Sometimes I find myself just listening -- to real laughter a block away, to actual trucks going by.
Starting our fourth decade: Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously online for 30 years

Hearing Aid
The hearing aids I am now wearing are unobtrusive and comfortable. They even have Bluetooth two-way communications built in.

Sounds that won't go away, Part 2

With a reader comment

If you or someone you know has tinnitus, check out The American Tinnitus Association, which provides valuable resources to treat and manage tinnitus.

March 2, 2014

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2014, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2014, The Post-Standard

This is a followup to last week's column on an event that changed my life. That article is at www.technofileonline.com/texts/tec022314.html.

The explosion that left me with tinnitus in 1967 also took something away. It robbed me of much of my hearing.

Technically, hearing loss is not a necessary corollary of tinnitus. Some tinnitus sufferers have perfectly good hearing -- except, of course, for the continuous noises they hear in their private world, sounds they cannot share with anyone else.

But the artillery explosion was so loud and so sudden that my ears could not protect themselves. Normally, loud sounds that build up gradually, like a siren on an ambulance heading your way, are handled easily; your ears clamp down internally. But sounds that are both extremely loud and very sudden get past your ears' built-in sentries. The result can be permanent damage. That's what happened to me.

In the decades after I was wounded, I knew I couldn't hear well, so I faked it. I read lips when possible or just nodded. But in the past year I came to realize I couldn't fake it any more. Conversing with me was like talking to the dog. Or the wall. If I couldn't see you, I couldn't do my lip-reading trick, so I'd understand only half of what you said. Maybe less. As my wife says, maybe a lot less.

I had my hearing tested at the local Veterans Administration Hospital. The audiologist confirmed everything I already suspected. I couldn't clearly hear most of the sounds around me. And nearly all the sounds I actually thought I was hearing weren't sounds at all; they were phantoms generated in my damaged hearing apparatus.

The audiologist's solution was the last thing I wanted. Hey, I was a guy. Macho guy, maybe. If you want to look old, if you want people who meet you for the first time to lean forward and shout at you, then you give up your pride, admit defeat and stick something in your ear. Permanently.

But not being able to make sense of the world around me and hiding away because I couldn't converse with others left me with no choice. I gave in.

The hearing aids the VA got for me are small, almost hidden, with a one-week battery life -- replacement batteries are free, as were the hearing aids themselves -- and they're very comfortable. Most of the time I literally cannot tell they are there.

They're Bluetooth models, too: I can talk on the phone using my hearing aids as wireless headsets and I can even listen to my iPods and other music players wirelessly. That's cool. I'm a techie, and this sort of thing warms the circuits of my heart.

Let me tell you about the second best feature: My hearing aids restored all those little sounds I'd stopped hearing decades ago. Paper is rustling again. I can hear Nancy whispering. Brian Williams doesn't need to talk louder any more; NBC Nightly News is enjoyable again. Rain makes little pitter-patters now. I'd forgotten that there's a swirling sound when I pour my coffee.

Now to the best feature. One way of dealing with tinnitus is to cover those baked-in sounds with louder sounds, real ones. My new hearing aids have started to do just that. I'm in a world of joy. Those hellish phantom noises are still there, still clanging and roaring, but sometimes they're almost covered up by everything going on around me. It's not constant relief or even reliable part-time relief. But anything that can mask my nightmare in the slightest way is a blessing, even if it's only temporary. For that I thank God and Starkey Products of Minnesota, which designed and made my hearing aids.

Sometimes I find myself just listening -- to real laughter a block away, to actual trucks going by. My parrot has a favorite bell hanging in his cage. He rings his bell every morning to tell me he's awake. I never noticed it before. It's become a symbol to me.

I listen for it each day now.

Comment from Tom Andrews:

My grandmother had a hearing loss. As I recall, it was the result of a childhood illness. I just remember that she wore a hearing aid as far back as I can remember her.

I can dimly remember the one she wore when I was a kid, an earpiece connected by cable to a device about the size and shape of a smartphone. All of her dresses and blouses had to have a pocket to hold it, so she could hear. I remember that she was really happy to get one that would tuck behind her ear, much like the one in the photo with your column, but bigger I'm sure. She had several of those over the years, battery hogs that needed frequent adjustment to control feedback.

Most of the time I didn't think about her hearing "disability." It was just a part of her, like...her left elbow. I don't recall raising my voice to speak to her unless she indicated she hadn't heard me, but I supposed I could have been doing it subconsciously. I don't remember anybody else in the family doing so, either.

Thing is, she didn't let it stop her from doing what she wanted to do, or even slow her down very much. It was a small part of who she was - it didn't define her. She had no problem wearing her hearing aid in public - it was no different than wearing glasses to help her see better, or a coat to keep her warm. She didn't look for special treatment, and might bristle a bit if it was offered. (Well, not so much from family.) She was who she was, an independent woman for years before it became popular.

She was one of the strongest people I have ever known.

My grandmother had a hearing loss, my grandfather walked with a pronounced limp. They lost their first child at the age of about six months. Despite that, they survived The Great Depression and World War II with less trouble than many "normal" folks today seem to have with their daily lives.

Growing up in the upstairs apartment of my grandparents' house let me see how they dealt with those "shortcomings" for myself. I could see that it's true - what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.