Challenges of Hearing Loss after College

As my teaching career at the West Virginia School for the Deaf began the fall after my graduation from Salem College, I fell in love with my job and the community of Romney. Each day my ASL skills improved and I so much needed to be in this community at the time.

Ringing in my ears (head noise) had been somewhat bothersome but suddenly a more severe kind of tinnitus became my constant and annoying companion. It disrupted my concentration and interfered with my ability to focus on conversations. I was distracted when I tried to speechread. I’m sure most of you have experienced tinnitus (head noise after a loud concert or being exposed to a loud burst of sound) that normally goes away after a short period of time. However, ongoing clicking, buzzing, throbbing, roaring, knocking, swooshing, chirping, honking, and popping noises began to cause me to lose sleep. You might say it’s comparable to someone who has migraines – only the person experiencing the tinnitus or migraine knows when it’s happening.

There are times when I feel a sharp pain, as if something has penetrated my eardrum. Sometimes the head noise would be so loud I’d go to answer the door thinking the dog was barking; only to discover he was curled up on his bed sleeping. I’ve also been known to request one of my sons to “turn down his music” only to realize the music was all inside my head and had nothing to do with what was coming through his speakers. At any rate, I was becoming emotionally stressed to the point I forced myself to schedule an appointment with an audiologist.

You’ll recall from previous posts my anxiety of hearing tests. Once inside the sound proof booth I could hardly complete a hearing test. The tinnitus was so loud and ongoing I could barely tell if I was responding to the head noise or to sound being presented through the headphones. The audiologist could tell though when I clicked the button to indicate I had heard something but no sound had been fed through the headphones. He tried to retest me using an open field test, sending sound through speakers and not using headphones. Still the results were dismal and at the age of 22 I had a profound loss in all frequencies. In other words, I went from being in the hard of hearing range to being deaf. I was fit with a powerful hearing aid, a body aid type.

I tried to wear my new hearing aid as much as possible to help cover up the tinnitus. In fact, at that time it was my primary reason to wear the hearing aid and not so much as to hear actual sounds. My comprehension of speech was only 3% with hearing only (no speechreading). The hearing aid did allow me to hear environmental sounds but many sounds I could not recognize. As soon as the hearing aid came off, the tinnitus took over. It was suggested I stop drinking beverages with caffeine, cut back on sodium intake, sleep in a sitting position, and meditate. Meditate? No way was that going to happen with all this loud, piercing noise in both ears that didn’t match in pitch or rhythm in any way. Some sounds were high and others low. It was a discordant symphony that never stopped.

Marian playing her French Horn at the Arts Weekend at Los Altos United Methodist Church. This was the very last time Marian played the French Horn.

Marian playing her French horn at the Arts Weekend at Los Altos United Methodist Church. This was the very last time Marian played the French horn.

I began to withdraw from social events, unless others present used ASL. I could no longer follow TV programs and captions were not an option at that time. I couldn’t use a telephone. Likewise TTYs and email were not yet available. Worse was that I could no longer find emotional release and pleasure with my beloved French horn.

However, I was so fortunate to be living in a community that accepted me and allowed me to learn their language and mode of communication. For the most part, I felt accepted in this community even though I had been raised in a different culture. I know it’s been many, many years and long overdue, but I’d like to thank the Deaf community in Romney for the love and acceptance you showed me.

During two summers I attended graduate school at Western Maryland College and for the first time I had the experience of using ASL interpreters in the classroom. Oh my, what a difference this made! I was now able to follow the lectures and discussions. I’m amazed that I had gotten through Salem College without such support. As my ASL skills improved, likewise did my vocabulary and language skills grow. My reading level soared. Where I had lost one enjoyable activity (music), I found a new leisure – reading. For the first time I can remember, I began to search out bookstores and buy five or more books at a time. Never in my life would I have ever thought I could enjoy reading.Marian reading

Today I no longer play my French horn. I can’t distinguish the melody of new music in church. I’ve not lost my creativity though. As I watch the interpreters, I comprehend the lyrics and “feel” the rhythm. However, I create in my mind a melody of my own and frequently create a song with harmony. I have no idea how the mind does this, but it happens for me.

My speech remains about the same as it was when I was hard of hearing. There are advantages to having intelligible speech but there are disadvantages too. Many times people refuse to accept that a person can’t hear if their speech is mostly clear. I’d like to share a personal experience.

I was traveling from my brother’s home in Ohio to my home in West Virginia when I unexpectedly ran into a severe storm. I pondered what to do, whether to continue on to West Virginia or stop by my aunt and uncle’s home in Pennsylvania to spend the night. I saw a police car at a gas station and decided to pull over and ask if they could help me make a phone call to my aunt. The policeman handed me his phone and told me to make the call myself. I explained that I couldn’t hear on the phone and needed assistance and begged him to please help me make this call. He insisted that since I could talk, I certainly could hear on the phone. That was far from the truth. I gave up and drove away with feelings so hurt that I can’t even think of words to describe them here. I know this is an extreme example and it has not happened often but something for the public to be aware of.

One question that people frequently ask when they first meet me, “What country are you from?”

“No, I’m not from a foreign country with an accent. I simply couldn’t hear everything and my speech is a bit different. Let’s just move ahead with our conversation,” I’ll respond.

Today, I continue to experience severe and constant tinnitus and wear hearing aids “selectively”. I still speak, speechread, and use ASL to communicate. And no, I’m not from a foreign country. I’m not angry or depressed about my deafness and I feel comfortable with decisions I’ve made on how to live with my hearing loss.

What about you? I’d love to hear your experiences with hearing loss, or confusion about your great speech even though you’re deaf, or passions you’ve given up and new ones you’ve learned.

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