As the founding editor of Phonak’s community blog “Open Ears” (now part of “Hearing Like Me“) I contributed a series of articles on hearing loss between 2014 and 2015. Here they are.
It was last week. I guess a two-year love story with my aids is not too bad, so it had to happen someday.
I was working in my office when a loud alarm-like sound went off. Now, in certain parts of the world this is habitual, but not in this quiet little part of Switzerland. We don’t have house and car alarms going off twenty times a day (we don’t have house or car alarms most of the time). Ambulances and police cars sometimes go by but they won’t use their sirens unless they need them.
We looked at each other in the office, and I hopped out of the ground-level window to investigate. Was this going to involve calling the police?
The noise actually seemed to be coming from the playground, and not the parking lot next to it as I had thought initially. By the time I was close enough it had stopped. I checked out the playground and saw a couple of little kids putting down huge plastic sci-fi guns down. Now that was more plausible than a rogue car alarm: noisy toys. I wandered around the garden a little, searching for one of my cats, when the sound went off again. This time it was clearly coming from the playground, and I could see the kids in full action with their guns, shooting at imaginary hostiles in the bushes.
I made for the playground, called to the kids, and told them off for making so much horrible noise when there were people trying to work or rest in the neighbourhood. We like our peace and quiet here in the land of the Swiss. They looked at each other, at me, shrugged it off, and as I turned to go, I heard a woman calling to me from the balcony three floors above. They were her kids, and she was quite angry at me for telling them off when they were just playing in the playground on a sunny vacation day.
I told her that yes, I had asked them to stop that horrible noise because it was really unpleasant. She went off in a big rant about letting kids play and that I just had to live with it. I told her again that the noise was really bad, and that I was wondering what was going on because it was so loud and sounded so much like an alarm. She wasn’t really listening to me, though, and just ranted back.
That’s when one of the men in the park jumped into the conversation and said it was a car alarm. And I said yes, it sounds like a car alarm, don’t you agree it’s a bit disruptive for “kid’s play”? But he insisted. It was really a car alarm. It wasn’t their toys.
As soon as I realised what a terrible mistake I had made, I immediately apologised profusely, to the mother, and also to the two boys, with whom I double-checked that it wasn’t their guns. They seemed to get it.
The mother didn’t, however. She continued ranting at me even though I was now trying to explain that it was a misunderstanding and I was mortified about having told off the kids who were doing nothing wrong. And of course I would never have told off kids for playing in the park, I only did so because I thought their guns were making this horrible loud noise. I couldn’t get a word in, and I’m usually pretty good at that.
At one point I understood she had no clue which noise I was talking about, and so when the alarm went off again, I pointed it out to her. She clearly thought I was crazy for imagining this noise could come out of a child’s toy and scoffed at my explanation. I wonder now if she thought I was trying to make up an excuse because she had “caught me” telling off the kids for playing?
And then it dawned on me. One piece of information she was missing was my hearing loss and hearing aids. So I tried to tell her. I said “I’m sorry, I’m hard of hearing and sometimes I have trouble judging the volume of noises and where they come from.” The ranting didn’t stop, and as by that point I was bursting into tears, I ended up walking off.
Now, there were a bunch of upsetting elements and triggers in this episode for me. I was stressed, preoccupied about something unrelated, and being falsely accused of something (like hating children and not wanting them to enjoy their spring holiday) is one of my big triggers. But what particularly upset me here is that I would never have got myself into this situation if I didn’t have hearing loss and hearing aids.
My world of sound is not imaginable for the angry ranting mother on her balcony. My hearing aids are wonderful when it comes to communicating with people, but two years in (and maybe my fault for not wearing them from morning to evening even when I’m alone?) there are still some ambient sounds which startle me and register as “unknown” because they’re just not at a volume I expect. And despite all the wireless and electronic magic going on in my hearing aids, I do get the feeling that for certain sounds, I have more trouble than I used to identifying their origin.
My hearing loss has long felt like a detail in my life. These last years, particularly since my fitting, have been a journey in realising how much a core part of who I am and how I relate to others has its roots in how much — or little — I hear. I’m used to having one-way communication with children I don’t know, because without hearing aids, I can’t understand a quarter of what they say (and children are not good at all at dealing with an adult who asks them to repeat stuff). Had I approached those boys to talk with them and make sure their guns were making the noise I suspected, things would have been different. But I didn’t, because I’ve learned not to start conversations or ask questions when I’m not going to be able to understand the answer. Had I not been muddled about volume and orientation of the sound I heard, because I can still be surprised at how unexpectedly loud certain sounds can be, I wouldn’t even have suspected the kids for starters. I thought the noise sounded loud to me because I was wearing my hearing aids, not because it actually was that loud.
It hurts to realise that my ears (organic and electronic) can lure me into such socially disastrous situations.
After I’d calmed down a bit, I went back to the playground and approached the kids. I wanted to make extra sure they had understood what the misunderstanding had been, and heard how sorry I was to have wrongly told them off. They had! 🙂