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The Consumer Handbook on Tinnitus

The Emotions of Losing Hearing
and the Bridge To Healing
Richard  E. Carmen, Au.D.

    One benefit of ever-expanding technologies in the U.S. includes improvements in hearing aid designs and circuitry. In essence, hearing aids are getting smarter and “prettier.” They’ve become less obtrusive and offer superior performance than just a few years ago. With the advent of telecommunication devices such as Bluetooth cell phone systems, wearing anything in the ear these days is at best passé, and perhaps even fashionable. For some, I’ve noticed that it seems to have become a statement of moving with social change. Have you noticed how comfortably people now talk into thin air using Bluetooth devices stuck in their ear? Thus, there really should be minimal cosmetic concern today over visibility of anything in the ear. It’s hard to tell the difference between telecommunication devices and some state-of-the-art ear-level hearing aids. Some hearing aids are so elegantly designed that they no longer even look like hearing aids, perhaps more closely resembling fashion jewelry—they even come in pink!

    This has culminated in profound social change, a shift in thinking by both wearers and observers whereby the stigma of wearing these devices that don’t look like hearing aids is essentially gone. When we authors were completing the first edition of this book in 1997, such a thing was only imagined. However, while we’ve transformed negative judgments in only a matter of a few years through more appealing designs, there remain other issues to address.

    Your first reaction to learning you have hearing loss and must wear hearing aids can still hit some people like a brick. By the time a practitioner determines you have hearing loss, you’ve already been living with it most likely for years, so you’re just getting confirmation of what you already suspected. Even so, for many it’s a hard pill to swallow. For some, it rattles them to the core. As Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame said in his dying breath as he lay in the arms of the beautiful gypsy girl La Esmeralda, a tear rolling off his cheek, “Why could I not have been made of stone?” His torment reflects that of many of us—the pain of feeling.

    However, feel we must, as this is what characterizes us as human. Emotional experiences may be wonderful, painful or sometimes perplexing. Yet, more than our physical body, feelings are the substance of our identity. Each of us reacts differently toward the varied experiences of our lives. For centuries, fields of study have been devoted to exploring this fascinating phenomenon, but the search seems to have yielded as much controversy as knowledge. From more than three decades of clinical practice, I’ve observed some compelling emotions and feelings in my patients. These observations have extended into my own family members with loss of hearing, so the feelings we’ll be talking about touch home—deeply.

    I once taught an audiology course to graduate students where I had them wear earplugs for a day, morning to bedtime. They were asked to log their feelings and emotions and report to the class the following week. We were all overwhelmed by two things: the similarity of their experiences and the depth of their emotions. Students reported they felt inadequate and incompetent. There was also a sense of limitation in areas they had taken for granted. Simple tasks like using the telephone couldn’t be performed without special manipulation, difficulty or strain. Common sounds like ice stirred in a glass, running water or turning a page in a book—sounds that orient us in our environment—were gone.

    Driving the car was a new experience. With the absence of wind and traffic sounds, there was a feeling of disorientation. Students quickly realized how important their vision became to compensate for what they could not hear. And yet such compensation felt inadequate. By the end of the day most of the students confessed they were worn out and disturbed by what they had gone through.

     “What a horrible experience!” one student remarked.
    An apt description I thought.

    One student reported she had collapsed into bed crying. Others were unnerved or dispirited. Their collective reactions were directly linked to feelings of inadequacy, a deficiency in their daily performance relative to what they expected or how they were accustomed to functioning. Once the earplugs were removed, all ill feelings dissipated. Their sense of normalcy and calm returned. If your significant other has no idea what it feels like to have a hearing loss, this would be an enlightening experience.