Catherine Small: Tackling labyrinthitis

Posted on April 27, 2012

When I woke up on 2nd May 2008, the room was spinning, I couldn’t stand up without falling over and I couldn’t hear anything in my left ear.

My GP diagnosed labyrinthitis, a viral infection of the inner ear. He was confident my hearing loss was temporary, and that once the virus cleared up my hearing would return to normal.

The dizziness and vertigo subsided after about six weeks, but there was no improvement in my hearing.

I had never realised before how important both our ears are. Not being able to hear anything on my left side meant I couldn’t tell which direction sound was coming from. It was confusing and disorientating. I would ignore my phone at work, thinking it was a colleague’s that was ringing, and I had a few close shaves when I stepped into the road thinking a car was coming from the left, when it was coming towards me on the right.

Worse than that, though, was the noise. I had always thought, were I to go deaf, that it would be quiet, but the inside of my head is really noisy! As well as having tinnitus now, I could hear fluid moving round my ear, like water glugging down a plughole, every time I tilted my head or did some exercise. Odd as it sounds, the thing I miss most since losing my hearing is silence.

To begin with, I avoided socialising, especially in noisy places such as pubs or restaurants, or with groups of people. At times I cried with frustration when I couldn’t follow a conversation or hear someone talking to me. I was aware that people were speaking, but the sound was so muffled and distorted I couldn’t make out individual words.

But I’m not one to withdraw or feel sorry for myself for long. Unconsciously, I started to compensate. If I was out for a meal with a group of friends, or in a meeting at work, I would sit at the end of the table with everyone on my right-hand side. At the station I would stand underneath the loudspeaker so I could hear the announcements better. I joined the local hard of hearing group, and I got referred to a specialist.

The consultant said the labyrinthitis had damaged my auditory nerve, and while my moderate hearing loss was unlikely to get worse, it wasn’t going to get any better. I was fitted with a hearing aid in my left ear.

It took a bit of getting used to. Having not been able to hear anything in that ear for nine months, suddenly everything seemed really loud. There is constant white noise, like a radio that’s not quite tuned properly, but it’s amazing how your brain adjusts and filters it out.

I still struggle a bit in noisy places or if lots of people are talking at once, and the inside of my head still sounds like an emptying bath.

But in all, my hearing loss has been a positive experience. It’s a bit of an inconvenience, but it’s not life-threatening, I can still do my job and, most of the time, I manage pretty well.

Best of all, I have made new friends and met lots of inspiring people because of it.

Catherine Small has been a journalist for 25 years and currently works as chief sub-editor on Psychologies Magazine. She is deaf in one ear and sits in the corner so she can hear everyone. Her husband acts as her hearing dog, alerting her to sounds such as the doorbell and the telephone. Follow her on Twitter as @cath_small

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