Monday, December 2, 2019

Hearing Aid Adventure

Could there possibly be a lamer, less enticing and sexy title? Beige thingie stuck in your elderly wrinkled ear lobe so you don't need to keep hollering "HUH???" at the grandkids. Awesome! Pure click bait! "Save to Favorites"!

Despite the seeming dullness of the topic, I'm going to go long with this one, because I was surprised every step of the way...and surprises are the stock in trade here in Slogsville. Also: this totally cracks me up, though your mileage may vary.

Betcha can't wait to scroll down! Hell yeah, hearing aids! Here we go!

In the 80s and 90s I was (here’s video proof) one of the hardest-working musicians in New York City. I spent thousands upon thousands of hours laboring directly in front of screaming guitar amps, PA systems, and corn-fed trumpeters whose sense of self worth revolved around playing higher and louder than the human auditory system can tolerate. Unsurprisingly, mine couldn't.

I imagined I'd be ok; that I'd be an exception. Full-time professional musicians are essentially blue collar workers (though better trained than doctors or lawyers), and we have that familiar stoic toughness. I remember watching the guys toiling atop the smoking Trade Center pile after 9/11, all of them figuring that their tenacity, combined with the sacred nature of their mission, made them indestructible. Tough guys don't sweat fumes.

I was horror-struck by the tableau of inevitable cancer. Yet, in my own irrational tough guy pride, I kept returning to my position in front of guitar amps, PA systems, and brutish trumpeters, certain that I was exempt. After all, I performed miracles, screaming my head off on a difficult instrument for twelve hours at a stretch (often doubling or tripling up my gigs), maintaining high standards even while dead tired. I could tough it out through anything. As someone who could "get 'er done," I was like a Conway Twitty hero plowin' fields with his all-American John Deere slide trombone can I get a "hallelujah"?

Sure enough, I wound up, shmuck-like, with more than 50% hearing loss, mostly high-range (kids' voices might as well be the chirpings of birds). My audiologist didn't just suggest a hearing aid; he was shocked that I'd managed without one. Huh? Managed without one! Huh? MANAG....

Deaf jokes never get old.

Search the Internet all day long and you'll find no hiply wry accounts of "that time I got my hearing aid" on, say, Reddit or McSweeney’s. No amusing stories on The Moth Radio Hour, or comedy sketches from Upright Citizens Brigade. The topic's akin to catheters and walkers: bone dry and inherently "too much information." You do whatcha gotta do, grandpaw, but I don't need to hear about your ear canals...

I get it. Ladies, I don't want to hear war stories about your diaphragms, either. Canals of all sorts are inherently private.

A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!

Thing is, though, that this widespread aversion will soon evaporate, once Ira Glass loses bladder control (sorry for the image) and Generation X turns the corner. But, for now, I find myself once again at the leading edge, the first of his brashly self-aware generation of writers to undergo this. Or, at least, the first to admit it.

In 1997 I was the first food blogger (sample here). Now I've blazed a trail with hearing aids, and look ahead to one day tackling liver spots. Oh, and also, man, don't you just hate it when the worms have eaten through the wood and start wiggling around the box? Remember to tip your waitresses! Home safe!

Funniest hearing aid posting ever! :) :) :)

Tim Conway
My audiologist's waiting room is stocked with folks who can nostalgically recall a time when they'd have been described as creaky. On my last visit, I watched with bated breath as the door opened and remained ajar a very long time until there finally appeared - from my viewpoint to the side - a stooped, stone-faced gentleman eking forward in shuffling micro-steps. His body was so rigid that he appeared to hover, like a ballerina executing a lateral sweep of the stage in delicate mincing steps. Brava, grandpa! Brava!

I maintained a poker face, but he seemed to read my mind as our gazes briefly met, him smirking oh-so-faintly in ironic self-recognition. As a child I watched Tim Conway play the decrepit old guy on the old Carol Burnett show, and decrepit old guys at that time were definitely not in on that joke. But Grandpa Ballerina sure was. The look he gave me was as cocky as his body was frail. Message received: "Laugh up, deaf boy; your time's coming!"

There's no generational divide in an audiologist's office. Welcome to the end of the line.

Deaf Folk Ain't Picky
Here's the aid-iest lemonade I've made from the lemons of 50% hearing loss: I no longer sweat audio quality. At all.

I've never been much of an audiophile; just enough to feel ashamed for doing it wrong and missing The Full Experience. I've up-spent a few times out of this sense of guilt. But no more. My ears are scratchy transistor radios, so I keep nice light low-sample-rate MP3s on my phone, make all audio connections via lousy bluetooth, and will waste no more time lurking on AVSForum.

I also can't drink any more, either, which means no more hangovers, fewer calories, lower (though I was always conscientious) not an iota of a chance of DUI from accidentally going over the line. None of this is "positive thinking"; it's just accurate thinking; a rejection of the commonly-held delusion that negativity is the realer reality.

The average person with hearing loss waits seven years before getting a hearing aid. It's a question of vanity and stigma, and I - still a baby at 56 - certainly felt my share of reluctance.

But in the middle of all this, I realized, thunderstruck, that I've worn, since childhood, a highly intrusive medical device on the front of my face, revealing to one and all the feeble weakness of my vision; my deficit. Yet not only are my glasses no big deal, but I've been deliriously happy to see that, for example, trees have leaves (and not just blurry green halos).

So I can also put on a far less conspicuous gadget and hear individual leaves blowing in the wind and crunching underfoot? Awesome! More perception-boosting gizmos, please!

Having reframed the situation, I felt no hesitation in moving forward.

Truly, this thing is invisible. The days of bulbous beige mushrooms are gone. A stylish sliver hides behind my ear, and you can't spot the filament extending into my ear canal even if you're looking for it. Ear buds are 10,000 times clunkier, and they're stylish; a status symbol. So why did I wait all this time again?

Nobody Wants the Middle Hearing Aid
My health insurance seems to say they'll pay 70% of the cost. As you know, health insurance is a non-transparent con game where they make up the rules as they go along and benefit payments are opaque crap shoots. But, thankfully, hearing aid companies offer generous trial periods and easy I went ahead and ordered the Cadillac of Hearing Aids, which comes in three levels of exorbitance. 

I kept asking the audiologist to explain the price levels and their respective bangs-for-the-bucks, but he remained maddeningly vague, and I finally pieced together why. This isn't like buying a hedge trimmer, where you look for a sweet spot between inadequacy and extravagance. If you're getting a hearing aid, you wanna frickin' hear. Not "modestly sufficient" hearing; you want, of course, duh, to hear extravagantly. My audiologist knew that I would - that everyone does - order the top one. I'm not sure the other models even actually exist. What sane person goes "Geez, that sounds like more hearing than I really need!"

If you have crappy insurance (I might; we'll find out when they actually send the check) or can't afford even the copay, that's a different matter. There are dodgey off-the-shelf alternatives, Costco options, etc. But unless you’re paycheck-to-paycheck, you'll scratch together the (considerable) cash for the good one. Of course you will. Your audiologist only pretends to offer a choice. It’s a charade.

Is This Thing On?
Give a nearsighted person their first pair of glasses, and they may weep with joy, wondering why they didn't do it sooner. It's night and day. But hearing aids aren't like that...for many reasons.

At first I thought the device wasn't doing much. The world sounded like the world, and the differences were awfully subtle. But then I realized the paradox: this is the benefit of getting the best model. Cheaper ones surely make you remember you've got it on! You're paying for this subtlety; for a familiar impression of the familiar world aside from the key targets of delicately precise improvement. Strategic brushstrokes, not augmented reality.

And there are more fundamental reasons why the first reaction to a hearing aid is less revelatory than the first reaction to glasses:
1. The two senses work differently. The world requires reasonably good visual focus, while a blurry blob of hearing serves decently. There's a big difference between not being able to read the menu and having some trouble in certain circumstances making out certain speech from high-pitched voices. So when you put on your first hearing aid, it's not "night and day."

2. Glasses give your retinas exactly the input they'd receive with naturally good vision. Hearing aids are an imperfect, unnatural solution. You need to get used to a new way of hearing. So when you put on your first hearing aid, it's not "night and day."

3. Your brain is less plastic with hearing. Clearer, keener signal is disorienting at first, and the confusion is compounded by the fact that, per above, this is not a natural or perfect solution. So hearing aids take practice. So when you put on your first hearing aid, it's not "night and day."
Everyone embraces glasses from day one. The improvement makes you an instant believer. Hearing aids, at first, leave you agnostic.

Shit's Deep, Bruh
So you're trying to decide whether to move forward and buy. Or whether to keep what you just bought. Here's the crux as it will immediately strike you: How much trouble and expense and discomfort and gizmo management are you interested in withstanding for a slightly better edge on hearing what people are saying?

If you're the least bit introverted, that’s an easy excuse to bail. In your rational, logical mind - where everything that happens is like a two-dimensional comic strip panel - you've been merely not hearing people well. A finite problem. But in the deep gurgling primordial DNA pits of your personhood, not hearing people well is profound impairment....even if you feel like you can still kinda-sorta make out good enough.

The margin between "barely hearing good enough under most conditions" and "hearing good enough" may seem not worth much trouble or expense. But you need to try a hearing aid for a length of time and in a variety of situations. I've had mine for five days, and experienced two momentary intimations that, despite the subtlety of the difference, it's a whole new ballgame.

(One such moment was when a friend told me I was speaking more softly than usual. You mean I’ve been blaring all this time? Shudder! But it felt more relaxing, less stressful to talk. So I stuttered less, and was less at a loss for words. It felt like my 1990 self speaking, and I hadn’t realized I haven’t been him since 1990!)

Distorting your decision is the fact that hearing loss is such a long and gradual process that you're surely worse than you realize. That's why it's very common for other people to notice your hearing problem before you do. And that's why people with hearing loss socialize less without quite understanding why. They often blame it on a blasé disinterest in people - who, not coincidentally, they've spent years straining to understand! Like the lobster in the the gradually-heated pot of water, there's no alarm tripping point to let you know you're in trouble.

What's more, the average seven year wait to correct the problem allows new social habits to harden. If you're thinking there's no one you’re particularly keen to raptly listen to, anyway, consider that this may be your hearing loss at work; a classic wag-the-dog situation. Flip the script, and 1. Improve the hearing and 2. Go out and forthrightly overturn taciturn habits. It doesn't get better if you wait longer.

The Freakier Freakiness
In a posting titled "Expert/Layman Triage Fallacy", I pointed out a problem with talking to experts. When they're not telling you that your freaky observations are actually perfectly normal, they're rolling their eyes at reports which are merely freaky. You, not being expert, can't possibly anticipate. So you look ditzy when your reports fail to hit, because experts are oddly blind to this phenomenon.

Audiologists seem to be an extreme version. With no remote idea of what's normal, I blurted out every random observation that occurred to me when I first tried them on. Sure enough, some made him say "Actually, that's not weird at all....", while the rest made him furrow his brow and try to suppress a visceral WTF.

My hatha yoga teacher, Priscilla (who provided the wonderful insight about aiming for infinity) reported about the experience of getting cochlear implants a few years ago, in a series starting here.


mom said...

Don't disdain The Costco Option.
They have a real audiologist and they sell devices just like the ones that cost twice as much. Truly.

Jim Leff said...

thanks, mom

Jim Leff said...

FWIW, here's a user discussion about the one I use (Widex Evoke) versus Costco options. Upshot: much better app and music sensitivity with Widex, and a few claims of better overall sound. A few people in the discussion claim it doesn't matter either way, or it's strictly personal pref, but none of them claim to have tried the Widex Evoke.

Reminds me of people pronouncing a certain pizza "best in town" without trying more of a handful of others. Really, it's sufficient (with pizza or with hearing aids) to say "I really like X", but that's not the meme....

Blog Archive