My first run – Starting to feel normal again

Six months after experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss in my left ear I decided I was ready to go for a run. My body had been through a lot during the past few months. The hearing loss had been a shock. I had felt frightened and helpless. My body had felt like a vessel used for experimentation; exploring the effects of different types of drugs on my condition: anti-inflammatories, nasal sprays, intravenous steroids, intravenous anti-viral medication, injections of steroids through my ear drum and different types of vasodilators. My body had felt delicate and vulnerable; I had experienced side effects of weakness, loss of weight, low blood pressure, tiredness and dizziness. But enough was enough; I wanted to start to feel more normal again. I love running. Running always makes me feel happy. It makes me feel strong. It is also a time where I can completely forget about any worries or unwanted thoughts. I wanted to switch off from the recent past.

I had asked my chiropractor, the week before, as to whether he would recommend that I start running again. I remembered that, when I first met him, nearly 4 months ago, he had asked about what kind of exercise I did. Due to the problems I was having with my neck, he had encouraged me to take a rest from running until my neck was feeling better. At this time, I was also dizzy and taking medicine that my body was struggling with, and so didn’t feel strong enough to able to go running anyway. Yet now I wasn’t too dizzy and I wanted to feel stronger. I missed running and thought it might help cheer me up, and help me on my road to recovery. It was also another thing that I would be able to do for the first time with unilateral hearing – another experience to say I have tried, since living with single-sided deafness.

I waited for a few days after visiting my chiropractor, to go for my run. I wanted my first run to be on a sunny day. I wanted my first run to be a good run. I wanted to wake up, see the sunshine, and be spurred on by the beautiful Madrid weather, to go outside and have a go! I did exactly that. I had checked the weather forecast beforehand and it was going to be a nice day. I got out of bed when my boyfriend had left for work, and I rushed to the window. The sun was shining optimistically in the sky, and I decided today was the day.

Putting on my running clothes, I noticed how my body had changed since I had last worn them in the summer before I lost my hearing. My legs were thinner and my bottom was flatter and my stomach looked small and weak.

I walked briskly for 15 minutes to the nearby running track. It is difficult to run on the streets of Madrid as there are always lots of people around, even during the daytime. I didn’t want to feel vulnerable whilst stuck in the traffic of people. I enjoyed the sun, and breathed the air; taking strong breaths to fill my lungs. I find that when I go running, I realize what a small part of my lungs I actually use during everyday activity. Shallow breathing is a habit of mine, as I am sure it is for many people. It’s almost like we forget to breathe, and it’s actually quite an effort to fill your lungs with every breath, when you’re not used to doing it.

When I got to the track, I was surprised at how many people were there enjoying their morning exercise. I immediately started to run; making sure I was moving slowly and focusing on keeping my shoulders slightly back and good posture. I was listening to a storytelling podcast though my running earphones. I didn’t pay attention to the noise of the tinnitus in my ear that resounds with increased stubbornness when the sounds of the outside world are blocked by ear phones. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that I could only hear the story in my right ear. I was purely happy. I was running in the sunshine, enjoying listening to stories. I was feeling normal again.

The only time I thought about my hearing loss and the pressure and tinnitus in my ear, was when I actually realized that I hadn’t thought of these problems.  So the only time I thought about these issues was actually thinking about the absence of thinking of them! Exercise is well known to be a distraction from life’s worries. This was my proof. My first time running with unilateral hearing was a success.

I sent my sister a message later that day, telling her about my achievement. She replied and wrote that she was so glad that I had been for a run and that I was ‘getting my Carlyness back’ 🙂

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Day four with my new ear

My boyfriend and I had planned to go to Cercedilla, a nearby mountainous town, an hour from Madrid by train. It is a beautiful town surrounded by nature, and is a perfect place for hiking. We were going there for the day to escape the busyness and noise of the city, and to enjoy a gentle walk in the mountains.

It was day four of wearing my hearing aid. I had already tested out my new ear whilst watching television and whilst walking outside. I was going to use this opportunity to try my new ear in some other, more challenging, situations; the Metro and on a train.

The first test was the Metro. I was standing with my boyfriend on the platform waiting for the train to arrive. Since losing the hearing in my left ear, and gaining a sensitivity to sound, the noise of the Metro approaching the platform can feel painful and unpleasant. I can feel it piercing deep inside my ears. Whilst wearing the hearing aid, this uncomfortable feeling was accentuated and my immediate reaction was to try and cover both ears with my hands in an attempt to soften the noise. When the train was approaching, a guy came to ask us for something. He was speaking to us and making animated gestures with his body. The noise of the train and his voice were processed by my hearing aid and were turned into a harsh series of beeps. I couldn’t understand what the person was saying. Every word he spoke made a metallic beeping sound when it reached my new ear. My boyfriend explained later to me that the guy had first spoken in Spanish. My boyfriend hadn’t understood the guy and had told him he was English; he hadn’t wanted to encourage conversation with the seemingly unsavoury character. The guy then replied in English, expressing to my boyfriend that he wanted to go to a café. I hadn’t comprehended any of this small exchange of words. I hadn’t even realized that the unusual character had spoken in two different languages. All the sounds of the Metro station were amplified in my new ear; the bell sound to signal the train approaching and the screeching noise of the decelerating train. My new ear was supposed to be helping me to hear better in the presence of background noise. This was not the case. The amplification of sounds and the accompanied beeping noises were dominating my listening skills, which in turn was distorting and obstructing the understanding of my good ear. Normally, without any hearing aid, I could have moved closer to the guy who came to speak to us and put my good ear next to him. I would have been able to hear some of what he was saying. The hearing aid had actually hindered any chance I had of following the conversation. I felt a momentary sense of deflation crushing me. Confusingly however, I also felt some optimism. Although the metallic noises I was hearing in my new ear weren’t actual words and although they were distorted and difficult, it was still comforting to hear something; anything in my deaf ear.

Whilst sitting on the Metro I also noticed something positive. I was sat next to a girl who was sitting on my deaf side. She was talking to her friend who was standing up next to her. Normally everything would fall into silence on my deaf side on the Metro, and I would be oblivious to the world to the left of me unless I turned my head to see the activity. But this time, with my new ear, I was faintly aware that the two girls were speaking. Although I couldn’t hear any helpful letter sounds or words, I was hearing a slight beep for each syllable they were speaking.

The second test was the train station. On entering the train station I simultaneously entered my bubble of noise. Noises of train announcements and the chatter of people merged together. In large covered spaces with many sources of noise, the sounds seem to bounce off one another and encircle me; forcing me into my bubble. It is a bubble of misunderstanding and bewilderment. It is a bubble of pressure that dominates the inside of my head and ears. It is a bubble of isolation. My new ear was supposed to be helping me to hear better in the presence of background noise. Again, this was not the case.

As to be expected, the train was also bustling with the chatter of adults, and with the weekend excitement of children’s voices. On the train I opened the battery compartment of my hearing aid on my deaf side, so as to stop my new ear picking up the train noise. I decided that I would prefer my left ear to be in its world of deafness; ignorant to the bustle that surrounded it. I played music from my iPod into my good ear. It was a beautiful sunny day. I’d been avoiding wearing earphones. I’d been avoiding music. It had previously felt too intense in my good ear. But on this day, above all the chatter and train noise, it felt amazing to be listening to music in my little world. On this day, although the tests of my new ear had proved somewhat disappointing, my body was showing me that it was starting to adjust to my unilateral hearing. Being able to listen to music for a short time without too much discomfort was a small but wonderful improvement. It was some encouragement. Small triumphs were spurring me on. During the train ride, with my music playing and the sun shining, and with my view of Spanish countryside whizzing past my window, I was holding back little tears of contentment.

Sounds of Madrid

There are days where my unilateral hearing can make me feel so vulnerable. Going outside can be such a challenge, and one that I have to mentally prepare myself for every day. I live in a city, and as soon as I open the apartment block door, I walk out into a mess of noise. Loud deep roars of traffic and the chatter of people forces me into a bubble of isolation. When I am surrounded by sound I cannot sense when there is something approaching my deaf side. I do not realize when someone is walking next to me, or if a bike or car is about to pass me by. When there are background noises, it is difficult for me to focus on conversation; I can’t hear individual sounds clearly, and my ear and head fill with pressure from the sounds, which also adds to the difficulty in understanding speech. If I am outside by myself, I try to keep my deaf ear to the wall, or next to the traffic, so that my good ear has a better chance at hearing noises of significance. When I’m outside with my boyfriend or friends, I have to keep them on my hearing side, and find myself constantly looking at them, to check if they have said something to me.

Traveling on the metro is uncomfortable. The loudness of the train approaching and the screech as it nears the platform can be almost unbearable. Once on the train, there is a bell sound and an announcement of each stop. This bell can be piercingly loud. Before arriving to a station, a recorded announcement says: “Próxima estación [name], correspondencia con línea [number]”: “Next station [name], transfer with line [number]”. Some metro lines have announcements to mind the gap between the train and the platform. Some trains have a whistle sound when the doors close. The metro is a challenging bombardment of sounds. I worry when I’m traveling alone that people might talk to me, and I won’t be able to hear them, or even worse, not even realize they are speaking to me, if they are on my deaf side. They don’t know I can’t hear them. I always worry about seeming rude if I don’t respond to people.

Madrid is a city that is bursting with the music of performers and entertainers. Every part of the city has its own soundtrack. People hop on and off of metro trains; wheeling their portable amplifiers, and various instruments: panpipes, guitars, violins, even miniature pianos. In metro stations, and in fact anywhere in the city, you might encounter a man playing his violin to the soundtrack of Titanic. You might encounter someone playing drums, made of pots and pans or other recycled materials, to a fast backing track beat. You might encounter another violinist, this time without a backing track, and passionately playing a well-known piece of classical music. You might encounter guitarists strumming guitars wildly and singing with raw passion. When walking into town, you can hear a Spanish guy sitting on the side of the street playing his guitar, singing Bob Marley songs in his own unique style; short high-pitched staccato sounds.

This intrinsic creativity, that is present in every part of Madrid, is enchanting. But it is also something that now presents me with a challenge. Now I am trying to enjoy the sounds of Madrid again. Now I am trying not to focus on the tinnitus that the loud sounds of music can bring, and not to focus on the perpetual worry of missing a strangers words. Instead I want to focus on learning to enjoy this wonderfully noisy city that I live, and that I am trying to love again.

The first time… Part 2: being brave and feeling proud

When I first experienced my hearing loss, I couldn’t contemplate doing normal things such as going to a bar; which is a big part of the culture of Spain, where I live. I remember walking around the city, watching people spilling out of bars chatting sociably, and wondering if I would ever be able to feel comfortable again in this kind of animated environment; alive with noise. Then one day my best friend invited me to go to a bar where she was exhibiting some of her photos. I didn’t want to say no. I didn’t want to let her down. I wanted to see her, and her photos. So, the first time I went to a bar, with unilateral hearing, was to see my friend’s exhibition. Of course it was going to be noisy, and I was mentally prepared for this. When we arrived, I immediately submerged myself in the sounds of vibrant conversation.  I managed to communicate with everyone and listened to them by tilting my head and making sure my good ear was facing them. Although it was exhausting and my tinnitus was ringing aggressively, I was really proud of myself for confronting such a challenging situation.

The first time I went, with unilateral hearing, for a haircut, I was so nervous. I knew the salon would be noisy and I knew the hairdresser would want to chat with me. I didn’t want her to think I was being rude if I failed to respond to her during conversation. So when I was sat on the chair explaining to her what I’d like to have done with my hair, I also told her that I was deaf in my left ear. She barely had a response, apart from saying “OK” and giving me a smile.  As she was cutting my hair she sometimes spoke to me on my deaf side. When she was blow-drying my hair, it was impossible for me to hear her, and she continued chatting happily. I could see her mouth moving in the mirror, but didn’t know how to answer her. Yet she didn’t seem to be phased. I guess hairdressers see so many different people every day, with so many issues, and learn to take it in their stride.

I love eating out in restaurants; in fact it’s one of my favourite things. If I go to eat in a restaurant however, there are only a few tables that are accommodating to my needs. The best table for me is one that is in a corner, with a chair situated in a position that will allow my deaf ear to face a wall, and my good ear to face the direction of any possible conversation. The worst positions are: at a table in the middle of a room; sitting with my back to where the waiter will approach; and anywhere where my deaf ear is directed towards the waiter – This will result in me jumping up in my chair in surprise as I turn to unwittingly see a waiter standing next to me, who I hadn’t sensed was there.  The first time I went for a meal in a restaurant, with my unilateral hearing, was when my boyfriend’s sister came to visit. We went to a Thai restaurant on a weekday, and earlier than the average Spanish person eats. The restaurant was almost empty and I managed to get a good position at a table. Although there was very little noise from people talking, I found the Thai music that was being played, a distraction. My good ear struggled to filter out the music and it was difficult to focus on conversation. It was quite a difficult experience, in terms of my hearing related problems and communicating. But I was really proud of myself for going, and it was worth the struggle, to have the experience of eating Thai food in a restaurant.

Every time I did something for the first time, I gained a bit of confidence. Things weren’t easy and often weren’t pleasant, but every day I was trying to do something ‘normal’. I was positive I would be able to enjoy things again. I just needed to familiarize my body with the new experiences and learn strategies to deal with any new issues. My life was still going to be full of experiences; it was just going to be a bit different.

The first time… Part 1

My life became a collection of firsts. I was doing normal everyday things, yet for the first time with unilateral hearing. Normal things became new experiences. Simple tasks became difficult missions.

I began with attempting basic activities; ones that I hoped would prove not to be too noisy or tiring. My boyfriend and I tried to think of quiet things to do in the city where we live. We would go on short walks around the city or spend time in a park. The park became one of my favourite places. In the park, there were no immediate sounds of traffic, only the occasional muffle of cars in the distance. The gentle chatter of people in the open air proved a helpful distraction and assisted in drowning out my tinnitus. It felt relaxing to be in an open space. However, in order to get to the park, I had to first walk through the city. Opening the front door of our apartment building unlocked a world of noise. Going outside meant putting myself in a position where I felt physically uncomfortable from the pressure that filled my ear and head when I am surrounded by sounds. It would have been much easier to stay in the comfort of my own home, where I could control the sounds that surrounded me. But I enjoy doing things. I enjoy going out and exploring the city. I’m young, and I didn’t want to hide in our apartment. It was just going to take some time getting used to the new challenges I would be facing.

We started to go to more art and photography exhibitions. Often, when they were quiet, and there was space to move leisurely from painting to painting, a gallery was an untroubling and almost a soothing place to be. However, I realized that even galleries could present me with a challenge. One of the first exhibitions I went to was a photography exhibition. I had been looking forward to it. I had seen it advertised and we went on one of the first days of opening: this should have been a clue to the overcrowded environment that would await us. As we entered the room, we were surrounded by beautiful photos that had been in the world’s newspapers. Yet we were also surrounded by people. The photos were displayed on walls; either side of a narrow space that curved round in an arch, back to the entrance. There was hardly any space between each person, and everyone was shuffling around the small area, waiting to view the next photo. Everybody was talking. I could almost feel the voices bouncing from wall to wall. The sound had nowhere to go and was confined to the small densely populated space.  This experience left me feeling exhausted, disorientated and deflated.

Then there were the trips to the supermarket. These proved to be really difficult, and still continue to challenge me. There is an intensity of sounds in a supermarket that I had previously been unconcerned with. There’s a loud fan for the oven where they make the bread. There are people speaking over the PA system. There is supermarket music and people talking. In the supermarket, it is very difficult to filter all the background noise and I cannot focus well if someone is speaking to me. In the supermarket, there are the random people who always choose to speak to me: the old man who wants to talk about what kind of bread I’m buying and then starts to tell me about his son who is living in England; or the lady who’s asking for my help to find where the cleaning products are. These interactions are a challenge.  I can’t hear what the person at the checkout is saying to me. I have learnt that usually they are asking how many bags I need; if I am playing by cash or card; or if I have a store points card. I have learnt to just ask them to repeat themselves, if I don’t know what has been said to me. Then, if I really can’t hear what they have said to me, I just give them a smile. As I am English and living in Spain, and still in the process of learning the language, perhaps my lack of hearing is often disguised as a lack of understanding.

Every day I was learning new ways to tackle the issues that I was now facing as a result of my hearing loss. Every day I was going outside into a world of noise, and trying to continue to experience life as much as possible.