idea what is causing it. The sound itself just doesn’t make sense to her.

She told me recently that in all of her dreams, she can hear without her processors on, just like everyone else. I told her that I just had a dream in which I heard her singing in her room, beautifully and with perfect pitch. In reality, neither of those things will ever happen. It doesn’t seem to interfere with her love of The Voice, though, even if she'll never be a contestant on that stage.