I’ll never forget the day I walked out of the audiologist’s office and into a Manhattan street, wearing hearing aids in my ears for the first time. I was 34, and had been urged to see a hearing specialist by my boyfriend and my boss.
The noise was complex, a cacophony of noises from all directions, and thunderous. “How is it?” asked my boyfriend, Howard, as he walked beside me.
“You didn’t turn to me,” he answered back.
I turned toward him. “I didn’t?”
“You answered without turning to me. You’ve never been able to hear me on the street without turning to me,” he said.
“It’s so loud!”
“Welcome to New York,” he said, smiling.
By then, I had been living in New York a decade, but I only knew it muffled. I realized then that my life was about to change much more than I had guessed.
Overwhelmed by noise—at first
I had no idea what people with normal hearing experienced. People complained about city noise, but it wasn’t my problem—until now. “I’m taking these off,” I said.
“Don’t,” he said. “You’re hearing better.”
He was correct, but hearing better was a change that unfolded over weeks and months. Like many people, I needed time to adjust. Eventually I could wear my hearing aids on the street and not feel overwhelmed by noise. But sometimes—if I was tired or rushed or sad—I would go outside without them. The quiet felt like a childhood blanket, familiar and outgrown, and I would put my aids back in.
Nodding instead of understanding
I was born with borderline normal hearing, just enough to get by, and so I did. My parents asked me in grade school if I wanted to try hearing aids and I declined. Every so often I made a serious “mistake,” as I thought of it. One day a friend’s father—let’s call him Mr. B–was speaking to me urgently from the doorway and I lurched up the front steps so I could hear him.
He yelled at me, “Go home!” I ran off, perplexed.
Later, my friend explained that the steps had just been repaired and Mr. B was telling me not to use them. “I didn’t hear him,” I told her. “Tell him.” She reported back a half hour later: “He says he was looking right at you and you nodded. He thinks you’re just pretending you didn’t hear him. Why did you nod?”
“Because he was talking!” I said.
“But nodding means you understand.”
“I nod when people talk. I do that all the time,” I said.
“It’s just easier,” I said. I hadn’t really thought about why I did this.
Nodding had served me well. About a decade later, I found myself in a job interview listening to a woman who talked so fast she was all mumbles. I nodded and got the job.
What I had been missing all those years
But once I had my hearing aids, I slowly learned what I was missing. I also realized that, in some ways, my hearing loss shaped who I am today.
I was bookish, maybe because reading didn’t require hearing, and I rarely put on music at home. I definitely didn’t love it the way so many people did.
Now, with my new hearing aids, I began playing the radio at night while wearing my hearing aids. Not always, but sometimes I could make out lyrics—instead of the mushes I was used to. (In one instance, when I was around 10 and somewhat fascinated by medical conditions, my brother put on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles and I sang along, “The girl with colitis goes by.” I didn’t know the correct words for years.)
In my 30s, with my hearing aids on, I tried a spy movie, the kind of movie I usually couldn’t follow. For the first time, I understood the plot as well as Howard did.
‘I began to feel more at home’
At my job and in social settings, I felt awkward in large groups. I didn’t know as many people as other people seemed to. I found excuses for not going to the largest office meetings, which were hard to hear. Instead, I would ask a coworker to brief me.
But with my hearing aids, I not only attended large meetings, I made an effort to start conversations with colleagues I didn’t know. I began to feel more at home.
With my hearing aids, I not only attended large meetings, I made an effort to start conversations with colleagues I didn’t know. I began to feel more at home.
Before hearing aids, I also skipped birthday dinner parties, the kind with a long table at a restaurant, where I couldn’t hear a word. With hearing aids on, if I sit in the middle, I can participate. I might still have trouble in group conversations, but it is worth going to the party.
New York has only gotten noisier, particularly restaurants, a well-documented problem. These days, even with my hearing aids, and even in small groups, it’s hard to hear at most restaurants. But if I didn’t have my hearing aids, I probably wouldn’t eat out at all.
On the street, I accept the noise, though I’ll confess sometimes when it’s overwhelming, I take off my hearing aids. In a way, I feel lucky to have that option! But most of the time, I’d rather know what is going on around me. I wear the little things in my ears for the same reason I get out of bed in the morning and usually read the news. I wear them because I’m glad I’m here and want to fully experience the world around me.