Hearing Things Sharper Than Ever Before

If you’ve ever gotten a new pair of prescription glasses, you probably know that feeling of amazement, looking at the world clearly through a new set of lenses. It’s a wonderful new world, all of a sudden, (or if you’re like a certain friend, a realisation that all of the women he’d been dating looked, well, not what he expected). Regaining your hearing is almost like that, but it’s different in ways I wasn’t expecting.

I know I’ve had some hearing loss since I was a kid. I was the fool standing directly in front of the P.A. at Harpo’s when I was a kid. I plugged my sony walkman headphones into my guitar amplifier when walkman came out. I played it loud enough to make a zit in my ear bleed. I was, in short, a dumbass about my hearing. I was the guy in the noisy bar who just smiled and nodded politely, no matter what you were saying, using visual cues to say something that might or might not have had anything to do with the “conversation” we were “having”.

When I got a job with a federal contractor, was the first time I had quantification of my hearing loss, due to their baseline physical. A baseline physical is a process where a contractor protects itself from being sued: “I lost my hearing due to this job” one might claim, and they’d point to the baseline physical and say, “uh-uh-uh-uh, mister faker, you were deaf when we hired your dumb ass.”

Anyway, about 3 weeks ago, I lost probably 80% of my hearing in the left ear due to ear wax. I stood in line at the store watching some kids goofing off, before realising the cashier was repeating herself for probably the third time, asking me a question. So, I set about trying to get rid of the nasty crap in my ear over the course of a couple weeks. As an aside, I noticed there was some advantage to not being able to hear so well. For instance, I didn’t have to win arguments, I could just comfortably ignore them. But overall, the experience was uncomfortable, and slightly frightening. It’s a very isolated feeling to suddenly not be able to hear.

So, I started putting drops of peroxide in my ear, and holding my head sideways for as long as I could handle it. I tried putting olive oil in my ear. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. One night, I got the peroxide to bubble for a while, and thought I was making progress, but when I drained it out, still nothing. Finally, I bought a new bottle of peroxide, thinking the stuff I had was so old that it was no longer effective, and a small bottle of baby oil, another remedy I’d read about. At first, nothing, again. Finally, I overcame my conservation attitude, and ran hot water for a few minutes over the bottles to warm the stuff up. A couple drops of baby oil, followed by a couple drops of peroxide, and when I flushed it out, a couple micrograms of ear wax in the sink! I was on the right track, maybe, at last! The next day, I repeated the hot water over the bottles, drop, drop, drop, and flush out with warm water, and HOLY MOTHER OF!!! A big ugly, yet beautiful to see, gob of that nasty crap sitting in the sink, and… and… and… I COULD HEAR AGAIN!!! A-freaking-mazing!

Like a kid in potty training, I wanted everyone to come look at the crap I’d deposited in the sink! I was so proud, and happy. When I first told someone about it, though, I noticed the sound of my voice. It was uncomfortable. I suddenly noticed the sound of my breathing. When I put a coffee cup on the counter, the sound jumped out at me. I winced when I closed, (slammed?), the garage door behind me. Everything, I mean, everything, was uncomfortably LOUD.

Suddenly, I noticed every sound, in detail that I don’t remember. It was overwhelming. Really, it was too much. Leaf blowers blowing outside, jet airplanes overhead, every little sound was now bombarding my head, and overwhelming my senses.

I decided to go kayaking, since I really couldn’t think of anything else to do that wouldn’t cause sensory overload. Kayaking can be pretty darn boring, in case you’ve never tried paddling a mile or two. Being a holiday, there were motorboats, airplanes, birds, the noise was just as bad. It seemed like I could hear every drop of water from a boat’s bow wave from a hundred yards away. I paddled out to the gulf, and anchored off the shore, and figured I’d just get used to the sound of waves crashing on the shore for a bit. It helped, a little, I guess, just as a way of getting my brain to accept there was a level of noise in the world that I was just going to have to get used to.

So, I read an article talking about how hearing loss affects the brain; not just the psychological effects, such as the feeling of total isolation, but actual physiological effects on the brain. After a day of having my hearing restored, at least to “baseline” levels, I can tell you, having your hearing restored after a few weeks without it is a little disorienting. It’s not like a new pair of glasses, where you put ’em on, and everything’s wonderful. It’s a whole new process of learning not to jump at every sudden noise that you never heard before. At the end of the day, I was physically exhausted, it seems, just from processing all of the new sensory input. It might sound over-dramatic, but I’m really not exaggerating, or if I am, not by much.

Speaking of “baseline”, I’ve long noticed through boring hours of kayaking, that I can hear the wind blowing past the paddle on my right side, but not my left. Even though my left ear seems to be hypersensitive, I still can’t hear that, so I still have some permanent hearing loss.


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