It’s 5 in the morning and I am wide awake, contemplating my recent lack of progress in my auditory rehabilitation, 14 weeks since my cochlear implant was switched on. I may as well get up and write about it, I reason. It seems a fitting state of affairs for this low point of the calendar. Is there any time so bleak as these creeping weeks of January? 

Reading aloud

We’ve had the pleasure of having our eldest daughter Emily with us for a few weeks. Gone now, and I’m feeling her absence. But in that time she joined her sister in helping me with a daily auditory training exercise, reading aloud sections of a passage, with me repeating what I heard. I wrote about this in my earlier blog “Has it worked?” Expectations of cochlear implants and the journey from surgery to hearing. I’ve been doing it for a month now and feel I am not really getting much better…

Emily came up with the excellent idea of using magazine articles and highlighting words that needed to be repeated (different colours indicating the number of repetitions!) and noting words I couldn’t make out at all. She has also written down my errors. All of this helps us see what I’m struggling with. I’m hoping this will be useful information for my forthcoming appointments with Emma, the speech and language therapist, and audiologist Anna – who may be able to make adjustments to my cochlear implant programming. 

What’s tripping me up? Short words, time and again. If, it, who, that, the, is. How much easier to hear ‘meditation’ or ‘congratulations’ than these little puffs of sound. People’s names can be difficult to hear, especially if I haven’t ever heard the name. Context is important. Words are often harder in isolation than if they are presented as a phrase or sentence. “Don’t guess!” Emily sometimes says. But guessing is a fundamental part of how I receive/hear/process speech. Of course, I’m very much hoping that hearing will increasingly replace the guesswork, but I don’t think I can ditch it just yet.

My errors are showing up a continued difficulty with distinguishing between ‘m’ and ‘n’, and occasionally ‘m’ and ‘l’, as well as ‘d’ and ‘g’ and sometimes ‘f’ and ‘s’. I have difficulty with vowel sounds in the middle of words. Lots of what I hear is close but wrong: shared/shed, ball/boar, clues/cues, accepting/upsetting, fine/find. Phrases with repeated sounds seem hard; I could not get ‘use the excuse’ at all. I seem to hear the end of sentences more often than the beginning; I must ask Emma about that – and indeed all of this, at our next online session later this week.

Online auditory training

My focus has been on our reading aloud sessions but I have gone back to the Hearoes app now and then. I have made a bit more progress with the exercises there, I think, but not much. I’m not sure I can bear to keep going back to the exercise where I have to select the word being spoken from a list that varies in its middle sound: who’d, hid, hud, had, head, hood, hoed, hayed, heed. Harder when spoken by a female voice. I get about half right. Other exercises there mirror this. Words offered in pairs, the middle sound differing. First one up, I click ‘check’ for ‘chick’. Maddening! If I hear one well and click the right answer, I feel a triumphant rush of pleasure. It’s a rollercoaster. Also exhausting.

I have also had another go at Practice Listening and Understand Speech (PLUS) auditory-cognitive training, a programme in development at the University of Nottingham, under the leadership of Dr Helen Henshaw. PLUS is a web-based app and aims to help listeners practice sound-based discrimination tasks in an adaptive way, promoting improvements in listening over time. I think it will be really useful, but it’s too hard for me at the moment. I first tried it soon after my implant was switched-on and have only just come back to it. Well, I gave so many wrong answers that the app thought I had failed to understand the task and sent me back to the practice session. I will leave that for a bit, then, and hope to see some progress a bit further down the line, but it’s really good to have another piece of equipment in my auditory gym!

Spoken word

I have dabbled in listening to various things online, and via apps, with mixed success. Speech that’s too fast or competing with background noise is a no-go at the moment, and I quickly switch away from such things. I am practicing listening to speech that is clear and with accompanying text – this feels like cheating, but Emma says it’s helpful. 

One of the best things for me is to seek out poems read aloud online, providing food for the soul as well as for my auditory pathways. I return to this poem, by John O’Donohue, as I have so often as we have weathered this long, long pandemic time, and is exactly right for these dark, dispiriting days, and times when encouragement is needed. On a practical level, I have a session with Emma on Thursday, when we can take stock together, and next Monday I will see Anna for some tweaking to my implant programme and I will also get my new hearing aid for the other ear. I am curious and hopeful about what those things will bring. I can do this.

Time to be slow by John O’Donohue

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart,
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous, 
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.