Monday, 16 April 2012

On Being Deaf

Confession. I'm not actually deaf. I can function like most people, hear what I need to hear and rarely get caught out. If I had to put a figure on it, I'd say I'm about 70% deaf. My right ear is completely useless; that's 50% right there. If I bash it with a saucepan or stick the radio on it at full volume, it can pick up some sounds, but I'm essentially reliant on my left ear - the remaining 30%, if my maths isn't awry - which was failing long before my right packed in.

I'd had a problem with tinnitus about 10 years ago. This condition, as most people know, is characterised by an incessant variety of blips, cracks and ringing sounds which can deprive beleaguered victims of sleep and sanity. The causes are disputed, but my specialist told me that when your hearing starts to fail, your body starts 'reaching' for sound - something to do with an atavistic self-preservation instinct; we need to hear if we're being chased/stalked/about to be attacked, an essential skill if you insist on going to Arsenal wearing a Spurs shirt, for example - and instead starts picking up the many and various electrical sounds your body makes which we normally screen out. The solutions include listening to other sounds, especially at night, so that the body focuses on them rather than the tinnitus, and improving your hearing by using hearing aids. I tried everything, but couldn't get on with hearing aids - frankly, I wasn't prepared to accept that I needed them at my relatively young age - and eventually learned to screen the maddening noises out by sheer force of will.

Then, about 6 years ago, my right ear - my better ear at that time - closed for business. One minute I could hear, the next I was deaf. Sudden deafness, it's called, and nobody knows what causes it. Theories range from bangs on the head to viruses. My GP thought it was an ear infection and gave me some drops. Panicked when the hearing didn't improve, I went to see another GP at the practice who prescribed different drops. Valuable time was being lost but I didn't know it. The condition can be ameliorated - partially or fully - provided you act fast. Nearly a week after the hearing failed, I saw a specialist who put me on steroids and, thankfully, my hearing returned. It wasn't as clear or mellow as before, but I'd have settled for it. But, after two years of the hearing coming and going, it finally went, leaving me to stumble on with only a dodgy left ear.

The problem for those with unilateral hearing loss is that you can't tell where sound is coming from. As far as I'm concerned, it's all coming from my left, which can be a problem when I'm crossing the road or trying to deal with a heckler in a comedy club (I'm a stand-up, in case you didn't know). On one occasion in a God-forsaken club in Preston, I lashed out at a woman who was utterly blameless. Poor love. Sorry again, by the way.

But deafness is no joke. I suppose I will have next to no hearing by the time I'm 70 and that's a scary prospect. At the moment, hearing aids help a bit (I use a CROS system which means noise on my right side is transferred to my left hearing aid). They help me hear films and the telly, and I can use them in social situations albeit, with all the noise clattering into one ear, it can be difficult to pick up conversation. This can be a blessing, of course, enabling me to screen crashing bores out if I need to. There are other advantages. Cocking a deaf'n becomes easier to justify. My wife yelling something from three floors up can be safely ignored; my kids asking where my wallet is, likewise. Well I can't bloody hear, can I? But it's a bastard most of the time. As mentioned, doing stand-up as a partially deaf man can be hazardous; trying to pick up people speaking in hushed tones - as they often do in the studios where I do voice overs - leaving me craning and guessing how to respond; in shops when they ask me for ten pounds and I hand them a fiver (nothing to do with the deafness, that). Many's the time I've nodded when I should have shaken my head, or gone off at some irrelevant tangent, leaving my inquisitors utterly baffled. I find myself concentrating intently on people's lips, which helps make sense of some of the sounds I'm missing, but probably makes them think I'm being a bit weird.

Most of the time I don't wear my aids. Luckily, I work alone in coffee bars during the day - most of the time - and don't need them. Yet, miraculously, I can still hear American teenage girls talking, like, shit? five tables away as if they're bellowing in my ear. And I can always hear annoying three year olds running wild while their parents assume everyone finds their offspring as charming as they do. That kind of shit is audible. It's the finer points of hearing I miss out on. The sharply delivered quip, the whispered response, the tones and shades of good music. Hopeless.

The only thing I can hear in my right ear is that Jumbo jet taking off 24 hours a day. Yes, deaf as a doornail, but lumbered with deafening tinnitus. Great, eh? There are innovations in the pipeline, and a cochlear implant might restore some of what I've lost, but I don't hold out much hope. Learning to live with it is probably the way forward.


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