I went with a group of friends on a cheap last-minute skiing holiday in the early 90s. So cheap, it turned out, that the resort had forgotten to include any snow. Each day the runs were sprinkled with a thin dusting of artificial snow; every night it froze. One morning, when I was skiing alone, I slipped on the ice, lost control and crashed headfirst into a rock. When I regained consciousness, the ice around me had turned scarlet and an itchy trickle was blurring my vision. I picked myself up, wrapped my scarf around my head and set off down the mountain. The next half hour was wild. I had hit my head with such force that I had effectively trepanned myself. Tripping crazily, I somehow made it to the bottom of the run and found a doctor who sewed me back together, leaving â€” I thought â€” nothing more than a neat curving scar running from the centre of my forehead up into my hairline.
Several years later, the ice and I met again. Driving back home from Edinburgh one wintry night, I skidded on the frozen road, my car somersaulted and slammed into the verge, ending upside-down with my head separated from the road only by a thin strip of bent metal. I was taken to the local accident and emergency ward, had concussion for a few days, and returned home apparently undamaged.
In the months following the second head injury, however, I noticed that I didnâ€™t seem to be able to hear as well as I had. I wouldnâ€™t hear the phone or the doorbell. Once or twice I failed to hear a carâ€™s approach when crossing the road and nearly got run over. Friends started making jokes about ear trumpets. Conversation became a game of consequences â€” Iâ€™d grab for the one or two words in a sentence that I had heard, and guess the rest. At first, I did what most mature, evolved individuals do when confronted with an unpalatable medical fact â€” I pretended it would all go away. It didnâ€™t.
Finally, after a year of prevarication, I made an appointment at the local audiology unit. They gave me a brain scan and strapped me into an Orwellian headset through which they played a series of low and high frequency tones. The test results showed what I had suspected â€” because of those two head injuries I was losing my hearing.
In most cases, hearing loss is linked to age and natural wear and tear. I was also sharing an ailment more usually associated with the elderly. Only about two per cent of young adults are deaf or hard of hearing, but in people over 60 that rises to 55 per cent. The aids work well, but they canâ€™t cover all situations. I still fail to respond to a question. I still miss vital conversational links. Itâ€™s one thing to knowingly make enemies, but quite another to involuntarily offend half the people you meet. Iâ€™ve also developed a couple of old-age complaints. Oddly enough, digital hearing aids make the wearer more acoustically aware, not less. Thereâ€™s a reason for this. No one actually hears with their ears, and no one actually sees with their eyes. The ears and eyes are only mechanisms for gathering messages conveyed through light and sound. The brain then decodes and translates those messages. It takes about four months for an individual to adjust to a pair of digital aids â€” not because the ears canâ€™t cope, but because the brain has to re-educate itself into a whole new way of hearing. In the past six years, the degree of cell damage in my ears has remained more or less stable, but my brainâ€™s ability to compensate for it has improved.
But there are compensations. Huge ones. You could say that partial deafness is the ideal 21st century urban disability. In my new two-volume existence, I can have the world outside, with its mobile phones, car alarms, sirens, road works, helicopters and drills. And then I can have another world â€” a world of total focus. I can sleep soundly through gales, storms, pneumatic drills and the neighboursâ€™ parties. I never complain if someone snores. I can have silence in the middle of the city. I reckon itâ€™s a privilege. And, I do listen. I listen not just with what remains of my hearing, but with my eyes and my instincts. I see sounds, I hear with the whole of me. The diminution of one sense traditionally amplifies another.
In most cases, hearing loss is for life. Perhaps in the future they might be able to do something fancy with gene therapy or cochlear implants, but if someone offered me back my full hearing now I donâ€™t know if Iâ€™d take it. True, Iâ€™m not much use without the hearing aids, and true, there are disadvantages. But I like my new two-tone life, and the silence doesnâ€™t scare me. I am immensely lucky not only because I survived those two head injuries but because I was born in an age where the remedies for hearing loss have become almost as sophisticated as the human ear itself.
I donâ€™t like the idea of becoming profoundly deaf, but at the moment I can work with what Iâ€™ve got. Besides, I reckon I want radical surgery about as much as I want a hole in the head. â€” The Guardian