Back in the late 1980s, I began to suspect that my hearing was suspect. I went to an audiologist and had a hearing test. Her report was that I was borderline, but still in the ‘green zone’ and did not need immediate help. I now know that understanding is the backbone of hearing loss. If I was having problems understanding then that needed to be addressed. I have always been able to hear things, but understanding had fallen off precipitously over the years.

Things came to a head one week when I was house sitting for friends. I was watching a movie in their bedroom from their bed on my last night there and the next day they were to return from their trip. The movie was GUNG HO. It was a propaganda piece designed to give the folks at home a good feeling after the historic disaster at Perl Harbor.

I got a call the following day when I was told that I had a serious hearing problem. What do you mean, was my reply. It seems that when they got into their bed, that first night after their return, they decided to take in a little TV. The volume blasted them out the window. They didn’t understand why the neighbors didn’t call the cops on me.

The theory goes that if I needed such volume to hear my movie then there was a problem. Furthermore, I had just taken a job at LLBean where I needed accurate hearing skills to perform. It just wasn’t going to work unless I got help.

I arranged for a hearing test at which time I found that I was seriously impaired and needed serious hearing assistance. That’s when I began to wear hearing aids. That was 20 years ago. Hearing loss doesn’t get better over time – it always gets worse. And, it’s understanding that counts. If you don’t understand what you are hearing, you are hearing impaired. It’s as simple as that. Get help.

The other day I was deep in thought – a tricky and sometimes disturbing place to be – when I noticed that there was, what sounded to me like, some static in my cochlear implant sound processor. Something similar had happened before and I had to have the device exchanged. It was distressing to think that was happening again. I have two processors so I exchanged them but the noise continued.

I was in the midst of writing an email to my audiologist to see if she had any suggestions when I decided to go to the kitchen for a refill of darkroast. I was pouring a cup when I noticed that the static was gone. Ah ha! I said. A clue! I walked back to the chair where I was sitting with my laptop when the static started up again.

Thinking this was some kind of electrical interference I unplugged everything within reach to no avail. The noise continued. The box in which I keep the hearing aid that the cochlear implant replaced was on the side table as well. I picked it up and the sound that I was hearing increased. Ah ha, again! I opened the box and the little device was singing like a chickadee. It was turned on. When I turned it off the noise I was hearing stopped.

I had to admit that No. 1 – I am deaf. No. 2 – the sound I do hear is either “processed” by the sound processor of the cochlear implant or it’s the amplified frequencies I can hear, which, of course, leaves out the frequencies I can’t hear that are in the complete sound profile that surrounds me all the time. So, what I hear is incomplete at best.

A person with normal hearing would have zeroed in on the source of that spurious noise in an instant. I’ve walked away from running faucets, failed to respond to my name being called and simply missed aural information everyone else was taking for granted. Which is to say, I have a physical disability that is mostly invisible to others but which compels me to be constantly on the alert to clues other than aural clues so I can proceed safely throughout my day. I feel no pain. I appear normal enough that no one ever gives me a second look. But I work hard to be aware of my environment when out and about. It’s tiring.

I am very thankful for what ability I do have to hear. But I also understand that I can not trust my hearing to be true. If I can have a successful conversation with a friend it’s a good day. If I can understand a friendly voice on my phone, it’s an excellent day. I ask for assistance and clarification when out alone and specially traveling by bus or train to Boston to have my hearing hardware adjusted.

There was a time when I was a boy when someone with my degree of hearing loss would have been sidelined, much the way my grandfather was – who was deaf so that we had to shout “Supper is ready, Grandad!”, and we smiled when he said something not knowing there was an on-going conversation at the time.