Living with Single-Sided Deafness

I lost the hearing in my left ear through sudden hearing loss in August 2016. There wasn’t a known cause for my hearing loss, I wasn’t feeling ill and I didn’t have an infection. One day the world to the left of me just fell into silence. The hearing loss was profound which means I have no functional hearing in my left ear, and for just over two and a half years I have been living my life with single-sided deafness (SSD).

People with SSD are able to hear through their ‘good’ ear, yet have a profound hearing loss in their other. I am thankful that I am able to hear with my right ear, yet living with SSD comes with its challenges.

Sound localisation is a skill enabled by having two working ears, and so with only one hearing ear, I have no idea where sound is coming from. I might hear some music or a noise, but I don’t know which way to look to see what has produced the sound. Trying to find a mobile phone that is ringing results in me wandering hopelessly around my apartment with my ‘good’ ear leading the way and looking to see if I can spot it, usually ending up back where I started and realising the phone had been next to me all along. Locating a music source is also a challenge. There was one occasion where I was walking in the centre of Madrid, where I live, and I could hear a busker playing the guitar and singing a Bob Marley song. Whilst gazing around to see if I could find the owner of the interesting staccato-type singing I stopped in my tracks with a jump as I almost fell over the person responsible; who was positioned in my path, undetected by my gazing view and lack of directional hearing.

Thinking that all sounds are coming from my right has resulted in some scary instances when crossing roads when I haven’t realised traffic is approaching from my deaf side. It has also resulted in some, in hindsight, comical moments. One day, I was sitting on a seat at the end of a row of seats, on the metro train. I thought that I could hear someone playing the accordion somewhere far down to the right of the train. I was feeling relaxed, and as I tried to focus on the tune that was being played, I saw the woman opposite looking at something next to me. I turned to my left, to where she was looking, only for me to jump up in my seat as I let out a little yelp; startled to see the accordion player was actually standing right next to me, on my deaf side.

My boyfriend automatically walks on my right-hand ‘good’ side where he knows I will hear him. This prevents me from having to continuously turn to face him with my ‘good’ ear, in attempts to catch some snippets of conversation. With friends, who often forget which is my hearing side, or for those who don’t consider it, I place myself on their left. When they inadvertently change sides whilst crossing a road or when they stop to look at something in a shop window, I find myself dancing around them; trying to position myself as quickly as possible back on their left side.

When I’m on my own in everyday places and situations I sometimes feel vulnerable. I worry about crossing the road, and not knowing which direction to move out of the way when I hear the siren of an emergency vehicle. I worry about strangers talking to me, and not being able to hear them, or even worse failing to acknowledge them; if they have addressed me on my deaf side. I unwittingly ignore people to the left of me and often notice a frown on a stranger’s face, presumably because I have failed to respond to them or to move out of their way. I find myself constantly scanning my surroundings; checking people’s faces to see if they show any sign or clue that they are speaking to me.

With single-sided deafness, I find it difficult to hear when there are other noises present. Our brains are responsible for selective listening, which is more challenging without the help of a second ear. In a noisy environment, it is difficult to focus on a single person’s voice. Socialising can be demanding amongst background noise. In restaurants and bars I have learnt to sit in a corner, or with my deaf ear against a wall and my hearing ear facing the person I am speaking to, in order to have some chance at hearing them in conversation. I have learnt that it is only possible to concentrate on listening to one person at a time.

With my single-sided deafness has come tiredness, frustration, loneliness within groups of friends in conversation, and super-sensitivity and hyper-reactivity; meaning I am startled easily by unpredictable or sudden noises. I also have difficulty multitasking and find it hard to perform another task while listening.

Yet, I have found that being able to see some humour and positives, however small, in some of the situations I find myself in, can help me stay positive. For instance, with single-sided deafness, I can block out sound during the night or when having a nap, just by putting my ‘good’ ear to the pillow. I only need to use one earphone when listening to music, and if there is someone I don’t want to listen to, I can make sure they are sitting on my deaf side.

If you or someone you know is also living with SSD, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment and share some of your experiences.

 

This article was recently featured on The Limping Chicken – the world’s most popular deaf blog! 

Working with my one ear

I used to almost consider my hearing as a super strength; it was a sense I relied heavily on as a teacher of young children. In fact, a couple of years ago I underwent a hearing test, as part of a staff medical assessment, and the audiologist commented on how remarkable it was that I was able to hear even the quietest of tones above the background noise of the children in the corridor. As a teacher I was able to identify the owner of any voice in the classroom, without having to turn and see their face. I was able to pinpoint the precise location of where a voice was coming from, and could swiftly turn around to face the person who had made the tiniest of noises, or uttered a sound in the quietest of voices; with an ease of motion gained from years of experience teaching infants. Only after my hearing loss did I realize how much confidence I placed in this ability. My super power was now gone, and I was learning to survive in a classroom, and a school setting, without it.

I had resigned from my job as a teacher of 4 and 5 year olds. Working full time in a classroom wasn’t an option for me anymore, due to the amount of noise exposure I would have. My new job was working as a learning assistant. My new job involved some time supporting a teacher in the classroom; some time covering teachers when they would be in meetings or planning lessons; and some time working with individuals and small groups, in a quiet environment, outside of the main classroom.

With only one hearing ear, I am unable to locate sounds. If a child speaks to me in a classroom, and they are not standing in an obvious position, I will have no idea where the child is situated, and will spend some moments looking around trying to determine their position. Similarly, if I am sitting in front of a class, and a child shouts something out, I cannot rely on my listening skills to identify the culprit, and will instead search for a guilty-looking face. With time I have discovered that, when a child makes an inappropriate noise, if I say, “Who was that?” in a stern voice, without moving to look, the other children will immediately turn or point to the perpetrator!

There is the difficulty of being unable to focus on spoken word over background noise. If a child tries to speak to me in the classroom when the rest of the children are busy carrying out activities, I have to make sure they are on my hearing side, and very close to my ear, in order to be able to hear what they are saying. There have been times where I am concentrating on something a child is saying to me, on my hearing side, when all of a sudden I have felt a vibration or a whisper of a breath in my deaf ear, and I’ve turned around, only to be startled by a child speaking intently into this ear!

Working in an Infant school is a demanding role for someone with a sensitivity to noise. The children are young, and so naturally are often noisy. As well as the obvious loudness of children’s voices in the classrooms and the corridors, there are also some difficult situations I can’t always predict or plan for. There is the painfully-loud noise of a fire alarm drill; the loudness of music played in assemblies and music lessons; the intense volume of other staff member’s voices in staff meeting debates that often overlap with each other, becoming unintelligible to me.

There is my lunchroom nemesis. The school dining hall is a space with an absence of soft furnishings. There are neither carpets nor curtains to absorb the abundance of sound produced in this room. Inside this space are long tables, and glass windows that frame the full length of one side of the room. The opposite side of the room opens onto to a small utility area, featuring a large-scale kitchen sink. This area is used for rinsing the children’s lunch trays with a high-powered rinsing tap. During lunchtimes this room is an abundance of energy. The long tables brim with children. The room fills with chattering voices, the clinking of cutlery, the banging of plastic trays against bins to rid them of any leftover food, and the sound of jets of water spraying into a metallic sink. The sounds seem to bounce around the room from the glass windows, to the hard floor, and to the metallic kitchen area; rarely being absorbed, and mixing with the new sounds being made every moment. I have been using my time spent in this room as part of my sound retraining therapy; getting used to everyday sounds I find challenging, and to help my brain tolerate noises that at present seem too harsh or too loud. As well as battling with the discomfort of the noise in this room, I also have the issue of socializing. Lunch time is often the only time members of staff have, in the school day, to have a quick chat. In this room, if someone sits next to me on my hearing side, I can usually conduct a conversation with a little effort; making sure my ear is close to the person speaking. However, if someone comes to sit next to me on my deaf side, I won’t hear them approach. This means I continuously check this space to see if anyone has sat down. If there is already someone sitting there, I find myself constantly observing their face to determine whether or not they are talking to me. I often find myself eating my lunch quickly to avoid the noise exposure and the communication difficulties. I know this isn’t helpful in moving forward in dealing with my nemesis, but sometimes, when lunchtime arrives, I’m so tired and it’s hard to concentrate. The other scenario is that I make a big effort to start and hold a conversation with the person sitting on my deaf side. This means I have to turn my body around to face them, to have any chance of hearing their dialogue. This makes eating my lunch a difficult task, and hence means more time spent in this room; my nemesis.

Then there was The Cough. I was in a classroom, covering for a teacher, and every few seconds one of the girls would burst into a deep chesty cough. I encouraged her to drink water whenever she felt the need to, but this didn’t seem to provide her with any relief. Over the course of the hour during which I was in the class, I spent my time dueling with The Cough. Every time I spoke, there was a cough interruption. In the presence of The Cough, it was as though any audio in the room at that moment was being censored. Just like when watching something on television when there is a bleep censor used as the replacement of a profanity, or for when classified information is used; this was the consequence of The Cough. So, whilst sitting in front of the class, trying to teach, every few moments, I was for a few seconds unable to hear anything other than The Cough. I was also unable to gauge whether the volume of my voice was at an audible level. Similarly, I was unsure of how much to raise my voice for it to be heard over The Cough, without raising it so much as to be shouting. Then when a child spoke to me in the moment of The Cough, I had completely lost the battle.

There was an awkward moment at the end of a school day. I was again, in a class covering for a teacher. It was the end of the school day and I was reading a chapter from a story to the children. Within moments of beginning to read, a parent came to the door. She opened the door, and she wanted to speak to me. The door was at the opposite end of the room from where I was sitting with the children. I walked across the room to the door, and predictability the children burst into conversation. I walked towards the lady who was standing at the door. And so, the rumbling of chattering continued. The parent at the door was someone I was unfamiliar with. She began to speak to me. I couldn’t hear her. I moved my right ear towards her, closer to her mouth, to give me a chance at gaining some understanding of what she was saying. Well, I was momentarily perplexed by what happened next. The lady turned to face me. She put her hands on my shoulders, and proceeded to kiss me on both of my cheeks! She had unknowingly mistaken my advancing towards her in order to hear her, as an attempt to initiate this customary Spanish greeting! I observed the tradition, in a brief confused state, and uttered a nervous laugh. I then continued to stand ‘too close’ to her as she proceeded to speak to me. I’m sure she felt the awkwardness, but I’m also very sure she had no idea of the reason for it.

Although the majority of my colleagues are aware of my hearing loss, people often seem to forget. Words are habitually spoken to me in passing in a busy corridor, or across a noisy classroom. I consider these moments a complement. I must not be visibly struggling.

Above all, I am tired. I am working in the hearing world, yet this is a world that I don’t entirely fit into any more. The level of concentration and energy needed to focus on spoken word all day is exhausting. Working in the hearing world, I am always visually scanning my environment in order to identify the potential movement of speaking lips. With the exhaustion comes, at times, almost deafening levels of tinnitus. With tiredness and noise, the pressure in my ears builds, like a balloon skin being pulled tight; a balloon full of air pushing against the inside of my ear and spilling out into my head, causing my ears to hurt, and the hum of a daily headache.

Every day is a challenge. Working life is still really difficult and I often feel completely drained. But I am glad to be filling my days. I am happy to be making progress in getting some ‘normality’ back into my life.

Silly Deaf Moments

I am taking another pause from my story to talk about the amusements of being deaf. I am not saying that being deaf in one ear is funny; it’s not – it can be difficult and frustrating. But, if I am able to see some humour in difficult situations, surely it is much healthier than finding distress in them. This is not always easy, as everything still feels very raw to me, and I am still in the process of accepting that I now have unilateral hearing and am coping with the issues this brings. But I aim to start smiling and laughing more, and to see the funny side in what I have started to call my ‘silly deaf moments’; silly things that happen in reaction to everyday occurrences, because I am unable to hear in my left ear. So, here are a few examples of these ‘silly deaf moments’…

One of the first days after experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss in my left ear, I was at work and a colleague called my name. My classroom is connected to another classroom by a sliding door. When this door is open, the two rooms turn into one long classroom. I was standing in the middle of both rooms, where the sliding door is situated; talking with two other colleagues. When I heard my name, I turned around to my right, to address my friend who was calling me. Hmm, she wasn’t there. Then I proceeded to look around in confusion to try to locate my colleague. I was spinning around baffled, trying to locate my friend. After a few seconds I found her. She was standing far across the classroom from me, to my left. By the time I had realized where she was, my other colleagues were giggling at me. I started to laugh too, but I felt bewildered. Why hadn’t my colleague been to the right of me, where I thought she was? – after all, that was where I had heard her voice coming from. I later realized, that since I can only hear in my right ear, my brain now assumes that sound is always coming from my right. So, calling my name from any direction will now confuse me, and I will spend a few seconds scouting the area to identify where the voice is coming from. Oh, and if my name is called outside from across the road or street, well I don’t stand much of a chance of having any idea where you are. It would be quicker to come over to me instead! I actually thought that maybe my brain could learn to identify where noises are coming from; maybe using the tone or volume as a clue. But, after understanding my situation more, I realize that sound localization is the job of two ears, not one.

One day, I was sitting on a seat at the end of a row, on the metro. I was thinking that I could hear someone playing the accordion somewhere far down to the right of the train from where I was sitting. I was sitting and feeling relaxed as I tried to focus on the tune that was being played. I saw a woman opposite me looking at something next to me, so I turned to see what had caught her attention. I turned to my left, to where she was looking, only for me to jump up in my seat and letting out a little yelp; startled to see the accordion player was actually standing right next to me, on my deaf side!

There are moments where I fail to respond when I’ve been spoken to, because people have addressed me from my deaf side. I have been seeing a chiropractor recently (something I will talk about more in future posts) and one morning I was standing in the waiting area; waiting for my name to be called. The waiting area is a small corridor and serves a few small private practices; each one occupying a single room. It was busy, and there was a low rumble of chatting voices. As all the seats were occupied, I had positioned myself so that I was standing near my chiropractor’s door. I had waited a while, and turned around and was surprised to see my chiropractor standing there next to his door, looking a bit awkward. I hadn’t expected anyone to be there and my body jumped up slightly in surprise.  I could see his mouth moving, and as I turned so that my hearing ear was facing him, I realized he was calling my name. I have no idea how long he’d been trying to get my attention! His office was to the left of me, and so I was never going to be able to hear him call my name.

Another time where I didn’t respond was when I was in England and I went to get my eyebrows shaped. I was with my sister in a busy shopping centre in a department store. We were surrounded by a disarray of sounds. There was loud nightclub-style music playing and the sound of people talking too. I was greeted by the lady who was going to shape my eyebrows, and I sat down in the chair. My sister went to look around the shop, and so I was alone with the lady. A few seconds later I turned to my left and realized the woman was talking to me! She looked exasperated and was asking me to sit further back in the chair. I immediately shuffled back and out from my mouth the words, “I can’t hear in this ear!” burst out apologetically. In the moment I felt quite upset, but looking back now I wonder how long she had been waiting for me to move back in the chair. I wonder what she must have been thinking about me when I not only failed to respond to her instruction, but didn’t even look at her for quite some time!

One of the most ironic situations is that of waiting for an appointment with an ENT specialist in the hospital. It is a small waiting area that is usually bursting with people. When you approach the waiting area you are greeted by the loud roar of an industrial-sounding fan. In this waiting area, the sound seems to be bouncing from wall to wall; sounds of the fan, people’s words, shouting from nurses, and the slamming of consultation room doors. The patients sit on the edge of their seats. If the patients have similar struggles to me, I am guessing they are all trying desperately hard to hear the nurse when they call their name above the muddle of noises that surround them. Nobody wants to miss their name being called. Usually the wait to see a specialist is at least an hour and appointments are scarce. This is the chance to speak about issues that may be ongoing, painful, upsetting, frustrating – you don’t want to miss your name being called and miss your chance to speak with the specialist. One day an old lady asked me to tell her when her name was called. I explained to her that I too was also hearing impaired and finding it difficult to hear anything. We both agreed to tell each other if either of us thought one of our names may been called! I wonder why the ENT specialist rooms are positioned in the corridor with the fan. I wonder why they chose such a small enclosed space.  I wonder why the nurses haven’t thought of writing the next patient’s name on a piece of paper which they could then display as they shout the names; so that people with hearing impairments could read their names if they fail to hear them. Or even better, invest in a LED message sign display with the patients names displayed.

More recently, I went for lunch in a restaurant with my boyfriend.  I went to the toilet and was washing my hands. It was a small bathroom, and there were two toilets side-by-side and a sink positioned slightly in front of the entrance to one of the toilets. I was alone in the bathroom…well, so I thought. I spent some time washing my hands and looking at my teeth in the mirror. After a couple of minutes, I thought I saw something from the corner of my left eye. I turned around, and was startled to see that there was a woman watching my sink routine! The poor lady must have been in the toilet cubicle, and was now trapped in the doorway, unable to leave the cubicle because I was unwittingly blocking her way out! I hadn’t known she was in that toilet. I hadn’t heard her open the toilet door. I hadn’t heard if she had asked me to give her space to exit the cubicle. I hadn’t even acknowledged her until the moment I turned around in bemusement!

My life is now full of these ‘silly deaf moments’, and there are obviously going to be many more of them. I wonder when the next one will be, and what will happen?!