Following my blogpost the other day where I described hearing Gerry Mulligan play just a few months before my deafness descended, a number of people have asked about that phase in my life : what it was like to lose my hearing and what it was like - after being fitted with a cochlear implant - to "hear" again. I will try and describe my own experiences of both stepping into the void of deafness and escaping from it again.
When the deafness came some twenty-five years ago, it was neither sudden nor unexpected. I had been deaf in one ear for as long as I could remember. It wasn't discovered until I was about nine years old and I remember being fairly surprised about the diagnosis. I had always assumed that everyone could only hear with one ear (we only have one nose after all) and that the other one - in my case the left one - was some vestigial organ which had been left there for balance. It is relatively easy to adapt to being deaf in one ear - as long as you always position yourself in the right place and keep people you want to hear to your "good" side and people you want to ignore to your "bad" side, life can go on without too much trouble. And so it did for the next twenty or so years.
Things began to change when I was in my mid-thirties. What had been a static condition suddenly became active and the auditory symptoms began to affect my life in a number of ways, some of them quite bizarre. I developed tinnitus (noises in the ear unrelated to any external stimulus). At first I refused to believe that these were not "real sounds". We were living in Sheffield at the time and one night I was kept awake by the sound of the forging hammers at the steelworks down in the valley. I had started to write a letter of complaint to the Council when Isobel told me that she couldn't hear the noises and what is more the steelworks had closed down the year before. I had periods when I had acute frequency distortions : an ability to hear noises at one frequency (in my case, low) whilst not being able to hear noises at a higher frequency. I remember driving home from work one day listening to a play on the radio. It was one of those annoying "modern" plays that was made up of a series of disjointed soliloquies by a loan male actor. Or so I thought. It turned out to be a completely normal little kitchen sink drama, it was just that I could not hear the female character.
I turned to the doctors to try and understand what was happening. I was fairly lucky, Isobel was a junior doctor at the time, and there was no shortage of people to prod and poke me in order to try and give me a diagnosis. But nobody knew. The various symptoms would come and go and vary in severity. Each day I would awake with a degree of trepidation not knowing what I would, or wouldn't hear. One Christmas we went away on holiday. My brother lived in the British Virgin Islands and was about to get married and I was to be the Best Man. We flew out to the Caribbean taking a route that minimised the cost but seemed to maximise the inconvenience, changing planes at least four times. During the holiday the variations, distortions and deafnesses seemed to peak and I put it down to the heat and the humidity. We flew home in the new year and I prepared to return to work the following day. On the Monday morning when I awoke I couldn't hear anything, but I had suffered from short periods of deafness before, it was almost as though it took my ear time to wake up some mornings. Driving to work I kept checking : turning the radio and cassette player on to check whether I could hear. After driving for nearly an hour without even being able to hear the car engine I pulled over off the road. I realised that this time was different, this time it would not click back. I turned the car around and went home. I had gone deaf.