Small Talk with a Stylist

During the summer, while spending some time in England, I had a really great experience at a hair salon. Although I was very happy with my new style, this wasn’t the reason for the experience being great. It was great because I had a conversation with my stylist. This maybe doesn’t sound like anything noteworthy, but for someone with a hearing loss, to be able to converse in a hair salon is actually something pretty fantastic.

There is so much background noise in a hair salon. There are the hairdryers, and the music that is often played loudly to be heard over the sound of the dryers. There must be the noise of water running out of the taps from the sinks where people have their hair washed, but this gets lost amongst the other sounds. There is the noise of people talking in raised voices attempting to converse; in a battle of audio strength with the other sounds of the salon. There are generally no or few soft furnishings in hair salons – I guess it wouldn’t be very practical to have thick curtains and carpets, due to all the stray hair. With an absence of soft furnishings, there is nothing to absorb the sound, and so it spends it’s time bumping into the mirrors, bouncing off the windows and porcelain sinks; continuously combining with the additional noises being produced every second.

It almost seems like it is part of a hairdresser’s job to make small talk with their customers. A hairdresser may get to know their client’s holiday plans; where they work; where they live; if they are in a relationship and if so for how long; and whether they have kids. The salon chair is often akin to the therapists couch; inspiring people to speak about their personal lives. Since my hearing loss, I have struggled with the whole hair-cutting experience due to the amount of noise in hair salons and the conversation difficulties. I was feeling a little nervous before going to this appointment. I had waited until I was in England visiting my sister to get my hair cut; at least this way I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to speak Spanish as well as not being able to hear properly. The appointment was at my regular hair salon, though I hadn’t met the stylist before. As usual the stylist and I had a quick conversation about the type of cut I would like, and then just before the stylist left to ask a colleague to wash my hair, I quickly added (whilst cupping my left ear with my left hand), “Oh, by the way, I’m deaf in this ear.” Lauren, the stylist smiled and assured me that this was fine.

After having my hair washed, I was back again sitting in the chair facing my reflection in the mirror. During the couple of weeks prior to this appointment, I had been trying to develop my lip-reading skills naturally by watching lips during conversations, and had had some success in doing this, especially in bars and restaurants. I was keen to continue practising my new superpower-in-progress.

Even the best lip-readers are only able to understand around 30% of what is actually said by solely relying on lip-reading; the rest is educated guesswork, gathered from context.  In fact ventriloquists are able to produce a voice with little or no movement of the lips, since most sounds are produced inside the mouth where you can’t see them. And so, there is a limit to how accurate even the most skilled of lip-readers could ever be, because most sounds aren’t produced with the lips. Nevertheless, watching a speaker’s lip movements, facial expressions and gestures during a conversation can be very beneficial in aiding verbal communication.

I watched Lauren’s lips in the mirror as she spoke, and in using the shapes her lips were making along with the sounds and words I could hear, I was able to follow most of what she was saying. After telling me about her work schedule for the week, she asked me what I did for work. I told her that I teach in Madrid. She told me she had never been there, though she had once been to Barcelona and that she had loved it. She commented on her holiday saying, “You know Pans, Pans and Co’?” (This is a sandwich franchise in Spain) “Why don’t they have them here? It’s like, they have Subway here, but Pans and Co is way better. The bread is amazing! Oh, I just want a Pans!” I smiled at this remark, and the conversation continued in a light-hearted dance of words.

I briefly noted that whilst watching the movement of Lauren’s lips in the mirror, it at least meant that I wasn’t spending the time awkwardly looking at my reflection. She must have noticed my stare, and asked me, “So do you lip-read then?” My secret was out. She wanted to talk about it. Great – I was happy to discuss my new project. I told her that I was trying to learn how to read lips. Lauren then asked whether I had always been deaf in my left ear. She seemed really interested – not just the general hairdresser level of interest – she actually seemed curious about my hearing loss. I told her my story in brief. She then surprised me by telling me her story. She recounted how she had caught glandular fever multiple times when she was a child, and this had resulted in her losing the hearing in one of her ears. She told me that she had found it really difficult especially since the doctors weren’t able to tell her whether her hearing would return. Luckily it did return within 3 months. She explained how during her time with hearing loss, she used to have the sensation of being underwater; the sound and pressure of water filling and whooshing past her ears. I told her that I also have this feeling.  I described how I always think sounds are coming from my right side, and she finished my sentence by saying, “Because that’s the ear you are hearing everything through.” The conversation moved to some more general discussion about hair thickness after that. But for that brief moment, it had felt so great to have shared a few words with someone who had an understanding of my hearing loss.

After this small exchange of experiences, Lauren switched off the hairdryer every time she wanted to tell me something of importance. She also spent most of the time with her body turned so that I could look at her face-on in the mirror, and follow her lips and her words. I felt such a sense of accomplishment to have been able to understand so much more of the conversation than I had on previous trips to the hair salon, following my hearing loss. Of course I didn’t understand everything that was said, but I doubt many people do. I left the salon with a new hairstyle and some newly found confidence in my developing superpower.

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?!

Testing testing

Eight weeks after experiencing sudden hearing loss in my left ear, I was back at the hospital to have a test called a Brainstem Auditory Evoked Potential (BAEP). I had read that this test involves monitoring responses to a series of ‘clicks’ using electrodes positioned on the scalp. In my case the BAEP could be used to assess conduction through the brainstem and auditory nerve pathways that are not as accessible to other testing procedures. In other words; the results could give the specialists more of an idea as to why I couldn’t hear anything in my left ear.

I arrived at the hospital early in the morning, slightly before the time of my appointment. I was on my own, and feeling somewhat nervous about what was going to happen. I watched as people went into the room where they do the hearing tests. I watched people who arrived after me, go in before me. I guess that due to the amount of time the test was going to take, they saw the people first who were going to have the, less time consuming, routine hearing tests.

My name was called, and a man explained to me what was going to happen. He cleaned my forehead and behind my ears with what I assumed was alcohol, and then used what felt like a small piece of sandpaper to rub the same areas in order to help the electrode pads stick to my skin. Then he stuck two pads in the middle of my forehead, one above the other, and also one behind each ear. My face stung slightly as the alcohol permeated my newly exfoliated skin. The electrode pads were white circles of thin plastic with a silver metal circle and raised bit in the middle; where wires would be attached. They looked like small targets on my head. I asked one of the staff members who, after my many hospital visits, I was now well acquainted with, and who always greeted everyone with a smile and a joke, for something to tie my hair up with. He shortly emerged from one of the rooms and handed me an elastic band. So there I was, on my own; hair roughly tied up with an elastic band and white targets on my head. I waited for the next step of the process. I was sitting in a doorway. Nurses and hospital staff kept passing by, taking a look at me and making little comments such as, “Pobre!” or “Pobrecita!” –  Literally translated as “Poor person!” or “Poor dear!” Every time someone came in or out of the room of the doorway in which I was sitting, the people in the waiting room opposite were presented with me, the ‘pobrecita’, with the electrodes stuck to her head. When the doors slid open, there I was for all to see! I waited for over an hour. They were carrying out the test that I would be having, on a young child, and it must have been taking longer than they had planned for.

When it was my turn, I was shown to a small room with white walls, two chairs, a desk and a computer. I was asked to sit on a chair that was covered with a white sheet. Wires were then connected to pads on my head and behind my ears. I put on a pair of headphones and I was told to relax and listen to the ‘clicks’. My brain was going to do the work for me; I just had to sit there. I was also told that sometimes people fall asleep during the test. Throughout the process I could hear lots of ‘clicks’. Some that were played into my good ear were almost painfully loud. I have no idea how anyone could possibly fall asleep; sitting in a small room with a stranger, with electrodes attached to their head with clicks being randomly played at loud volumes! I had the thought that, what if my brain was picking up the signals from me hearing my tinnitus noises and confusing them with the real sounds that were being played into my ears. Would this show on the results? I’m sure this isn’t the case, as most people with hearing loss also have tinnitus. But it was a thought that intrigued me. The test took about an hour. The electrode pads were removed and I was free to go home.

Three weeks later I was back at the hospital, with my boyfriend, for a consultation with an Ears Nose and Throat specialist. We were there to talk about the results of the BAEP test; whether the steroid tablets and steroid injections had helped me; whether my hearing had improved; and how I was feeling in general. My boyfriend and I had unintentionally placed a lot of hope in this appointment. We hoped the specialist would be able to tell us some more information, or give us a plan of what to try next. We walked into the specialist’s office with all of our questions written down, so I wouldn’t forget to ask them. Things always feel a bit rushed in the hospital, and they are always so busy. My heart sank when I realized it was a specialist whom I hadn’t previously met. I had hoped to see one of the many specialists who were familiar with my story. I had done a hearing test before I went into the consultation room, and the specialist explained that the test results were the same as when I first lost my hearing. He told us that the MRI results were normal: I already knew this as I had received these results weeks ago from my GP. He also told us that the BAEP test had shown the same as the hearing test – that I couldn’t hear. The test results weren’t explained in any more detail.  He said that sometimes there are cases of sudden hearing loss where, within a 6 month period, a patient’s hearing comes back naturally. He told me to wait for three more months and then come back for another consultation. Maybe a hearing aid could help me if there was no change in my condition.

Deflated, we went outside of the hospital and sat down on a bench in a park across the road.  I cried. They hadn’t told me anything I didn’t expect or already know.  I didn’t really expect them to have any more answers to tell us. But I couldn’t help but raise my hopes for a solution. I didn’t want to stop trying things that could help my situation.

We needed to put our minds at rest. We decided to seek a second opinion.

 

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.

Frustration

The next few weeks after leaving the hospital, blended into months. I finished taking the corticosteroids and I had 4 injections of steroids into my ear, each a week apart. Yet there was still no improvement in my condition.

Friends and family were keen to ask me how I was feeling. They saw that I was out of hospital and assumed that everything was OK. But it wasn’t. I was struggling through every day with deafness and other related issues: sensitivity to noise, light-headedness, tinnitus and the ever-present pressure in my ear and head. I almost felt like I was letting people down; telling them that I was not feeling any better. I looked like my usual self, but was feeling awful. There was no visual evidence of the discomfort and frustration I was feeling. My problem was completely invisible. If I had a visible scar, maybe people would be able to empathize with my situation a little easier. I wanted to tell them something positive, and I didn’t want to upset anyone, by responding honestly. I didn’t feel any better. Nothing had changed since the day in the auditorium when this all began.

Everyone seemed to have a story about an ear problem. There were stories about ear infections and tinnitus, and about ears feeling clogged when flying. Many people also turned into specialists; asking me if I had recently been swimming or if I had been on an aeroplane? Did the hospital specialists check for ear wax? People didn’t really know what to say to me. I know that they wanted to sound positive, helpful, sympathetic…I did appreciate their support. People just wanted to show they were thinking of me. I would have done the same, if one of my friends or family were in my position. I would have wanted to help solve the mystery and for everything to be better. I didn’t want to sound negative, but I didn’t want to lie to people. Sometimes the truth is difficult to share, and it can also be difficult for others to hear; especially when they have feelings invested in the person sharing the news.

I couldn’t go to work. Being an Early Years teacher demands having energy; being able to tolerate high levels of noise, being able to go up and down stairs without feeling lightheaded, being able to hear in background noise, being able to sing and dance without feeling dizzy. The children in my class were only 4 years old. They needed a teacher who could give them the care and attention they deserved. I missed being in a classroom. I only briefly met my new class, who I instantly loved, and who I felt like I’d abandoned. It was so frustrating. I could walk and talk and breathe and see. I looked the same. But to be able to do my job properly I needed to feel better.

I was having meetings every two weeks with my doctor to inform her of any updates. She also seemed to be getting frustrated with the absence of any change in my situation. Every time I met with her I would tell her that I felt the same. One time she explained to me that it was difficult for her also. Usually she can give her patients some form of hope. Usually she can give her patients a diagnosis, or prescribe some medication, and then with time, symptoms will improve. Usually people show some form of recovery and this gives them hope. However, in my case there had been no change in 10, 11, 12 weeks, and she knew it was difficult for me. She told me to take comfort in the knowledge that my hearing loss wasn’t a result of a more sinister problem, such as stroke or a tumour.

There was still hope. 12 weeks after the day of my sudden hearing loss, I went to see a specialist at the hospital. He told me that sometimes hearing can come back spontaneously within the first 6 months after the occurrence of hearing loss. I was told to wait and see if my hearing would improve naturally. I would go back to see the specialist in 3 months, and if there were no changes in my condition, they said a hearing aid might help me.