I’ve always been keen on games, whether board games, role-playing games, or pencil-and-paper games (how quaint, in our digital age!). Many that we played in my childhood involved guessing words, in one way or another. I didn’t anticipate then that I would spend much of my adulthood guessing words because I couldn’t hear them clearly. The ability to fill the blanks in dialogue could be regarded as a kind of superpower wielded by deaf people; until that goes wrong, of course, as it inevitably does. 

My games-playing ability has been severely tested in this last week. I was among the guests at a weekend-long birthday celebration for a dear friend, in a fine old manor house hired for the occasion. My most challenging environment yet since having my cochlear implant (CI). For my hearing-aid-wearing husband too, conversation in a large group and in rooms with high ceilings was very difficult. Our friend was most considerate in making sure people knew we had hearing loss, but it struck me that people don’t really know what to do with that information, even if they want to be accommodating. I thought again of what a great question “how can I help you hear?” is, in inviting the deaf person to specify things that can help them (and I’ve written about that here). I find that often, especially in a big group and among strangers, I’ve just got to Get On With It. 

Saturday evening was spent playing a murder mystery game of such complexity that I felt the lawyers in the group definitely had the edge! Tim and I had a lovely time dressing as our characters and contributing to the general spectacle, but I completely failed to interrogate the Doge of Venice, as was my brief, as I had not a hope of hearing. Tim managed the evening by doing a lot of posing in his splendid wig and generally circulating in such a way that he largely avoided conversation. During the meal, the game continued, and it was a great relief to find ourselves sitting with our friend’s mum, who spoke slowly and clearly to us. Despite the hubbub and high ceilings, we had a jolly time, managing a three-way conversation of complete nonsense related to the mystery, in character, and I even managed to come across as shrewd and scheming, a woman playing her cards very close to her chest. This was a happy accident, as the truth was, of course, that I didn’t have the faintest idea what any of it was about. 

During the rest of the weekend, I was sorry that I couldn’t better engage in conversation with people, and I can only hope that no-one thought me rude. Better understanding of speech is an important goal in having a cochlear implant when hearing aids are no longer helping enough; for me it’s my very top priority. So how am I doing, back in my normal environments? 

The marvellous Marvel!

It’s now been five weeks since switch-on. A week ago, I had an appointment with audiologist Anna, which included a hearing test. It’s a novelty being able to hear more than the first couple of beeps during the test! The results are impressive, even better than last time, showing that I can detect sounds across all the frequencies tested at a range of 30 to 20 decibels, giving me the foundation for much improved hearing. We talked about how I was finding hearing with the CI and I told her how impressed I was when travelling on the underground at how it damps down the background noise and brings speech to the fore, including the announcements. It was also excellent to find that in a coffee shop it cut most of the noise, including the coffee machine, making it much easier to hear speech than with hearing aids. I have a very new type of CI processor, the Marvel, so Anna is interested in learning about her patients’ experiences of it and how it differs from other processors. She’s concerned that it might be too efficient in supressing environmental sounds – might I be unable to hear traffic, for instance? But I could reassure her that it’s very good! I can hear traffic sounds and more. Yesterday, as I walked home from the shops, I noted with great pleasure that I could hear the rustle of leaves under my feet, some bird song (though I sometimes question whether I’m hearing that or imagining it – filling in the blanks again!) and the sound of the river as I walked over the bridge. Three weeks ago, I stood on that bridge gazing at the fast-flowing water and wondering whether I could maybe hear it a bit or was remembering what it sounded like. 

Making progress with speech

Robbie the robot is still ever-present but taking a back seat to people’s normal voices. My attention is on the latter, unless I consciously switch it to listen to Robbie, and one day I will realise he’s gone. I am so appreciating the familiarity and delightful variety of people’s voices, in a way that is only possible having been deprived of them (mercifully briefly).

I am steadily advancing through the auditory training exercises.  On the Sound Success programme, I’m now able to listen to a whole, reasonably long, sentence (no lipreading) and answer a question about it. If I get three consecutive questions right, I switch to a different speaker. The next stage will be to add some background noise. I have also listened to the radio! Anna has suggested this as a new challenge. Before this week, the last time I listened to the radio was probably back in the 1980s. Radio, for me, is a background sound of my childhood and early adulthood. Thinking about this, I was struck by the sticking power of radio jingles, such that I can remember the phone-in number for Capital Radio, forty-odd years on! Anyway, Anna has challenged me to listen for five minutes at a time and note what I can hear. So, I picked a programme on BBC Sounds on my laptop and read what the topic under discussion was before clicking go, streaming to my CI via Bluetooth. It was a novel experience and amazing to find I could hear more than the odd word. Some whole sentences even. Anna has also suggested I try listening to some music, and some Learn English audiobooks on YouTube, which have simple dialogue and text to follow. I will have a go.

I am really pleased with the progress I’m seeing, but I’m aware that it has not yet translated into improvements that are obvious to others. In conversation, I’m still hearing less than I was before, at least when using my CI only, without the hearing aid in my other ear, as I need to do most of the time to help my brain adjust. I sense other people’s disappointment and frustration! But better hearing is coming. It’s coming. Slow and steady wins the race!