D.W. Schmidt

I am no singer, and I can supply numerous witnesses to corroborate this claim. Nonetheless, I like to sing along with the radio, and I enjoy singing in church. In fact, I had no idea how much singing meant to me until this past Sunday’s service.

          You see, Sunday was the first time I went to church with my new hearing aids—and it was awful. Wait a second—church wasn’t awful. It was quite lovely. Two baby boys, first cousins, were baptized in front of their moms and dads, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, and so on. No, just the singing was awful, and I don’t mean the “worship team” either. It was awful because what I heard when I sang was me singing.

          Now, hearing my own bad voice is bad—but the situation is worse and more complicated than just that. From the get-go, the hardest part of learning to live with hearing aids is adjusting to hearing yourself in a strange, even paradoxical, way. Yes, everything outside my own person sounds better—crisper and clearer—than before. Understand, I can’t hear everything. They don’t give me real, normal hearing. But, still, stuff generally sounds normal.

          Except me. If you have never thought about it, well, neither did I. The devices are really earplugs that are attached to microphones. Sounds from outside my head are captured by the mic and then transmitted through plastic tubes into my ear. When I talk, though, it sounds like I am wearing earplugs because I am. And I am hearing what the microphones pick up, which is my lousy voice when I am singing.

          If you are a non-hearing-impaired reader/hearer and you are curious about my plight, try plugging your ears and listening to your own voice on your telephone answering machine. That might do it. It’ll help if you sing off-key, too.

          So I think I am going to shut up a little, in church and elsewhere. Before I move on, I’d like to point out that I’m not one of those bad singers who obliviously caterwauls in church and ruins everyone else’s worship time. In fact, when people are directly in front of me I will try to divert or decrease the bad sounds coming out of my mouth. I don’t want to bother anybody, but I’d like to participate. It’s tough when you can’t stand yourself.

          Paula, my wife, tried to offer some encouragement. She suggested that if I hear myself through the microphones, I might be able to match my voice to the tune and actually sing in key. Well, she meant well.

          What I hear from the experts is that these things take time, and I would appear to have plenty to adjust to the hearing-aided life. I have hearing aids at the age of 46, and I can count on a slow (hopefully), steady decline in my hearing for, well, as long as I live. I admit that it is a lot to take in, and I have moments when I feel like a baby—like when I’m (not) singing in church. And when I went in for testing in the first place.

          Sitting in the testing booth, I looked up and then mostly down, searching in my head for the sounds that were apparently being transmitted through the headphones attached to my ears. The technician, a nice lady named Erica, asked me if I had been around guns throughout my life.

          Nope.

          She asked if I worked in a factory or on the railroad.

          I am a college professor.

          I looked down again during the next test. My task was to repeat words that Erica said to me. I was facing her as she sat on the other side of a window outside the booth. But her mouth was covered, and I couldn’t see her lips moving. So I looked down and concentrated like hell on the words she said and which I could “hear” but not understand.

          By the time she asked again about my previous exposure to loud noises, I was just trying not to cry in the booth. For a year or so, I had either denied my hearing loss or joked about it. In the conclusion to my last book I claimed that I was okay with missing the sounds I was missing because they were mostly annoying. Then “people” started maintaining that I had heard and agreed to things I hadn’t. Finally, in April, Paula and I were rear-ended on Sisk Road in Modesto, and in the aftermath of the accident everyone (including me) seemed to think my hearing was worse. All of which led me to this session of reality therapy in the sound booth.

          More appointments followed: measurements, molds, fittings, etc. I learned about hearing aids and hearing loss. I found out that I was often hearing the vowels in words but not the consonants. I heard noise coming from people’s mouths, but I couldn’t understand it. I also learned the rules, such as no dirt, no sweat, no water, no sleeping.

          It probably helped that the audiologist who set me up with the hearing aids is also hearing impaired and also is a dirt bike rider. But there is nothing anyone can do to prepare you (me) for what happens when you (I) put the things in your (my) ears. On one hand, I heard things like footsteps, my own and others’, in high definition—especially on the gravel driveways at the house. But then as I said at the beginning of this piece, I heard my own voice in a disconcerting, disquieting way. I am still trying to get used to modulating my own volume. Without the aids, I am too loud. With them, I am convinced I’m too loud, but people often can’t hear me.

          There are other sound oddities and annoyances: when I drink or eat, particularly crunchy food stuffs, I can’t hear much of anything outside my head; when the wind blows, I get buffeting that drowns other noises; when I talk on the telephone, I have to hold the receiver to the microphone, not my ear, and I can’t get it quite right. Then there are the batteries and the tubes. . .

          Stop me.

          You might have guessed by now that hearing aids do not perform magic. My hearing isn’t coming back. Even with the aids, I can’t hear like a non-impaired hearer. I am sorry, too, that loved ones have to put up with me and be patient with me. On the bright side, my goats, dogs, cats, and rabbit have not been adversely affected by my disability.

          It will get better.

          Seriously, I can be thankful for my family and friends. I can be thankful that I am not deaf and shouldn’t be for a long time (hopefully). Plus, I can buy a device that turns my hearing aids into hands-free Bluetooth receivers for my cell phone! Maybe they are a little magical.

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