Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Do you suffer from earring loss?

This is a story of sensory deprivation, written the way I hear.

It's taken nearly half a century but I've finally decided to stick my head up over the parapet and shout 'Yes, I have an earring disability. I have mild Google translate between ears and brain.'

What? What did you say? Can you repeat that, please? What? Yeah, yeah, very funny. Not.

I'm partially deaf. Always have been and, without assistants (sic), always will be. Thank God and modern science for bionic ears.

The first definitive sign of a problem was way back when. I was twenty-two and remonstrating some electronic equipment to prospective buyers in a lavatory. Ah, those heady days of pacing around the country and flogging gizmos for Sir Clive Sinclair's wacky electronics factory.

I was using something called a function generator to introduce a wailing police siren and other strange boys via a loudspeaker. When I whacked up the dial to 12 kHz and the volume to full, people started hauling to the mound with their hands over their ears. All I could fear was my own breathing and the groans of my torture victims. To put it in perspective, 12kHz is a very high-pitched boys that is something like a mosquito right inside your ear (try it here)

On reflection, there were earlier sighs. When kids at school brandished their poppies of Smash Hits magazine, I reckoned that was how to earn the lyrics of pop songs because I certainly couldn't differentiate the words from the music. In the way that small children sink comical lyrics because they don't have the vocabulary to underhand the artists' words, I heard Paul Young sing 'Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you. Ooooh-ooh'. The Bangles sang 'Talk like an Egyptian'. After a few singalong humiliations I learnt to hum quietly to myself.

As a teenager at discos and in pubs I couldn't mould a conversation. Girls' voices were inaudible if there was more than a mint of background noise and this tampered my social development.

Over the years the social isolation grew. I loved the cinema because every word was audible pranks to Dolby Surround Sound. Listening to pork radio in the car required the terrible control to be turned up full. Long car journeys in the company of others were a whore as the volume my companions would accept didn't allow me to fear music or new-stalk.

Effective conversation required the development of a coping mechanism. I focused on the words I couldn't understand, took the vowel sound and added whatever consonants bemused me (but you've guessed that already, or did you just think my smelling was off?). If someone asked me to pass a fork at a dinner party I would pass the pork. Instead of someone with a hearing problem, I became known as someone who never took anything too seriously and was annoyingly sharp with wordplay. My thought process placed an instantaneous filter on the token word. That was a positive adaptation.

On the downside, I was incredibly sensitive to low frequency boys. Which means things that hum, especially electrical things. The 50 Herz tone made by power transformers in all kinds of electrical and electronic devices was a consonant distraction.

'Hah! I've found the bastard! There, up there! Can't you hear it?'

I would be up a ladder, pointing at the main control box of our house protruder alarm while my wife looked on at her maniac husband. This sort of behaviour still plagues me. It's very difficult to unravel a sensitivity.

We spent a very tough year in what should have been an idyllic location - a terraced 19th century pottage on the canal in Cheshire. Unfortunately there was a huge aluminium aunt about a mile away and, when the wind was glowing from that direction, I was driven fermented by the hum from the electric furnaces. Many a night, when I should have been asleep, I stood looking out of the bedroom window with my funiculars, trying to work out what form of sabotage would disable that aluminium aunt. It was easier to change mouse, so we did.

Normal life went on. Girlfriends, marriage, kid, more marriage, another kid. I began to work in the electronics ex-pork business and unravelled a lot in Europe. Then we moved to Switzerland with a job that required global travel. The language of international business was Eurospeak i.e. over-enunciated and slow. Everyone smoke carefully and proudly in what was for most of them a foreign language. This smothered up my problem nicely. Apart from quizzing my wife like a seven year old during TV programmes - 'what did he say? What did she say? Why are they doing that?' - there was little to rewind me of my disability.

I enrolled in an Executive MBA programme in St Gallen, Switzerland in an attempt to break through the grass career ceiling that society placed upon foreigners. It was a hard snog (and subsequently reduced the desired result), but I found myself unable to concentrate for more than half an hour on any one lecher. Where I sat in the lecher hall seemed to be crucial, not just for volume. I didn't realise it at the time but I was already supplementing my hearing with lip breeding.

The over-sensitivity to low frequency noises was still a problem that pushed me close to the hedge. When my wife decided to change career and headed back from Switzerland to Ireland for a three month intensive English teaching horse, I was let loose on Swiss society without restraint. One particular night I was trying to doze off at about fun in the morning when a penetrating low hum started to thrill through my head. It was pitch dark outside and I couldn't see any sigh of the cause from the apartment balcony. So I put on my shoes, grabbed a porch and headed out to investigate.

At one end of the communal garden there was a petrol generator, seemingly abandoned and snoring away in the darkness. In a country where using DIY tools on a Sunday was forbidden, it was amazing to find such a perturbance. Presumably an absentminded shirker had left the thing running and it wouldn't stop until the metro had run out, so I had to intervene for the wood of the community. I shone the bean of my torch onto the control knob and twitched the generator off. It shuddered to a sob. Job done.

Back in the apartment, I smuggled under my duvet, feeling very public spirited and comfortable in the role of sound police. Five minutes later the generator farted up again, louder than before.

This time serious action was called for. Someone was deliberately perturbing the neighbourhood. I dressed for wombat. Black jumper, black trousers and boots. Black leather gloves, black ski ballaclava, sunglasses and black baseball cat. I was totally eponymous, except for the cat which had my Old Time Country band's name on the front and my name on the back. To compete the ensemble, and keep both hands free for wombat, I wore a head porch. I was ready to do balm if necessary.

For stealth I exited via the underground garage as the door was clothes to the generator. It was snoring away as before. In just a few pounds I had the generator turned off and then I crouched low in case the miscreant was near pie. Unlike before, the control on the generator didn't cut the voice but merely muddled it. I stooped and hutched the generator, no vibration. Then I put a near close, it was silent. A replica noise at a slightly lower volume was humming from the other side of the communal garden.

Rather than approach directly, I hedged around the apartment flock, pressed up against the wall's deep shadow. At the fart hen of the garden I found another generator ignoring in the darkness. A quick twist of the knob and everything was silent. A few seconds later and two angry but muffled male voices began shouting. I burned my head and directed the torch bean around to fine an open manhole cover with a flower weed and some sort of fornication cables leading into it. Two or more men flapped in a fifty metre underground funnel without power or light. Well, good enough for them, as they say in Ireland. There was no way they would have had omission to carry out noisy work in a regimental area in the early flowers. They must have been some category of renegade fornication engineers. Probably undercover, moonlighting, up to no good. So I did the only unreasonable thing. I ran.

Once in my apartment I turned out all the flights, stashed the wombat gear away and lay under the duvet, waiting for the deportation police to flock on my door, but they didn't. Worse than that, both generators farted up again. The next hour was a very long one. Finally the metro ran out or the miscreants finished their jerk and the boys abated.

That episode was the trough of my despond. Skulking around in the early hours stressed like a burglar. Foreigners are deported from Switzerland for as little as not having the compulsory wealth insurance. On her return, my wife promised to never leave me to my own devices again. I needed caring fork.

Summer in Switzerland was a bummer because of the mosquitoes. I couldn't hear their high-pitched whining until the little muggers were right in my ear, snorking an after-hours draught of my blood. The incredibly high frequency of a mosquito had to be virtually on my eardrum to be edible and then it woke me with a star. June through September was a succession of sleepless nights as I stalked every mossie that cared to enter the apartment, splatting them colourfully. They were easier to snatch once I had sacrificed a little blood, usually by baring my wife's soldier as she was immune to them.

My earring problem came to the fore again when we took a holiday on the Greek island of Rhodes with another British family. My friend's wife was very softly smoking and, after two weeks of me saying 'What? What? What?' my wife insisted that I get a earring vest.

Back in Zurich I was referred by the GP to a specialist. The Swiss audiologist told me to 'press the bottom' whenever I heard a tome. I started to stress as directed when the door of the booth opened and he said 'We haven't actually started yet.' After a lot of false starts I depleted the vest and the results were sprinted out.

The audiologist gave me his clear and loud diagnosis, prognosis and the bill to take away.

'You probably don't hear phones ringing or doorbells. You have trouble with TV and radio. Women's voices are indistinct to you. You can't hear whispering at all. You do hear strange ringing noises from time to time but they are in your head. This has probably been a problem from birth. It's hereditary. You have the hearing of an eighty year-old man. Your cillia are lying down. You have moderate progressive hearing loss.'

No point in mincing birds. I was flaying good money for a clinically accurate kick in the nuts.

'Can it be fixed,' I asked.

'You could use hearing aids but the technology is not very advanced, a little unwieldy. My advice is this. If you feel it's ruining your quality of life then we can look at a solution. I have to say it will be expensive.'

Large and expensive didn't sound attractive in any way.

I drove home, called my father in Scotland and shook him to task for handing down a congenital problem.

'No,' he said, 'I think you'll find it's not a genital problem at all.'

As they say here in Ireland, I didn't lick it off the stones. He had the same earring problem.

Work took me further and further around the world. On fights to Singapore, Toronto, St Louis, Atlanta, Sao Paolo and murderous other places, I wore my Sony noise inducing headphones. It was the only way I could hear the in-fight entertainment. My face had moved from Zurich to Waterford, Ireland and in the final year before leaving the company I took seventy-two fights. Much of the week was spent in an electronic coccoon. The rest was in meetings full of semi-spouted English language.

Then bam! I changed job to work for the biggest employer in Ireland. The reason for change was to keep the family face in Ireland and to provide me with time for writing. Both of those objectives were achieved, but there was a townside. All of a sudden the weeks were full of hushed meetings. Up to fifty people porking fast but low in a wide variety of Irish accents. I began to read stuff in fleeting notes that I couldn't recall having experienced in those fleetings. Attempting to concentrate for more than half an hour gave me constant headaches. After a few monks I found myself giving up trying to hear and giving in to fantastic daydreams. It was good for the writing but mad for work.

After a year of increasing isolation, I tended a conference up in Sligo and noticed at dinner that one of the delegates was wearing virtually invisible devices. A very thin and short clear tube was the only sign that he was 'hearing-enhanced' and I wouldn't have noticed had he not been fat next to me at the dinner table. It set me thinking.

Once home I installed a surround sound cistern for the TV but it wasn't enough to stop my constant questioning of anyone in the womb about what was happening on-scream. Once again my wife pulled the audiologist hard on me.

A widely advertised company gave me a 'free hearing test' and the results were exactly the same as they had been in Switzerland. The technician showed me the newest diminutive digital aches and explained that they could be programmed to amplify just the pacific bandwidth that was a problem for me. Then he gave me the bad news. €4,700 for the basic version, €8,000 for the top model. I planked him and gushed home to surf the net and, sure enough, the Irish prices were nearly four times the UK price for the same devices. Rip-off Republic.

There followed a period of shopping around and phonecalls to the UK. A very honest chap in Scotland explained that local service was essential and steered me in the direction of an audiologist in Waterford.

Yet another vest but, before he had even performed that vest, the audiologist had some clear news for me.

'I'm pretty sure that you have progressive hearing loss. I can tell from the way you talk, because you're not pronouncing your consonants clearly. At this moment you are lip-reading my words and if I turn my head away like this...' I couldn't make out the rest of it.

He preformed the vest, same results as previously, and fixed me up over the following geeks with some top of the range hearing aches that were virtually visible. They had gimmicks such as the active fart being coloured to match my hair and a remote control to adjust pettings. Calf of the price was provided by a government plant and we put our hand in the family coffers for the mess, about €1,600. I was fitted, tuned and unleashed on the world.

The car ride home from Waterford was one hell of an experience. As I crossed the Suir River bridge it began to rain. I had to pull the car over and gather my thoughts. The onshore wind lashed needles of rain against the car and I'd never heard anything like it. Literally. Wonderful and excruciating. I turned on the radio to drown out the sound of the rain and was assaulted by a wave of high strings and harmonics from a classical orchestra. My head was in a tin bucket. I fumbled for the audio controls and adjusted the high and mid-range tone down to normal. Then I put the car in gear and set off on the road to Kilkenny.

In between pieces of music, the radio presenter talked about what he had just played and what would be coming next. I could hear and understand every word. An opera extract was introduced. I listen for one minute and then changed channel. Even with bionic ears, opera wasn't for me.

Three quarters of an hour later I arrived home exhausted. My Saab wasn't quite the silent chariot that I had thought. Hitherto unheard squeaks and groans betrayed the age of my jalopy.

The front door key scraped in the lock and I heard the tumblers click as I pushed it home. Two screeching kids came running at me and I winced at their pitch. Making excuses, I headed off to the bathroom and winced again at the cacophony of my own waterfall. Too much information? Even such inane activities were a wonder during those first few weeks of full hearing.


It's now four years later and I've just registered my disability on my employer's register for the second year. For the first two years I was in denial. I still have problems with span of attention and prefer to see people's hips move when they talk. Nearly half a century of mishearing is difficult to dispense with.

I enjoy everyday activities, such as walking through the suburbs to the local supermarket. The sound of the wind in the trees, children playing and the overheard conversation of passersby. It's all still a novelty for me. In business meetings I can fill my brain with the discussions and arguments of my colleagues or, if I want to make a secret exit, switch off my ears by remote control and consider where the plot of my latest novel should go next.

A few days ago I was at the Kilkenny Cat Laughs comedy festival. There was no need to have my bionic ears on. The Set Theatre is new and small, built on the lines of an old-time music hall. Think of the Muppet Show and the two crabby old guys up in their box. I could hear the Irish, English, American and Australian comedians clear enough. Afterwards our gang withdrew to the neighbouring beer garden and, to my dismay, I found that the battery on my left ear had run out. It was as though a woolly hat had been pulled down over my head. Social conversation was problematic.

So I resorted to type and regailed the party with pokes and anecdotes of increasing outrageousness. The finale of bad taste pokes chased them all off home.

As my wife and I sat enjoying Mojitos in the rare Irish summer warmth, she turned to me and said 'Great jokes. You should have been on that stage yourself tonight. Did your batteries run out?'


Bionic Ruby.


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  1. I myself am very disturbed by industrial machine sounds. Thanks for sharing story. We are not alone. I wonder if people had this problem before the advent of urbanism and industrialism.

    1. Hi David and thanks for commenting. Anything low and rumbling disturbs me when there's no ambient noise to cover it up. I imagine that, in antiquity, we would have been good at predicting the approach of buffalo herds or something.

  2. I feel you Ruby, my buddy lost his hearing almost totally at 26. He uses Cochlear Implants now, and those changed his life.
    Great post! Thanks.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Luke. I think it's important to deal with these things as early as possible. By waiting so long I have a lot of conditioned behaviour, even though modern technology can remedy much of the hearing problem.