A year ago, I was on the countdown to my cochlear implant (CI) surgery, just days away. The evidence on which NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) has based its eligibility criteria for having a CI (in their guidance here) shows that people like me will probably benefit from an implant. My surgeon thought so too. But of course, like any treatment, it’s a leap of faith, with no guaranteed outcomes. I proceeded with optimism but couldn’t have known what the journey would be like or where I’d find myself now, not quite 11 months from the time my implant was switched on. I wanted to give a ‘warts and all’ account in these blogs, and so I have. But today I want to tell you about 10 things, 10 gifts, my CI has given me. I haven’t listed “the ability to hear better” as this underpins them all. Here they are, in no particular order.
Quite simply, my implant has given me back people – easy communication with others, from brief exchanges with strangers to conversations with family, friends, and colleagues. With anyone, anywhere! My deafness was a wall between me and others, and bricks were being added as time went on, making it ever harder to reach over it. My implant has demolished that.
Something I’m particularly appreciating is my new ability to listen to someone whilst not looking at them (no longer needing to lipread). Walking and talking is now just fine. Staying with old friends Chris and John recently, and for the first time since having the CI, I fell in alongside John as we all walked by the canal. I’ve never found John easy to hear, and without the CI I know I would have caught very little of what he said and would have manoeuvred so that I was alongside Chris instead. As it was, we were able to chat, side by side, for the hour or so until we arrived at our lunch spot. What ease! What a delight!
Having hearing loss can be a very undignified business. The mistakes we make when we mishear can be comical, and I’ve had a lot of laughs from bad subtitles. But more often the laughter rings hollow and embarrassment is the prevailing emotion of a botched social encounter. This often involves both/all people in the exchange, as you’ll know if you’ve been on either end of a misheard comment on the weather which must then be repeated multiple times, or of a bit of serious news which elicits an inappropriate response. Now, I rarely mishear, rarely have to ask anyone to repeat themselves, and it’s wonderful. My new hearing has also relieved my family of the need to offer explanations when I have inadvertently interrupted someone or failed to hear them, appearing rude to those who don’t realise this was a deaf person’s mistake.
During one of those moments of the pandemic when we could go places, Tim and I checked into a hotel. Or rather, Tim checked us in. I might well have struggled with the exchange at the reception desk anyway but, with everyone masked, it was impossible, and I hung back, leaving Tim to do this simple thing. It didn’t matter really; it’s perfectly usual for one half of a couple to do this anyway. But it struck me how dependent on others I had become, even for the simplest of transactions, and I didn’t like it. Now, I hear better than Tim. My implant has given me back my independence.
A return to activities I’d abandoned
I’m swimming again, thanks to the aqua kit that enables me to use my CI in water. I didn’t like swimming deaf. Now this has become a regular activity. It feels good to head off to the pool before work and I relish the sound of the water and the casual exchanges with strangers that take place at the ends of the pool. I’m looking forward to swimming as a social activity again too and venturing into the sea again some day.
Then there’s the theatre! I gave up on live theatre many years ago, as captioned performances were few and often limited to an occasional weekday matinee. The introduction of Smart caption glasses at the National Theatre a few years ago was fantastic, and I enjoyed a heady few months of seeing their productions before Covid hit. It was good to get back there a few weeks ago – and when a technical problem meant no ‘magic’ glasses I had to rely on my new hearing. I admit, I struggled somewhat. I could hear most of the words but seemed not to be able to process the quick-fire Shakespearean dialogue at the speed required to keep up. Being able to hear and process speech at speed is something measured by the speech and language therapists as part of the pre- and post-implant assessments and when I was tested at six months post implant, I still had a way to go to get near the speed required in normal conversation. I did better when I returned a couple of weeks later for a contemporary play. No glasses still but it was a performance with captions displayed by the stage so I was able to glance at those if unsure about a word or phrase. I’ll hope to use the glasses next time but seeing a play without additional assistive technology now feels like a possibility.
Access to digital audio content
A whole world has opened up to me: podcasts, radio, music and dialogue. I wonder if I will take to listening to audiobooks. I have been listening to my first – George Eliot’s Silas Marner, which I have meant to return to since a ‘doing’ it at school, where we took turns to read passages aloud – guaranteed to ruin any book. I find my attention wandering and wonder if I just don’t like the book or, more likely, if paying attention to something I’m hearing needs more practice.
Back in February, in my blog Desert islands and city streets, I wrote about listening to Desert Island Discs, with its helpful variety of voices and music, and noted that I couldn’t recognise the theme tune (which I knew from childhood). I’m pleased to report that now I can, and music is returning to me. As I got more deaf, I increasingly struggled to recognise familiar tunes, so it felt deeply satisfying to recognise a song after a few seconds of the intro!
I’m told there are things you can do when listening through AirPods, or similar, which I had thought were the exclusive preserve of people with cochlear implants. But being able to stream from my phone or laptop to my implant, via Bluetooth, certainly feels like a superpower. Being able to carry on listening to a webinar whilst going off to make a cup of tea or hang out the washing is particularly satisfying!
But there’s a CI superpower that definitely gives me an advantage over even those with good hearing and that’s its ability to prioritise speech over background noise. Six of us went out for a meal in a noisy restaurant recently. Tim with his hearing aids and four young things with good hearing were ALL struggling to hear, while I was in the novel position of hearing just fine! Incredible technology.
I hadn’t anticipated this, but goodness what a difference the implant has made to my energy reserves. I knew that hearing loss makes many situations really, really tiring, but I hadn’t thought about what it would be like to not be drained by the effort of listening and of managing everyday communication blighted by deafness. It’s noticeable not just in particular situations but at the end of every day when I find myself with energy to spare.
Hope for the future
My decision to have the CI was as much about how it could change my future as it was about improving my present. Already severely deaf and at the end of the line with how much help I could get from hearing aids, without the implant I could expect a slide into profound deafness and all that would mean. I feared a future in which my hearing loss made me increasingly isolated and put me at higher risk of dementia. With my hearing now so vastly improved with the CI, and the prospect of being able to take advantage of developments in CI technology in the years to come, my future looks very different. It’s such a relief and a joy to find how easily I can engage in social situations again now. My sister retired this year and has joined new groups, taken on new activities. Thanks to my CI, I can expect to do the same.
Freedom to be myself
I have written here before about Becoming myself again, about my sociable, extrovert self being given free rein now I no longer have the barriers created by deafness. It has taken me by surprise how many exchanges I have with strangers, sometimes initiated by them and sometimes by me. I realise how much I must have avoided these or quickly shut them down.
So much of my behaviour has been dictated by my hearing loss and now I am largely free of those limitations, free to be myself again. What a gift!
A sense of wonder
This is a daily companion now, as I reflect on the audacious and astonishing technology that has effectively given me back my hearing, and on all I can now hear and do. I am so grateful.