Hearing the Music Again

Fifteen years ago I woke up one morning to a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Still in the stupor of sleep, I swatted it and thereby ruptured my eardrum. I knew I was in trouble when two otolaryngologists told me my hearing was badly impaired and that nothing could be done about it.

So, besides the typical high frequency loss one gets from aging, I was hearing about half of what I should in my left ear. My love of music was the first casualty. I had (and have) a big collection of vinyl and CDs, a very good stereo, and a love of jazz and classical since childhood. I’ve been writing professionally about music for years. That story is here.

First to go were the cymbals and higher frequency sounds. A blanket had been draped over my speakers. Bass players were under water. I learned to ignore the problem, telling myself, “My hearing is not that bad.”

But the major handicap was conversation—in meetings, bars, restaurants, at work—and distinguishing voices from background noise. How embarrassing to repeat those typical responses of the hearing impaired: “What?” “Say it again, please.” When you knew you were missing something, you sometimes just nodded to gloss over it.

I was to learn what a racket the hearing aid business is. For $2,000 I bought a then-state-of-the-art ReSound hearing aid for the one ear. After several visits to the dealer, it never was tuned right and had a metallic, tinny sound. Five years ago I took it to a shop in the U.S. (there were no dealers in Mexico), and they said it was too old to reprogram.

Over time I just learned to compensate and come to terms with being handicapped and partially isolated from the life of sound. Two years ago I bought a Bose contraption with a collar around the neck so I could better hear the inscrutable audio from most movies. Cumbersome, though it worked fairly well, I thought. But for music, it sounded like what you’d hear on a CB radio.

In the United States last week, I visited Costco (that bold symbol of America) and bought a new hearing aid, a Phonak KS10 that they sell for $1399. For this you get a very thorough hearing test, high-tech programming and customizing, and a host of features to adjust the sound. You control most parameters through a Bluetooth connection on your phone. Phone calls come directly through the hearing aid.

The KS10 is truly state-of-the-art and has brought me back to some kind of sonic reality. Music heard this way begins to approximate what a fully hearing person can hear. And it works across the frequency range without much distortion.

Hearing loss produces its own kind of reality distortion. You avoid difficult situations where hearing can be marginal. You instinctively measure your ability to respond. You mask your disability. All these behaviors have mental and emotional consequences. I hope those days are behind me, and I’m blessed that the music is back.