Do you hear what I hear?

As a Hard of Hearing person with progressive Sensorineural hearing loss  I not only struggle with a gradual decline in hearing, but  I hear things that are not able to be heard by anyone else around me. Part of this is tinnitus, a phantom form of pseudo-sound manufactured by the brain, but I also hear other sounds that don’t exist anywhere else except in my head.   (Stop looking at me like that!)

In general, when people hear sounds that are not real, we start suspecting mental health issues, but for the Hard of Hearing phantom or pseudo sounds are often a way of life.  Tinnitus can be anything from a low, rumbling noise to a high squeal.  It can interfere with what hearing we have left.  Sometimes my hearing aid increases tinnitus, sometimes it helps suppress it.  There is no real rhyme or reason to it.  There are times I have ringing, buzzing, and high-pitched squeals that could be considered a form of torture that go on for days.  There are times I am blessedly free from them.

This week, at the Symposium on Deafness, Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, I was thrilled to learn I’m not really crazy  after all.   Dr. Brendan T. Monteiro of Manchester, England,  a specialist in forensic mental health and the Deaf spent part of his lecture on pseudo sounds that are not psychiatric in nature.

As someone who has heard a cat say “Meow-sha” for “Marsha” when I knew the cat was meowing, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to know this is normal!  I may or may not be “normal” but at least my strange hearing experiences are not abnormal.

An individual who has had at least some hearing during their lives has had exposure to music and voices.  Our brains are naturally wired for both sound and vision, so it is not a surprise to find that in a state of sound deprivation our brains  will fill in the blanks for us.  So kind of it to do this for those of us with hearing loss.  So scary when it happens and we wonder if we are losing our minds.

Not only does the brain attempt to fill in what we don’t understand of the spoken word, it can also add a little spice to life by adding unwanted tinnitus sounds that fill our auditory field in a most annoying and unwelcome manner.  We can  also hear vaguely formed music that isn’t quite recognizable and may be loud or soft – often on the very edge of our hearing – while there is no music playing. On the other hand, it might be quite loud and obnoxious and still not quite recognizable.  It may be the brain interpreting the fan on the refrigerator as music or it may be purely filler noise such as the tinnitus.  As long as the music is not perceived as a message from a deity or someone or something else – and as long as we are not going to react to it and harm ourselves or others it is a no harm/no foul situation.  Every now and then the bonging of the car door (when opened with the key in the ignition) sounds like a major chord.  I thought it was a problem with the hearing aid – apparently not.

Another form of pseudo sound is hearing faint conversations or voices that are not really there. Again, this may be some faint sound we’re hearing that our brain is attempting to make sense of, but unless we are getting “messages” that are encouraging a behavior or causing fear, this is a natural thing and not to be confused with a psychiatric condition. It can be rattling, though, if we are home alone.

And then there is the issue of the squealing hearing aid.  Mine has had terrible feedback as of late – to the point I am wearing it less and less because of the infernal racket.  I went to the hearing aid tech today – it was squealing so loud in the waiting room that he could hear it across the room and then – as soon as he started looking at it – it subsided and refused to squeal again.  It is like the washer that malfunctions until you call the repairman, pay $100 for the visit and then works just fine…   So far, so good.  (crossing fingers)  I suppose.

Do you hear what I hear?  If so, you may be suffering from hearing loss.

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