Hearing loss makes for an entertaining life

A little known fact about me is that I’m deaf in my right ear. I don’t run around telling people because I enjoy perpetuating the notion I’m ignoring them. Every one of them.

Not really. It makes more sense to notify people of my deafness on a need-to-know, case-by-case basis. Like when they’ve made the mistake of trying to whisper something into my deaf ear during church and I have to do a 180-degree turn to hear them.

My hearing loss is the result of an early life ear infection. No one realized it until I was five and one day precociously answered the phone before my parents could get to it. “Hello,” I said. Not hearing anyone, I instinctively switched the receiver to my left ear and there was the caller. “Mom!” I shrieked, sensing I’d become some kind of a freak.

This ushered in years of audiologist and hearing clinic visits, toward the ultimate conclusion I had sensorineural hearing loss, more commonly known as “nerve deafness.” It involves irreparable damage to the cochlea (inner ear) or auditory nerve.

My remaining inner ear died a slow death over those several years, resulting in occasional, severe equilibrium problems that induced vomiting and required lying motionless for hours until the episode passed. Had they continued, I would not have been able to drive a car.

The next eight years involved trips to the University of Michigan hospital, where I was eventually pronounced “cured” after performing brilliantly on a hearing test. Then my mother stole my thunder by pointing out that each successive intern who experimented on me had used the same tired words, “hotdog,” “baseball” and “football” (in that order!), for testing. I had simply memorized and parroted their routine. That was our last visit to Ann Arbor.

Dr. John “Joe” Schwartz provided the definitive diagnosis in his Battle Creek office. “She’s deaf. There’s nothing you can do about it except avoid being sold some kind of hearing device that won’t really help, anyway.”

Another doctor had wanted to outfit me with an expensive transmitter device that piped the sounds my left ear was hearing over to my right ear. I wasn’t quite sure what that was supposed to accomplish. Instead of hearing in stereo, I got identical sounds on both sides of my head. It felt unnatural and distorted.

I credit my parents for trying, but had I known then what I know now, I would have told them to save their money. It’s okay. Really. The inability to hear in stereo has been as much of a blessing as a curse. It allows me to more easily track and isolate sounds without the added input from a second ear. And I can get to sleep effortlessly anywhere by simply putting my “good ear” on the pillow and tuning out the world. Ignoring people is equally effortless.

Unfortunately, the world is not the only thing that gets tuned out. It’s hard to hold a conversation with the passengers in my car unless they are willing to shout. Dates regularly whispered sweet nothings into my deaf ear, so I’m sure I smiled and nodded at many inappropriate suggestions. When there’s loud music or a lot of background noise, I become auditorily overwhelmed. And sometimes I just hear things wrong, which leads to some interesting conversations.

My husband had the same thing happen to him the other day. On the way back from breakfast, I asked if he could do me a big favor when we got home: Check my coolant. Only he heard me say “colon.”

“What?!”  he gasped. “You’re kidding. Why can’t you do it yourself?”

“Your fingers are stronger and I can’t always get it open. And because you love me.” It was Valentine’s Day morning.

“You know, there are people who specialize in doing that kind of thing,” he countered.

“But why pay for something we can do ourselves?” I said, stymied by his reluctance.

“Okay,” he finally conceded. “Where do you want to do it?”

“Out in the driveway.”

Welcome to my deaf existence, a bewildering, yet entertaining world I’ve inhabited for years. There’s no place quite like it. There’s no place like home.


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