I Was Deaf, But Now I Hear: Profound Unilateral Hearing Loss
Have you ever seen those YouTube videos with people who are seeing colour for the first time? I know what that’s like – except for me, it was not sight – it was hearing. At the age of 28, I realized what it was like to hear like the average person - kind of.
My name is Melissa, I’m 29 and I have Profound Unilateral Hearing Loss. You won’t see me using sign language or using subtitles though...I actually function just fine, to the point that you would probably never realize I am considered clinically deaf. One year ago, I got a hearing aid. I now get to experience the world around me in what feels like vivid colour, when I am used to black and white.
I have always been hard-of-hearing. As a kid, every year before school started, I would have my annual hearing exam with an audiologist and my ear, nose, throat (ENT) specialist, and every time I would turn my one good ear toward them just to hear “you are never going to hear what the other kids hear, but there is no way to fix it”. I was not a candidate for amplification (a hearing aid) because it was only the lower end of the register that I could not hear, and amplifying everything could cause more damage over time. That being said, I was doing fine in school, making friends, all the stuff little kids should do, so they left me to my own devices to navigate the world.
Over the years I have found ways to cope, to the point that most people didn't know I had trouble hearing. I learned the situations that I don’t function well in and avoided them completely.
In early 2017 I went through a period where my hearing loss was really bothering me. I started noticing that it was causing me to limit myself – avoiding noisy restaurants, parties, conversations with people who mumble, loud spaces. My tinnitus – or excessive ringing in the ear, usually caused by hearing damage - kept me up at night and gave me ripping headaches. So, I finally went back after 10 years to have my hearing tested. Surely medicine and technology had changed, right? Not surprisingly, my left ear scored a big fat F on the test, while my right ear was a solid B+.
After an ENT (ear, nose, throat) specialist reviewed my results, I was diagnosed with profound unilateral (one-sided) hearing loss and tinnitus. Profound is the worst it can get. I was told I was a deaf person. I could not believe my ear (singular) when I heard this – but I was fine! I always knew I wasn’t hearing well but, deaf?! I speak normally (I think), I do normal stuff (you know, operating motor vehicles), how can I be deaf? Do I need to learn sign language? Can I get money from the government? What is the rest of the world hearing, compared to me?!
I don’t think I will ever forget the moment that my ENT looked at me, speaking very slowly and clearly to accommodate his perception of my hearing loss and said “Melissa, you don’t experience the world like other people. I’ve told people with half of your loss to get a hearing aid. I think this would help you a lot”.
It turns out that your brain needs two ears to do a lot of things. Who knew? You’re constantly making tiny calculations to help you understand the world – where sound is coming from, how loud it is, etc., which all requires the use of two ears. Luckily for me, technology had caught up, to the point that hearing aids can be fully customized to understand the wearer’s loss, and amplify according to that. I was finally a candidate for hearing support. After a lot of convincing from my ENT and a small identity crisis, I was fitted for my new fancy hearing aid.
I spent the next few months crying in public once daily at the sound of the wind in the trees, hearing my friend’s voices and realizing all the crazy beautiful things I’ve missed out on in this world. Exhausted and overwhelmed, I experienced music with stereo sound, waves in the ocean – everything sounds crazy! Dolby Digital is unreal. Directional hearing feels like upgrading from a shitty old radio to a spectacular sound system. Dang. I’d been missing out.
It is pretty darn funny that I’m walking around with a hearing aid and I’m not 83 years old. I mean, I went to a bachelorette party wearing a hearing aid. I’ve gotten drunk wearing a hearing aid. I go to spin class with a hearing aid. Sounds funny, right? That all sounded pretty damn incredible to me
Overall - I don’t know how I managed for the first 28 years of my life without this little bluetooth enabled nugget behind my ear. Although I still will never actually hear 100%, I have gained an appreciation for the energy and strength it took to find my way for all those years as a deaf person without help, and I’ve really embraced any and all opportunity to re-experience things that I thought I knew before.
Thank you so much to Jeremie, Brian and Taylor for having me on the podcast to talk about my experience as a functional deaf person. I hope this episode helps people appreciate the ability to experience their world through sound, and not take their hearing health for granted!