The Hearing Aid Diaries

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The following is extracted from an article that appeared in The Times on 21 July 2007. It is written by the novelist Kate Harrison and reflects her experiences of being diagnosed with a hearing loss at the age of 38 and eventually coming to terms with wearing hearing aids. You may find this frank record of her feelings and experiences helpful.

“Hearing loss crept up on me. I didn’t know what I was missing, from whispered gossip at parties, to the pivotal lines in TV programmes. I only realised I had a problem when friends pointed out that I never answered my mobile – because I couldn’t hear it ring. The medical verdict was ‘bilateral symmetrical high frequency sensorineural hearing loss of indeterminate aetiology.’ Roughly translated that meant we’d probably never know how my hearing was damaged: exposure to noise, perhaps, or a virus…the only thing we could rule out was old age since I was the tender age of 38.

“I had two options: try hearing aids, or keep muddling through. It’s testament to both my vanity and the stigma attached to being hard of hearing that initially I went for the muddling option. I was lucky – my loss was moderate and somehow the idea of wearing aids was about as appealing as donning support tights or taking up bridge. They just didn’t match my self image. I had one session of ‘hearing therapy,’ advising me how to cope. For example, I was told that because we hear our own names from birth, we’re very sensitive to that sound – so I should tell friends to use my name first if they wanted to improve the chances of a response.

“Now I was officially ‘hard of hearing’, I felt justified in watching TV subtitles when I was alone, but felt too embarrassed to do it in company. I gave up going to the theatre after falling asleep during the seduction scene in The Graduate because I couldn’t follow the dialogue. On the plus side, at least when colleagues said, ‘are you deaf or what?’ I had the satisfaction of answering, ‘well, now you come to mention it…’

“That ‘are you deaf?’ question is one people use all the time, though few other disabilities are referred to in that jokey way. And it’s catching: I frequently made a joke of my shortcomings. Yet the idea of a hearing aid seemed infinitely worse. Then last summer, things changed. I took redundancy after fifteen years at the BBC, to write novels full-time. To reduce the isolation of working from home, I planned to lecture in creative writing. But not being able to hear questions from the audience was going to be a problem… So, six years after my diagnosis, I’d finally grown up enough
to ask for hearing aids. Crucially, I’d also grown my hair long, to cover my ears.

“Because I’d already had all the tests, it took five months to get my hearing aids. As I waited for my appointment, a war veteran who had been using aids for forty years, told me his aids were a godsend, though “I still can’t understand a word of Taggart.” Like all the best designer items, my aids were made to measure, moulded to fit my rather tiny ears. My digital aids were programmed to match my own ‘prescription’, and then I was given a manual and a bag full of batteries, and sent out into the world.

“And what a noisy world it is…the first shock was the portentous clunk of my coin in the pay-as-you-exit car park machine at the hospital. When I started my car, the engine sounded so tractor-like that I wasn’t at all convinced I’d make it home. Then there were bodily functions. My own breathing sounded to me like I’d just run a marathon, my stomach gurgles would score ten on the Richter Scale, and as for flushing the loo…well, Niagara Falls doesn’t begin to cover it. Was this really how loud the world sounded to everyone else?

“To begin with I had to force myself to use my hearing aids: the volume was so overwhelming. It’s one of the reasons why up to one third of the older analogue style hearing aids ended up at the back of a drawer. Digital aids are more sophisticated, but they can still be a sledgehammer to crack a nut, magnifying everything. So a walk by the river makes birdsong sound spectacularly beautiful but the increased traffic noise is less idyllic. I’d got used to nodding and smiling inanely at parties because I could never follow a conversation, but even with the aids, small talk was drowned out by amplified hubbub.

“Even in the relatively quiet space of my study, I felt like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, distracted by the second hand on my wall-clock, the sinister whirr of my ancient laptop’s hard drive, and the cat purring louder than a Geiger-counter at Chernobyl. But I was determined to persevere: apart from anything else I felt that having cost the NHS at least £300 in time and equipment, it was my duty. And, sure enough, it got easier. The more I wore my aids, the more the world opened up as my brain ‘re-learned’ to interpret this rich new soundscape. I enjoyed my first trip to the theatre in years. Music now sounds richer and deeper – I can hear lyrics properly for the first time.

“On the work front, my lectures have improved because I can hear the questions I’m meant to be answering. And bus trips and café visits – those essential research trips for all nosy novelists – are so much more interesting now that I can earwig on people’s conversations. On a practical level, if I forget to put my aids in, it feels rather too intimate to try to manoeuvre them into place in public.
They’re not exactly designer items, but as accessories go, they’ve improved my life in a way a new pair of Jimmy Choos never could.

“And there are unexpected bonuses to my two-tone world. The chaps from Thames Water arrived to dig up the road this morning: my hearing aids picked up every cacophonous drill. Now the aids are tucked up in their box and I can concentrate on my writing…just occasionally, life is better with the volume turned down.”

This article appears with the kind permission of Kate Harrison and The Times Newspaper. © Kate Harrison/The Times, London. 21st July 2007.

For further information on hearing and hearing aids please contact:

• Audiology, Main Outpatients, Milton Keynes University Hospital, Standing Way, Eaglestone, Milton Keynes, MK6 5LD. Telephone 01908 995199 / 995156 between 9.00 and 4.30 Monday to Friday. Fax 01908 997784. Email to [email protected] We can also receive text SMS messages on 01908 995199 / 995156 but please note that we cannot text message back to you.

Where to find us
• Audiology, Level 4 (top floor), Main Outpatients, Yellow Zone, Milton Keynes University Hospital. We are not open at weekends or on bank holidays. More information can also be obtained from
Action on Hearing Loss, 1-3 Highbury Station Road, London, N1 1SE. Freephone information line: Tel 0808 808 0123 (voice). Textphone 0808 808 9000 SMS text message 07800 000 360
Email: [email protected]