Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Into The Void Part 3 : Experimentation

My period of deafness lasted for about twelve years. For the latter period I was completely deaf, but before that there were nine or ten years when I had a small amount of residual hearing. For much of the time this simply allowed me to hear myself : but that was by far the most important ability. It is not too difficult to live without hearing others, it is pretty awful when you can't hear yourself. Your confidence in what you are saying - or what you imagine you are saying - begins to diminish, and slowly your speech takes on a flat and monotonal rhythm. During those years my search for the smallest possible improvement in my ability to hear was driven more by the need to keep hearing myself than the need to hear others. For me, speaking was more important than hearing which possibly says something about the condition of the human psyche or, in my case, suggests an inflated view of my own self-importance.
My search for the smallest possible improvement led me down some weird and wonderful paths. Tiring of the limitations of hearing aids - particularly in crowded places like pub tap-rooms - I discovered that the local audiology clinic still had a stock of ear trumpets which had lain unused in a storage cupboard for a generation or more. The expendable type with a long sound tube was perfect for an evening in the pub and I enthusiastically arranged to borrow one. I was never able to properly evaluate it as all of my friends refused to sit at the same table as me when I appeared with it. On another occasion I was introduced to a research team working at the local University which had been developing a new "sound awareness" device for people with little or no hearing. It was intended to make users aware of environmental noises such as door bells ringing, kettles boiling or telephones ringing. It was in the form of a kind of chunky wrist-watch which you strapped to your wrist. A microphone picked up sounds and generated small electric shocks which were supposed to create a tingling sensation in your wrist. I was given a prototype for a week to evaluate it. Either I was particularly sensitive to electric shocks or the sensitivity gauge had been set far too high : the result was that the slightest sound would send a wave of pain shooting up to my elbow. My arm would be forced into an involuntary spasm which gave the impression that I was giving a Nazi salute. People's natural reaction to such a performance by someone in their company was to break into nervous laughter. And of course the more they laughed the stronger the shock. Within no time at all I was running around like a maniac trying to turn the blasted thing off as my friends became convulsed with laughter.
I had endless tests to try and work out what was happening to my hearing. These involved everything from being spun in a chair whilst been made to count downwards from 100 in threes to having to drink large quantities of some gelatinous substance whilst lying perfectly still for eight hours. The nearest I ever got to a diagnosis was when a Consultant ENT surgeon came to my hospital bed one day and said that they now knew what I was suffering from - it was Burnett's Syndrome (he had managed to get a letter to the Lancet published about my case and suggested that the group of symptoms should be named after me).
The trumpets, shocks, pills and potions were, in reality, nothing more than diversions. The real scientific hope lay in the work being done on cochlear implants. A cochlear implant is an electronic device which artificially stimulates the cochlear thus producing the sensation of sound. It is made up of two parts : a surgically implanted internal system made up of a set of electrodes connected to the auditory nerves inside the cochlear, and an external microphone and speech processor. Sound is picked up by the microphone, turned into electrical impulses by the processor, transmitted via an inductive coupler to a receiver which has been implanted beneath the skin of the skull. The electronic pulses stimulate the auditory nerve giving an impression of sound. When I first went deaf implants were still in their very early stage of development and they were only able to give an awareness of noise or no noise. At this stage I still had some residual hearing and therefore this early generation of implants offered no improvement on what I had. But as the 1980s turned into the 1990s two things were happening. My residual hearing was slowly vanishing and reaching the point where anything was better than what I had. Secondly implant research and technological development was advancing at a pace which made you proud to be a human being.
I had the various tests to determine whether I was suitable for an implant. I went on the waiting list to have the operation. I nervously waited to see if my life was about to change.
I will take a day off for Theme Thursday tomorrow but return with the final part (or maybe parts) of the story later in the week.


  1. Alan - you have an avid fan here. Can't wait for the next episiode.

  2. "...led me down some weird and wonderful paths." You have such a healthy attitude about your experience. And a great writing style. Me, too. I'm hooked.

  3. I never thought about your voice patterns becoming monotone and flat. ...or that you wouldn't hear yourself talk. (of course you wouldn't, but it had never occurred to me before). I love your sense of humor ...and good for you to try all the things available that may have helped. With three boys with autism, we have tried many a 'cure' that was wild and crazy, too. But you feel you have to give everything a try "just in case". Can't wait for the next chapter! :)

  4. I'm with the others--this is just top-notch writing, & I heartily concur with Willow about your healthy attitude. Will be looking for the next installment.

  5. Alan - this is a great insight in to something that I have never really given much thought before. You have a great way with words and a wonderful sense of humour.. Thank you

  6. I have thought about the old ear trumpets and wondered if they worked well. Seems like they would if you were not completely deaf. Had I ever run across one, I would have bought it for my dad. He eventually became pretty deaf, not totally, by the time he died @ 97 but he would have LOVED using an ear trumpet. #1 It would have been shocking to anyone around him.
    #2 It would have taken him back to the "old days".

    The electric shock reaction you describe makes me think of Peter Sellars' Nazi character in "Dr. Strangelove." You too?

    Now I have to wait to find out the rest of the story.