Friday, December 9, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Partial Hearing Loss

Warning (to most people) and/or selling point (for ten-year-old boys and people who have the mentality of ten-year-old boys): There are gross medical pictures in this post.

I've mentioned a couple of times now that I am hard of hearing. When I was a little kid - three or four - I started developping chronic, really bad ear infections. Ear infections are bad news bears, guys; they should never be neglected. Sadly, no one told my family doctor this, so despite my parents's repeated concerns that this wasn't normal, the doctor kept brushing it off and refusing to do anything about it. He is awful. So very awful. I will call him Dr. Awful. Eventually, my infections were so bad that even Dr. Awful finally acknowledged that maybe I needed to see an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist. But it was too late: the problems has progressed beyond the point of antibiotics and bedrest.

My new ENT doctor, who I will call Dr. Awesome, determined that I had a condition called cholesteatoma. (Yes, I definitely spelled that wrong at first.)Cholesteatoma is a specific type of skin cyst that forms on the eardrum. It's a fucking asshole and should probably die.

If you want to learn more about cholesteatoma, here you go, but unless you are a doctor, biologist, or Trekkie, that Wikipedia page might as well be written in Klingon. I'll try and dumb it down, although I am not a doctor myself and most of this went on when I was too young to really get it, so my own interpretation is probably a bit off.

Basically, cholesteatoma is a very serious cyst. All cysts are serious, of course, but this one's a biggie, and there are differences of opinion in the medical community on whether or not it counts as a borderline tumor. One of the most common causes is the neglect of ear infections. (Thanks,Dr. Awful! You deafened me, douchebag!) It's a cyst that attaches itself to your eardrum, and if it's not treated properly, it can spread and grow and kill you so hard.

(OK, I made that up, I don't know if an untreated cholesteatoma can actually kill you. But it's more dramatic that way so we'll pretend that it can turn into a zombie tumor and eat your brain.)


Cholesteatoma was a really shitty experience, obviously. Not only were the earaches and infections getting worse, the cyst was threatening to totally and permanently deafen me or induce severe life-changing vertigo, so something had to be done. (But do I really even have to say why it sucked? I had a cyst growing inside my head.That was not fun.)

The cholesteatoma had to be surgically removed from my eardrum. So I went in for an operation when I was seven and my ENT specialist performed a mastoidectomy. That is the removal of the mastoid bone from the eardrum. I am not 100% sure why that was medically necessary (not that I'm doubting that it was) or what the mastoid bone had to do with the cyst; I guess removing it helped prevent the spread of the cyst or growth of additional cystlike stuff or some such important business. But whatever the reason, that happened. And because I now have a big ol' hole in my head where part of my eardrum should be, and also because the process that a healthy ear undertakes to keep itself clean (ie using earwax to filter the gunk out of your head) has been interrupted by all these complications, I now suffer from significant and permanent hearing loss in my right ear.

The partial hearing loss as a side effect of the mastoidectomy is, of course, preferable to total hearing loss and other much-more-serious complications that would have arisen from not treating the cholesteatoma. So here I am, twenty years later, free from the torturous earaches of my youth, but with the ear of a much older woman handling one of the body's most important senses.

Last time I has my hearing checked - over 10 years ago now - I had lost about 1/4 of the hearing in my right ear. I am rougly 107% sure that it has regressed even further since then. But my left ear is just fine. That means you will often hear me saying things like "speak in my good ear!" and and "no, let me walk on the other side of you" and "WHAT?" This all leads to a sort of disconnect from one's expectations, because most ladies who talk about their "bad ear" are postmenopausal, not 27, and certainly not prepubescent. But that's my life, and that's how it's almost always been. 

In most ways, being hard of hearing is predictably shitty. But it has its advantages. So let me lay it all out for you!

Walking down the street: PRO

Since my left ear is the good one, I generally try to walk/sit to the right of people, so that my good side is pointing at them. Walking down a quiet residential street in the suburbs or a small town is usually not that big a deal, but walking down a busy city street? There is approximately zero point in me attempting this on the left side of whoever I'm with. The person beside me's voice is going to be a whisper competing for my attention with car horns and traffic blaring at at me on my left. So I generally make sure to put myself on the right.

This might sound inconvenient, but it can, occasionally, have its own benefits. In Canada, we drive on the right side of the road, so if a friend and I are walking against traffic, then suddenly I'm a motherfucking hero. I'm placing myself closer to the traffic than they are, thus ensuring the continued safety of my friend with my own selfless sacrifice. Yes, companion, that's right, I'm pretty much Batman.

Walking down the street: CON

Of course, the reverse of this is that if we're walking with trafic, suddenly I'm no longer Batman; now I'm Willie from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and I'm going to place you between me and the danger like some sort of wailing idiot. And just in case some dudes out there think that all of us women have a damsel-in-distress fantasy, let me make myself clear: some of us do, most of us don't, and no one wants to be Willie.

Talking at a loud place: PRO

It's also a great conversation starter, of course. If I'm in a loud place - a rock concert, a sports arena, a "nts-nts" nightclub - I will be completely unable to talk to someone if they're speaking in my right ear. But for some reason, everybody does. Trust me. You've never had to worry about this, but I have since long before I was old enough to go to bars and rock concerts, so I can assure you: to yell into someone's ear at a loud place, you will lean to their right. Don't even try and think about it. You do. I promise. I don't know what evolutionary reason there is for this - maybe in ancient times there was some sort of scary animal that was prone to attacking people on the right side of the body, so conversing into each other's right ears was an instinctive method of self-preservation and protecting your community's vulnerability. I don't fucking know. But it happens.

That's the kind of thing that you know if you are hard of hearing, because it will actually matter to you. If I'm at a club and someone tries to lean to my right to tell me something, I will pull back, motion theatrically to my left ear so that I get the message across, and they'll continue the conversation so that I can hear it. They will then be bewildered, because maybe they didn't know about my hearing issues, and they don't know why they have to talk to my left. So now we have something to talk about! And while trying to shout explanations for words like "cholesteatoma" and "mastoidectomy" in a nightclub is probably going to go nowhere, I will be able to sort of roughly explain that I'm hard of hearing. And although I've been spoken for for about 6 six years now, this was very useful during my single days. Automatic icebreaker! Immediate thing that is interesting about me! And shit, everyone likes talking about themselves. Why do you think I blog in the first place?

Talking at a loud place: CON

I probably don't have to explain this, right? Even the "pro" for this part was a pretty weak pro. It is LAME to be hard of hearing in a loud place. This is my life:

Remember how I said I have to "theatrically" gesture to my left ear to get my point across if the club or concert hall is really loud? Keep in mind these places are also usually dark, so I have to be as big and obnoxious about this as I can to get my point across. "MY HAND IS GESTURING TO THIS EAR, THIS IS THE EAR YOU MUST USE, I AM USELESS IF YOU DO NOT YELL INTO THIS EAR FOR THE REMAINDER OF THE EVENING, KIND SOLDIER!"
And for the rest of the night, the person in question will forget all about it. Every single time they talk to me, they'll talk into my right ear again. Every. Single. Time. I'll re-gesture to my left, and they will laugh at themselves, and this will happen repeatedly, sometimes even within a singular conversation. (People do tend to be drunk at nightclubs and rock concerts and sports arenas and pretty much everywhere else that is loud.) Roughly the third or fourth time we try and talk at the loud place, this will happen:

Them (leaning toward my right ear): mumble mumble
Me (gesturing to my left): Sorry, what?
Me (smiling): It's ok, everyone does it, I'm used to it. What were you going to say?
Them (leaning back into my right ear): mumble mumble
Me (gesturing back to my left): Here, please.
Me: It's ok, really, just tell me what you were going to say...
Them (leaning back into my right ear): mumble mumble
Me (smile and nod): Uh....Tuesday!

And this brings me to the next con.

People always forget: CON

It doesn't matter if they're someone I just met that night or one of my best friends since forever or my own freaking parents - you know, those people who had to deal with this in their second-grader:

 Everyone forgets. Everyone. And do not be mistaken: obviously I am not upset about that. I would probably forget too. I totally do not think people are assholes for forgetting this about me because it's such an unusual thing to have to remember: walking on the left side of me, talking into my left ear at a club, handing the earbud headpphone to the correct side of my head when they want to show me a new song. And people only have to remember this about me sporadically and in extremely specific situations - most of the time, I am not in the club or loud restaurants or being shown funky new songs. Those are very specific situations. So I'm sure I would forget to always place myself on one side of a certain friend when we were in a loud place too. I totally get it and I've been living with it my whole life and it's fine.

It's just that everyone thinks it's so damn hilarious when they forget all the time. I love you, people, but oh my god I can only laugh at this the first hundred times! And I try to laugh as enthusiastically as them, but then, of course, I know that they think I'm annoyed, because fake-laughing is the most obvious thing ever. So please know, dear friends, that I am not fake-laughing because I'm pissed off and I think you're a forgetful narcisstic asshole, or because I don't have a sense of humour. I'm just fake-laughing cause it's kind of old and routine to me now - twenty goddamn years of this - and I just can't find the humour in it anymore. I'm not annoyed, just indifferent. To me, it's like you're seeing Ace Ventura for the first time ever, and you are in hysterics over the way Jim Carrey talks with his asscheeks. I get it, I know it's funny, and in fact it is fucking hilarious, but I don't know how to laugh at it anymore. Twenty viewings later, and you see the joke coming a mile away.

I sleep better at night: PRO

The final, and absolutely the 100% best "pro" about being hard of hearing. In fact, if I'm being honest, this is really the only pro that is legitimately awesome. 

I'll tell you a little story. When Mr. Caterpillar and I first moved into our house, we had some ceiling fan issues. It was June 2007, and as every Ottawan knows, summers in Ottawa be hot. Sticky, sweaty, humid, bullshit hot.

Our windows weren't properly insulated that summer (all fixed now) and our air conditioning is the sort that turns the basement into an ice cube and pretty much ignores the top floor. So we relied on the blessed relief of our ceiling fan to help us deal with the stagnant lava-gas that passes as "air" on still summer nights in Ontario. 

We had one problem: our ceiling fan sucked. Every rotation it made, it would make this weird clicking noise when one of the blades whipped against the lightbulb. It was like horses' hooves galloping around our bedroom: CLACKITY CLACKITY CLACKITY HAHA FUCK YOU AND YOUR PATHETIC NEED FOR "SLEEP" CLACKITY CLACK. This is, like our windows, corrected now, but it took us a whole summer to figure out how.

But, my friends, I have a trick!

See, if I were lying down on my back or on my right side, with my left ear pointing up, I would hear that clackity-clacking loud and clear. It was basically a megaphone pointed directly at me. So all I had to do was roll over onto my left side, with my bad ear pointing up, and: silence.

Seriously. Silence. Not a sound to be heard.

I am still sometimes kind of amazed at how easy it is. Mr. Caterpillar's up late killing screeching dragons or causing explosions all over Liberty City? Roll over to my left! The neighbours are yelling at each other on the other side of our paper-thin walls? Roll over to my left! The cats are trying very hard to kill each other in the hall? Roll over to my left! It's like my own personal mute button. But it's not so effective that my alarm won't wake me up.

Now I bet you wish you were part deaf too!

Yeah....I'll keep telling myself that's what you wish.

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