William Mager: Being switched on might be like taking drugs

Posted on December 14, 2012

I’ve been switched on for a couple of days now. After a great deal of reflection, I’ve realised that the only way to explain what I’ve been through is by using drug references.

So be warned: this article contains references to consumption of illegal drugs and their effects on the brain. It may also make much less sense than other stuff I’ve written in the past, for reasons which will hopefully become clear.

When I went into the audiologist’s office to be activated/switched on/turned on, I was expecting the unexpected. I knew it was going to be strange and uncanny. Even the audiologist told me that today would probably be the worst day of my life with a cochlear implant, and it would only get better from this point onwards. What happened next wasn’t really the worst thing ever, but it was deeply, deeply weird.

When she activated that first electrode, sending a tiny electric charge through it, the sensation was so unexpected and so different, that it made my left eye twitch, my hands shake, and my face go completely white. It took 20 minutes before the audiologist felt I was well enough to try again. During that time she went to the surgeon to double check that the implant wasn’t stimulating the “wrong part of my head”. During those 20 minutes I was experiencing what I can only describe as ‘a whitey’.

A whitey is when you smoke too much weed and have a bad reaction. You go pale, you get a bit shaky, and communication becomes difficult. That’s what I was having when those first electronic pulses were sent through my ear.

When she came back, I was feeling a bit better. She started switching on my 12 electrodes, one by one. She slowly increased the volume on each one until the pulsing of the test signal was too much to bear. Once they were all switched on, she gave me the implant to put on for the first time. The way the magnetic microphone part slid home felt strangely natural, like it had always belonged there.

Then she clapped her hands, and it made my brain do funny things. It felt like loads of synapses were literally firing inside my head, making the shape of a peak, with the highest point being the loudest part of the clap sound.

It’s really hard to explain what it feels like experiencing sound through the cochlear implant.

I no longer feel a physical sensation of hearing – sound waves travelling through my eardrum and into inner ear. Instead, sound is a pulse, inside my brain. Sometimes the pulse is so loud that it makes a shiver go down my spine and my shoulders do a little shudder. I’m not ‘hearing’ sounds. Instead sounds are being turned into tiny electric shocks inside my head.

What do these little electric shocks feel like?

When I was younger, I might have taken ecstasy. When one takes an e, you start to feel a ‘rushing’ sensation in your head as it takes effect. Each single sound that is transmitted into my head feels like the ‘rushing’ sensation of being on drugs. I stood in my kitchen yesterday and tapped an empty margarine carton rhythmically on the kitchen surface, and it felt exactly like coming up on a Mitsubishi.

What things are giving me that rushing sensation in my head? Well, I can hear a little bit of the human voice. I can’t hear traffic yet. A lorry going past is completely silent. Sitting in an office is a weirdly quiet experience, where I get startled by the loudness of someone’s footsteps or a cellophane packet rustling. The noisiest things in my life are the sounds of hard objects hitting other hard objects. Two plates clinking together, a spoon tapping on a plate, high heels on a wooden floor.

I spent an hour yesterday walking round the house tapping different surfaces with a wooden drumstick. Before, with a hearing aid, I’d have heard these taps simply as a ‘tap’ sound. But I had a eureka moment when I realised that tapping a wooden stick on a wooden surface sounded different in pitch and tone to tapping on a glass surface, or a metal surface. Of course, I knew that was the case – but this was the first time ever, EVER… that I’d actually heard that and been able to distinguish so clearly between the different sounds.

I had another eureka moment when I was sitting on the toilet checking my emails… and there was this damned noise. A rhythmic ‘plink’, ‘plink’. Then I realised it was a single drop of water falling from the shower head and splashing in the bath. That made me feel lightheaded and weird.

For every eureka moment, I’m having a WTF moment. I was warned by the audiologist to be ready to turn the volume down when I went outside for the first time, into the roaring traffic of Gray’s Inn Road. Instead, I walked out through the double doors into complete silence. I just stood on the pavement and watched buses and motorbikes roaring past, so loudly that I could feel my skin vibrating as they passed, but nothing happening in my head at all.

Then I got onto the tube. Silence. Apart from the tannoy, which cut into my head like a knife. Walking past a busker on a silent underground interchange, his guitar was the loudest thing in the world.

The TV in the living room sounds really far away and quiet, even when I turn the volume up so high the wine glass in my hand starts to vibrate. But then my iPhone sounds like being inside a goddamned IMAX cinema watching Transformers 4.

I’m used to hearing a dull roar of background noise through my hearing aids. Traffic, humming, random voices. Not fully understood, but there. An undercurrent that reassures me that yes, I’m deaf, but at least I’m hearing something.

Now I’m sitting in a world of silence, punctuated by random, violent bursts of sounds that I’ve never heard or experienced quite in the same way before.

What I’m experiencing now isn’t hearing as I imagined it, or as I’ve known it for the last 30 years. It’s completely different, and it’s making me feel really tired and disconnected from everything. I’m finding it really hard to concentrate, to hold on to a specific thought for a long time. I just watched the entire final of Masterchef: The Professionals without really registering anything I was seeing.

Most disconcerting of all is the dawning realisation that what I thought I was hearing for the last 30 years of my life wasn’t actually hearing. It was just compressed, distorted garbage noise through a hearing aid. What I’m feeling in my head now is much, much closer to actual sound, but it isn’t sound.

I’m basically living out my own real life version of the movie Inception. Everything from now on is going to feel like a half remembered dream, all those things I remember sounding like one thing are going to sound completely new from now on, and working out what these sounds are is going to be a long and complicated journey to consciousness.

I don’t know how much sense any of this makes. It doesn’t make much sense to me at the moment. But I do know three things, with which to conclude:

1 – Drugs are bad.

2 – I’ve only been switched on for two and a half days – but it’s getting better and better every day.

3 – I’m looking forward to watching Singin’ in the Rain again at some point soon.

First published on William Mager’s blog: http://wlmager.com/blog/

William Mager is an award-winning director for film and TV, who made his first film aged 14 when he “set fire to a model Audi Quattro and was subsequently banned from the school film club for excessive pyromania.” He’s made short films, dramas and mini-series, and works for the BBC. Find out all about his work at his personal website – and if you’re on Twitter, follow him here.

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