If you know me well or if you listen to my podcast or if you are familiar with my stand-up material, you might know that I have a hearing loss. I have talked about this before in various places but rarely have I been completely thorough in explaining myself. I felt a sudden compulsion (writers call it “inspiration”) to delve into detail about the specifics of this hearing loss as well as the impact it has had on my life thus far as well as its ongoing effects.
I say “hearing loss.” I should just be honest: I’m deaf. I’m a deaf man. A man who is deaf. DDDDDEEEEAAAAAAAFFFF! Not totally. The profoundly deaf would consider me part of the "hearing" community rather than their own. (I'm a hearing refugee!) I feel like I have a tendency to couch the verbiage in an effort of emotional self-preservation. I spent a good portion of my life in complete denial about this fact. I mean, I “knew” I had a severe hearing impairment, but I wouldn’t let myself truly KNOW it, if that makes sense. It was the intellectual “knowing," not the spiritual-emotional KNOWING.
Some (semi-brief) personal history:
I’m sure I’m going to butcher some of the chronology here, but when I was in pre-school — maybe it was kindergarten? — we did a classroom hearing test. This is standard procedure and a lot of you probably barely remember these things and if you do, you most likely remember it is an annoying formality. Not me! The nurse sat me in that chair and said, “Okay. I’m going to put these headphones on and you’re going to hear some beeps. If you hear a beep in your left ear, raise your left arm; if you hear a beep in your right ear, raise your right arm. Sound good?” Let me tell you guys. I did not hear ANYTHING that lady said. So we skipped the test and I was wooshed to the ear doctor.
He gave me a proper hearing test. The thing is, I am a great test taker. The ACTs, SATs, SAT IIs, finals, mid terms all gave me no anxiety whatsoever. The only test that makes me nervous is a hearing test. I hate it. I hate sucking at something. I hate waiting for the beep and not hearing it, then convincing myself that the light ringing in my ears is the beep so I optimistically raise my hand only to be told I have raised my hand at nothing and to “be sure you hear a beep before you raise your hand.” They charted my audiogram (graph of a person’s hearing ability with the frequency as the x-axis and decibel level on the y-axis). I have what is called a “cookie bite loss,” which looks like this:
By the way, odd choice on the nomenclature to call it “cookie bite loss.” Why bring pastries into it? Might as well have something like this:
Either way, what "cookie bite" means is, basically, all my ranges are bad, but my middle frequencies are especially bad, which is where human speech takes place. The other thing with me is that while my volume is very low, my clarity is also very poor. So even if the volume is high enough (loud music, for example), I am often unable to make out what is actually being said. Make sense? Is this exhausting? I know. I’m sorry.
Anyway, the doctor recommended I wear hearing aids immediately but I was a real diva in my younger years. I was, as I’ve later discovered, in complete denial. I didn’t want to acknowledge this problem so if I never fixed it then that meant there was nothing to fix.
I had a brief stint with hearing aids when I was 11, at the insistence of my family and ear doctor. I wore what are called Completely In the Canal hearing aids (CICs). They look like this:
They were the smallest, most cosmetically apt devices on the market at the time. They ran about $4,000 a pair. (Hearing aids, except in rare circumstances, are almost never covered by insurance, by the way. This is mostly because most hearing loss is degenerative meaning most hearing patients are very old and unable to produce for society so, politically, nobody gives a shit but this is a different post for a different day!) Those models last around 4-5 years and require daily cleaning, weekly battery changes, and they must be removed if you shower, sleep, exercise, swim, or do anything else that puts pressure or moisture on the device.
I was in fifth grade and my teacher, by way of “classroom bucks” (which could be converted into extra credit or whatever) would bribe me into wearing my hearing aids. It worked, for a week or two. Then this girl Lauren asked me in the middle of class, “What’s in your ears??” Well, folks, that was all she wrote! My pube-less, virgin, already socially awkward, tiny boy self had heard (I did hear her!) all he needed to hear. I ripped those things out of my head like they were leeches sucking the blood of my ability to fit in.
I didn’t try wearing hearing aids again until I was 21.
Let’s rewind for a second. I want to paint a broader picture. Being unable to hear is a completely and totally isolating experience. I remember when my friends would watch movies, I would not be able to hear them so I would literally sit and stare at a very confusing screen and furthermore, to hide my defect, I would merely echo their responses. If they laughed, I let out a chuckle. If they acted surprised, I feigned an intense eyebrow raise. And so on. It was a nightmare. This is 20 years. TWENTY YEARS I did this shit.
The worst was in class when they did that “reading aloud” bullshit. The teacher would sadistically pick a chapter in the textbook to read and would have kids (AT RANDOM!!!! WHY????) read a paragraph. (Or two or three. YOU NEVER KNEW HOW MANY EACH PERSON READ! IT WAS A WHIMSICAL FORM OF EMOTIONAL TORTURE!!) So some kid, let’s say David, in the back would read, then after some unknown number of paragraphs, the teacher would say, “Okay, good. Now how about Jeremy?” Then Jeremy would read. Now for most kids, this was probably super boring. Not for me! It was hell. I was riveted, but only because I was surfing on the hell-waters of the River Styx. “Oh god she’s going to call my name! I have no idea where we are! AHHHH!” So what I would do is try my best to follow the rhythm of the other students’ speech patterns (since I was usually unable to make out what they were actually saying) and try to pair that with a sentence in the text book. So if a student said “a-bah-bah-ba-BAH-ba” I could find a sentence in the book that would potentially sound like that and be fairly confident that’s where we were in the reading. Insanity, I know.
It gets crazier.
So often people would ask me questions. I would know not because I heard them, but because I saw the normal bustle of the conversation stop and everyone turned to look at me. UH OH! Show time! WHAT’S MY LINE?! I usually had no idea. So, I’d use a similar strategy to the reading one. I would deduce based again on the rhythm of the conversation and the last sentence (which was the question, AKA my cue) the kind of response I needed to give. I would shy away from specifics and just give very broad, sweeping answers. Was it a yes or no question? Then a simple “yeah” will suffice. You might be asking yourself, “Why not just ask them to repeat it?” BECAUSE, YOU DOLT! YOU ONLY GET SO MANY “WHAT”S IN A DAY BEFORE THEY ALL TURN INTO POO MONSTERS AND STOP BEING YOUR FRIENDS. If I said “What?” or “Come again?” or “What’s that?” too many times, then it would trigger an alarm in their heads that something was WRONG with me. “What are you, deaf?!” YES, YOU FUCKWIT! THAT WOULD ONLY MAKE PERFECT SENSE, WOULDN’T IT! But everyone was so young and unable to process the nuance of humanity. So, we clumsily trudge along in our black and white paradigms (cool vs. retarded) of adolescence.
An exercise: put yourself in that position. It’s nearly impossible to truly understand but try. Imagine you are unable to hear almost everything that is said. For 20 years. And you know this. So you lack the confidence that almost everyone else takes for granted to even approach a verbal dialogue. How would you communicate? How would you socialize? How would you flirt?? SPOILER ALERT: You wouldn’t. You would shut down externally and stay in constant communication with the only person on earth you were guaranteed to hear: yourself.
And that was the biggest effect. I regressed into the sanctuary of my own thoughts. (Many people who know me are right now going, OH NOW I GET IT!) When my friends would watch movies and I would do that flickering-screen-stare-fake-out move, I would be lost in thought, contemplating whatever. When I was in the back seat of a car and the front seat people were showing off their ability to hear like bare-chested braggarts (read: having a conversation), I would take the hot air balloon express ride into my own head. During class if the teacher turned his/her back. During bus rides. Walking down the street. I basically spent 20 years of my life listening to my own one-person podcast. I got to some pretty wild places. When you have 20 years to think, you get to the outskirts of your own consciousness. It’s half cosmic beauty, half total solitary hell.
Let’s go back. When I was 21 (near the end of my college experiment), I decided enough was enough. I called my mom and told her I wanted to get hearing aids again. She reminded me that when I was twelve, they dropped $4K on a pair that I wore a total of 10 times. I acknowledged the immature mistake and vowed this time would be different. It was, to an extent. I got refitted for a new pair of CICs. I would wear them to class and whenever a situation “called for” them. It was partially effective. I ended up dropping out of school (a positive step nearly everyone in college should take), moving back home and I started dating my first girlfriend. (At 21. But that only makes too much sense now, right?)
In March of 2008, I moved to Chicago to pursue stand-up full time. I was wearing the hearing aids to perform because it is literally impossible to do without being able to hear the crowd’s response. Not just hecklers, but stand-up is a very fine-tuned volley between performer and audience, even if they are not disruptive. Their laughter is their communication and you need to be in sync with that.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how thankful I am that stand-up comedy exists as it has proven to be a near-ideal outlet for me. I can take all of that stored up thinking and project powerful bursts of it into crowds. Stand-up is basically thinking aloud, only this time everyone can jump in your head with you!
In October of 2008, everything changed. My ear doctor told me about a brand new hearing aid called Lyric, made by Insound (later bought by Phonak). Lyrics were a “24/7” hearing aid that required no battery changes or cleaning. You get them put in and they stay in for 2-3 months (or however long the battery lasts) then you come back to the ear doctor and have them replaced. You can shower with them, sleep with them, work out with them. The only thing you can’t do is swim or otherwise submerge your head. Oh, and they are completely invisible. They fit like this:
My audiogram was barely within range of the power of the devices but they needed to see if they would fit my canal as they were not custom, but came in a few sizes (Small, Medium, Large, etc.). I tried them and they were able to fit my canal. They came in a year subscription meaning you can get as many replacements as necessary within that year. The subscription cost around $1,800 per ear, per year, so $3,600 per year. (Again, not a dime covered by insurance.)
I have been wearing these ever since. It’s been almost 6 years and honestly it revolutionized my life. Full disclosure: they are not perfect. I still do not have anywhere close to normal hearing. I could probably stand to use a more powerful hearing aid, but the benefits of these — not having to take them out ever, not having to think about them really except for a few times a year — outweighed the negatives — not being able to swim, still not hearing at a “normal” level, and one of them can die at random in which case you have to go to the doctor and have it replaced. This is a problem because sometimes you have to wait a few days, which renders you out of commission in the meantime. (This actually happened to me this week which is what prompted this article.)
I still can’t hear 100% of movies so I watch them with subtitles and rarely go to the theaters. I have a hard time with hecklers because they are usually dark and far away so I can’t read their lips (another "trick" I picked up by accident over the years) or body language. I would say I hear now at around 70% of what you do. Which is a marked improvement. It has allowed me to be infinitely more social which has allowed a lot of my emotions to transcend their adaptive barriers.
I am still wired to default at “closed off.” In addition to not being able to hear well (still), I am extremely inwardly focused. A lot of times people think I’m ignoring them or being an asshole; I’m not. I either can’t hear you or I’m millions of miles away from you in terms of my thought-dot on the consciousness map. Also, small talk makes me uncomfortable. See, when you spend so much time stretching the limits of your own internal monologue, you get to some crazy places. Small talk with myself ended when I was two. I remember thinking to myself, “So what’s new in diapers?” and then whistled awkwardly while my consciousness and I just kind of stared at each other. Since then it’s been full-throttle, broodingly intense exploration, often propelled by depressive mood swings. So the shift back to folksy small talk is a jarring one for me. …and then maybe if you just accept death as part of the process, it isn’t anything to fear because I’ve already been dead and that was fine and being dead is the absence of feeling so I’m sitting here afraid of a not-thing which is so absurd and—Ah! What?? Oh, uh, yeah, um, that show is hilarious! Good seeing you, buddy!—it’s something that everyone goes through so it can’t be THAT terrible… In addition, I am so worried that I’m going to mishear someone in a small talk exchange that it gives me anxiety so I just blurt out weird fragments of my now-shattered train of thought. I don’t abide by the usual ebb-and-flow of stranger exchange and it’s just a mess for me so I often try to avoid it by maintaining that inward focus.
So much of my life has been defined by cynicism and a prickly personality. (That’s being generous.) Obviously no component of our emotional makeup has one root, but this hearing thing is definitely a big one. So much regression into myself has given me a very specific perspective on life. Some of which is beautiful and others are things that have to be overcome. The isolation has injected an extremely exploratory mind with a high dose of detachment and narcissistic influence. The results have been difficult as I seem to have an extremely intense need for affection, love, and intimacy — a very bright sensitivity — yet a lot of instincts which are antithetical to actualizing those needs. Bridging that gap, maintaining the strong qualities of this situation while weeding out and working through the hypocrisies and emotional pitfalls, this is my battle. Waging it is the remnant burden from this saga.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I am in the position to be able to overcome these. That I have the opportunity to grow. To change. To be better. To be in flux. To explore possibilities. It’s only in death that the possibilities are reduced to zero; so long as you’re alive, they're endless.