My Hearing Loss Felt Normal, Until I Tried to Fix It

I've been half-deaf my whole life. But when I finally heard sound with a hearing aid, my hearing loss started to frustrate me more than it ever had before.

Tess Barker

Tess Barker

Photo by Flickr user Travis Isaacs

It had been 20 years since I'd sat on a stool in one of these dark carpeted booths, but nothing had changed. There was the diagram of the human ear with its parts illustrated and labeled. There were the heavy headphones with rubber lining that clung to my face. There was the audiologist who watched me from outside, making note of when I heard a beep, and, more importantly, when I did not. I am deaf in one ear and have been since I was born. Tests like this have always made me feel like a defective specimen. Why put me in this booth, to chart the specifics of my malfunction? Doctors told me a long time ago: There was nothing to be done.

I've lived my entire life with the hole on my right side, where awareness should be. In grocery stores, at Disneyland, jogging through Griffith Park, I am used to being in peoples' way. I don't hear them say "excuse me," until it's the fourth time and they're already annoyed. If I have a friend with me, he or she might tell me to move, but I won't know what direction I'm supposed to go in, so I flail around like a big dumb animal and wonder why I have always been "the spazzy one." This is just who I am—one of the 15 percent of Americans with hearing loss. Or I thought it was, until I learned about bone-anchored hearing aids (BAHAs), a new technology that sends sound waves past the ear to the bone of the skull and is ideal for people who are deaf in only one ear.

After years of getting in trouble at school because I was the only kid who had to whip her head around to hear the gossip circulating around the classroom, of confusing strangers by turning into them when they whispered something into my bad side, learning about BAHAs, and finding out that there was something to be done, brought me back into the audiologist's booth. If I passed this test—or, rather, if I failed it—then maybe there would be normal hearing waiting for me on the other side.

Beep. I raised my hand. Sitting there was proof again that there was something wrong with me. A fainter beep. Another hand raise. There was nothing wrong with me, I thought.I was fine. I've been fine. I've made it work. A fainter beep. Was that even a beep, or the ringing I hear when I'm about to faint? I raised my hand just in case. What if I was doing too well at this? What if they denied me because once I again, I managed to pass as a fully hearing person? I stepped out of the booth and into the light.

"Well, you have profound hearing loss," the audiologist told me flatly, before having me pull up a chair.

She proceeded to show me a graph on her monitor that echoed what I've always known: My right ear is essentially just for decoration. Then came the actual news. The front desk had called my insurance while I'd been in the booth. Normally, hearing aids are not covered by insurance because they're a "luxury," but because a BAHA requires surgery, it would be covered. I could get a BAHA. This was actually going to happen. As she used a model of the human head to show where they would insert a screw into my skull for the new sound receptor, my excitement bubbled over.

Photo by the author

I've never felt sorry for myself that I'm hard of hearing. I have, however, always felt that I'm living on roller skates while most people walk around in shoes. I don't hear in stereo, so every noise exists on one vague plain. Sounds have no sense of place for me. When people call my name, I don't know where they're coming from. For a long time, as a child, I struggled with insomnia because every time I lay down on my left ear, I could hear my own heart beat, and that sounded exactly the same to me as steps coming from downstairs.

Hearing without direction has made the element of surprise a constant in my life. Chaos is white noise that I no longer hear. I can pull an unexpected all-nighter in the middle of the week. I can leave for a road trip without packing. This is why I always told myself I wouldn't go back and be born as a fully hearing person, even if I had the chance.

I wouldn't, but finding out that I could get a BAHA forced me to admit that just because I've made the most of a defect didn't mean that I should live stunted forever.

I always thought the first thing I would hear normally on my right side would be a symphony or a flock of wild birds, but it was just one of those hearing test beeps, and I only heard it faintly.

Maybe I was on the way to spending the rest of my time as a fully-hearing person, but first I would have to navigate the circuitous nonsense that is a the silver-level HMO Anthem Blue Cross version of Obamacare. I went to a nurse practitioner at my primary care physician's office and was referred to an ear, nose, and throat doctor who was actually a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills.

I sat in his posh office, and he revealed that he was part of the tribe: "I'm deaf in one ear, too!" he exclaimed.

"Do you have a hearing aid?"

"No." And then, "Why do you want one?"

I'd never had to defend my desire to hear out of both sides of my head before, and I searched for specific reasons. All of them seemed small by themselves, but in the aggregate, they were important. I want to be able to drive a car and hear my friends and not the wind, as my good ear faces the window. I want to stop having to ask people to repeat mundane sentences with annoyed looks on their faces. I want to sit on either side of someone at the movies and not have to miss out on all the mid-movie whispers that seem insignificant until you're being excluded from them. I want to know if someone is walking up behind me.

On Noisey: A man who's been deaf his whole life talks about hearing music for the first time.

After pretending to hear what I'd said, the Beverly Hills doctor referred me to another audiologist, who had to do another test because the first one hadn't been "in network." At the second audiologist, there was another beeping test, but this time, we had to test not just my ears but my skull's ability to transmit sound. BAHAs are hearing aids that transmit sound directly to the inner ear, by way of the bone, rather than the busted ear. She put the headphone on my skull and fired off a beep. I heard it on my right side.

I guess I always thought the first thing I would hear normally on my right side would be a symphony or a flock of wild birds, but it was just one of those hearing test beeps, and I only heard it faintly. Still, hearing anything at all, to feel sound coming from that region of my head, felt like finding a leafy sprig growing on the moon.

"Your bone isn't as viable as I was hoping," the audiologist said, showing me a graph of where normal hearing was (high), where my hearing was (low), and where the BAHA would put me (somewhere in between).

Until now, I'd pictured my hearing aid elevating me to perfect hearing. As with everything else that has existed only on the horizon of my future, I hadn't entertained the idea that reality may fall short of my expectations. Having a box on my skull would not give me normal hearing. I let this sink in before consoling myself, with a phrase that has gotten me through countless dead-end jobs and gas-station meals: "It's better than nothing."

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Even so, I was excited. But then, later that week, Anthem Blue Cross mysteriously canceled my policy. I spent hours on the phone with them trying to find out why it had been canceled. I had paid my bills all on time. They told me that they saw I had paid my bills but that I would be issued a refund for my payment because my policy had been canceled due to lack of payment. I spent over an hour on the phone with a man named Steven who at one point said in a very authoritative voice, "Ma'am, just because we get your money doesn't mean we use it."

The closer I get, the more it slips away. My hearing loss frustrates me more now than it ever has before.

Two months wore on. I called Anthem Blue Cross almost daily. The hearing aid that I had come so close to getting, again became the stuff of "somedays." Eventually, with the help of the insurance commission, I helped Anthem Blue Cross help themselves see that they had indeed made an error, and my policy was reinstated. I now call the ENT's office every other day, but I still have not successfully landed an appointment with an in-network surgeon. Someone in that office is perpetually "looking into it."

Getting this surgery has started to feel like grasping a drop of mercury. The closer I get, the more it slips away. My hearing loss frustrates me more now than it ever has before. I shouldn't have to live like this when there's a way to fix it.

I will always be half-deaf, though, even when I finally get that device put in my head. I will always be a person who can sleep through car alarms and crying babies on planes because I can always turn my good ear down and envelope myself in solitude. I will always be a good listener, because for so much of my life, every conversation has required effort and focus. I hope, though, that I won't always be split into two sides: the me who is talkative and outgoing and aware and confident, and the me who is constantly apologizing and worried everyone thinks I'm dumb because I smile and nod when I don't want to say "I'm sorry?" again.

I wish I knew already what it will be like to merge these two versions of me—to hear my dogs barking and my phone ringing and my friend behind me on a surfboard telling me to watch out—all from both sides of my awareness, to walk through a world where these things have context and place and not just sound, but the other half of me wishes I had never heard that faint beep on the side of my skull at all.

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