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listening with hearing loss - learning how to be one-eared (SSD)

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

This is my second blog post describing my learning to be in this world one-eared. The previous post described my sudden hearing loss and how I communicate this to others with a graphic representation. This post explains my own learning journey as a one-eared listener.

a new kind of learning

I've always considered myself to be an avid learner. I love practising new skills, broadening my horizons and changing perspectives. As a child of two teachers, I was raised to perceive my world is full of information and wonder. A lot of travel early on in my childhood contributed to my ability to adapt and feel comfortable in places where languages, customs and cultures are different from my own upbringing. Yet, there have been periods in my life where I have felt like a fish out of water, even at home. My sudden hearing loss is one of those.

Hearing loss is not something that can be comprehended simply by thinking logically about it or by attending seminars. It is not a skill set that can be practised or a problem to be solved. It doesn't follow a set number of rules and it is not an activity that others can participate in.

Hearing loss is the (partial) loss of one of the senses with which we perceive our existence. It is a literal ab-sense, a missing sense, etymologically "away from" + "being."

It is tempting to think that with single sided deafness there is still one functioning ear, so hearing would be at 50% capacity or could be entirely compensated by the remaining ear; think 1+1=2. However, if you understand the difference between mono, stereo and surround sound you will know that a surround sound system is not an accumulation of mono-speakers.

The maths of our hearing sense is better described as 1+1=3.

Jaques Lusseyran wrote in his autobiography: "But most surprising of all was the discovery that sounds never came from one point in space, and never retreated into themselves. There was the sound, its echo, and another sound into which the first sound melted and to which it had given birth, altogether an endless procession of sounds." (And There Was Light, p.18)

Only being able to use one ear affects spacial awareness, sound filtering, sound mixing, volume regulation, attention direction, and our senses of balance and orientation. In short, it is a big change in our modalities and capacities of perception. Add to this hyperacusis (heightened sensitivity to external sounds) and tinnitus (internal noise produced by the brain) and chaos is omnipresent.

Perhaps 1+1 = π is more accurate.

Hearing with two ears, no tinnitus. A smiling face with two ears. In each corner is a different source of sound which can easily be located and filtered.

Hearing with right ear. Hyperacusis. Tinnitus left side. SSD left. This graphic shows a person with one ear on the right side. They have an s-shaped mouth. On their right, the images of music notes, a speech bubble, a car and a cellphone all overlap. The images are all big to represent hyperacusis. On the right, there is a grey swirl with some red stars representing noises of tinnitus.

Since my sudden hearing loss, my whole being has been adjusting to the new circumstances. In December 2022, I wrote on social media:

"Every moment of the day, I am learning how to be one-eared. It is like I am hearing every sound, word and background noise for the first time, all at once, on one side only. I consciously need to sort through multiple sounds to pick out the one I need to focus on. All this while on the other side my tinnitus plays a cacophony of notes that do their best to overpower everything else.

The amount of energy that goes into my hearing is tremendous. At times it is impossible for me to hear my own thoughts. I did not expect to need so much time to myself in quiet and calm environments to process all that is happening and support my body to create the new connections, form new habits and automate reactions.

My other sense are also heightening. Visual tracking allows me to locate where sounds are coming from. Feeling gives me information that I then don't need to listen out for. My awareness is moving from listening to smelling whether dinner is done. Noise leaves bad aftertastes.

Thank you all for your support, kindness and patience with my process.

This learning means breaking through sound barriers.

7 months later, I am still adjusting and learning!

a difference of hearing and listening

Improvisation relies heavily on listening. It is not uncommon for improvisation trainers to say something along the line of "improvisation is 80% listening and 20% speaking." As theatre performers, we listen to our scene partners; as musicians to our band members; and as coaches to our clients. We notice sounds, tonality, cadence, rhythm, melody, harmony and spoken words. And we don't just listen with our ears, we use all of our available sense all of the time. Our human animal is capable of extraordinary fine tuned sensing. We feel with our skin, smell with our nose, taste with our mouth, see with our eyes, and comprehend with our mind. At least, so we are taught, that each sense is for one type of gathering of information only: we listen by hearing with our ears.

My learning journey is now revealing to me that listening and hearing, while linked, are really not the same thing at all. My left ear has been damaged. But instead of judging it as useless, I can channel Jaques Lusseyran and embrace it as a challenge to become wise.

If I try to focus harder on what I hear with my right ear, my tinnitus increases and I am quickly drained of energy which leads to me not being able to tolerate sound at all. Putting in more effort to listen with my right ear doesn't work for me because of the excess tension created in my face, neck and shoulders. I need to compensate for the imbalance created by one-eared hearing by relaxing my whole body and listening calmly. This re-calibration of my senses of perception is an ongoing experiment: trial and discovery. I need time to accustom myself as I watch people's face and body language, sense into their emotional states and piece together meaning made within the context of the situation.

impro studio values: listen and notice more. We seek out multiple narratives and perspectives. Every bit of knowledge can lead to a new understanding.

Shifting my focus away from my hearing on to my other senses means letting go of my need to hear correctly. I miss words, misunderstand them, and sometimes I respond in ways that disrupts the flow of conversation. This can be annoying for my conversation partners as they get interrupted and they might assume that I wasn't listening. Occasionally, this may be true. Just like anyone else, I might be hearing but so internally focused that I'm not listening.

Most times, however, I am listening very intently, I just can't hear.

This means that my conversation partners need to adjust too. They too need to learn how to be with my hearing loss. They too need to improvise. I have to give them practical instructions for how to behave (walk and sit to my right, wait with speaking until I am facing them) and they need to let go of their worry about offending me when they get it wrong or their annoyance when I ask them to repeat themselves not just once but maybe even five times. I've witnessed people get really uncomfortable, shifting in their seats, trying to anticipate my needs, wanting to be helpful, not knowing how and too afraid to ask. Please ask and I will tell you. When I tell you, please listen, accept and build on my offers.

We improvise together!

Please donate to the impro studio hearing fund for me to be able to continue improvising and support others along their journeys.

The next blog posts will continue to explore aspects of my learning journey and will feature tips for trainers and facilitators who wish to adjust their spaces and offers to be more accessible to people with a wide variety of hearing abilities.

Thank you for reading and following along!

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