Since childhood I feared losing my hearing. I imagined that it would feel like being dragged down by an undertow. A violent, terrible force that I would have to resist with arms and legs kicking. And if submerged, my body would be cut off from sound.
My fear came from a specific place: I was born profoundly deaf in my left ear. Logically, I reasoned, that I was one ear closer to complete hearing loss. This rationale was reinforced by doctors and audiologists. At each check-up they would say, “Fiona, you must protect your right ear.”
Throughout my teens and 20s, I took the task seriously: wedging ear plugs deep into my ear canal before attending concerts; sitting as far away as possible from the speakers at footy matches; clapping my hand over my ear whenever walking past leaf blowers or lawnmowers; monitoring the volume of music playing through my headphones; and even, eventually, moving away from a flight path to a quieter suburb. My resolve was absolute.
Yet, despite my vigilance, when I was 31 years old, an audiogram revealed that I had acquired moderate hearing loss in my right ear. The news was shocking. I wept.
After passing me a box of tissues, the audiologist explained that my test results were unusual. Instead of losing higher frequencies, as typical for age-related hearing loss, I could no longer detect lower frequencies. I agreed to contact an ear, nose and throat specialist. Once home, I howled. My fears had been realised.
In the weeks while I waited for a diagnosis, I tried to figure out how I could have been so careless. If anything, my desire for solitude had been intensifying since my late 20s. I actively turned down invites to social gatherings. I stopped going to live music events and the cinema. Watching television became a rare occurrence. I felt most at ease whenever I was alone with a book. Surely, I had done all the right things?
It turned out I had a rare genetic condition: otosclerosis. The bones of my ear – the smallest bones in the human body – had been ossifying. They were developing a kind of exoskeleton, which limited their ability to thump on my eardrum and transport sounds to my brain.
The specialist was unable to predict when my ear bones had started to thicken. But looking back, I can see a pattern emerging: as I began to lose my hearing, my body craved silence more than sound. This, I would learn, is not entirely unusual.
Most people assume that when someone is losing their hearing the whole world gradually becomes softer, like turning down the dial of a radio. It’s anything but that. Sounds become unpredictable, and everyday interactions can become frightening.
In English, consonant sounds are higher in pitch and vowel sounds are lower. As I lose my ability to hear lower pitches, vowel sounds are dropping out of words. It feels as though every conversation is run through a sieve. Some words slip through intact, other words disintegrate.
It takes an incredible amount of brain power to decipher speech. Concentration fatigue, also known as listening fatigue, is a common reason why deaf people seek out the security and certainty of silence. Even with the assistance of hearing technology, listening can be mentally demanding. Unlike the discriminating nature of ears, hearing aids are unable to selectively amplify sounds, so noises swell into a cacophony.
A study by Lillemor Hallberg and Sven Carlsson found that people with hearing loss tend to rely on two strategies to cope with demanding auditory environments: “Control the social scene” or “avoid the social scene”. When I was younger, I energetically hogged conversations, rattling off one anecdote after the next. This meant I rarely had to devote any energy listening to others. But since my late 20s, without realising it was a coping strategy, I had been choosing to stay home. Researchers describe this as a “loss of social identity”.
Paradoxically, I feel less lonely when I am alone. This experience is so common it even has a name, “dinner table syndrome”: when a deaf person is surrounded by conversation yet is completely disconnected from it.
While I now blissfully sink into silence, I still have to navigate a world designed for hearing people. Currently one in six Australians experience hearing health conditions, and this is projected to increase to one in four by 2050. Deafness is not just a medical condition; it is a complex social issue. An issue that we need to start talking about as a community.
• The Shape of Sound by Fiona Murphy is out now in Australia through Text Publishing