William Mager: Billy 2.0 – A Trial Separation

Posted on March 26, 2013

This is one of the most difficult updates I’ve ever had to write. I’ve written and rewritten this, and there’s no easy way of putting it so I’m just going to say it.

When my implant was switched on last December, it was the end of a lifelong relationship.

For the last four months, I’ve been living without my long term companion.

It’s been difficult, but a lot of people agreed it was for the best that we underwent a trial separation.

I’m talking of course about my trusty hearing aids, which I’ve worn since I was a little boy.

All my old hearing aids

This picture is my collection of old and redundant hearing aids I’ve accumulated in the last few decades. They all run on 675ZA batteries. Some are analogue, some are digital.

They’re all made from similar flesh coloured plastic, the same colour found on many British Leyland and Saab cars of the 1970s.

Cars the colour of hearing aids

Front and centre is an Oticon Sumo, a digital hearing aid that I was wearing right up until I was switched on.

I miss wearing it sometimes. The warm feel of the mould in my ear, the waxy smell it gets when it’s stained dark brown, like Monosodium Glutamate or athlete’s foot.

I don’t miss the occasional whistling noise the hearing aid made as I turned my head or the mould came loose, which I couldn’t hear as it was so high pitched. But everyone else could. Trust me, everyone else could. Did they always tell me? No, because I live in England and people don’t like to make a fuss.

What the hearing aid did was amplify sound and feed it into my ear. I thought it sounded pretty good. Music, films, TV all sounded better with a hearing aid (loud) than without (silent).

For more than 30 years we were inseparable. They were the first thing I put on in the morning, and the last thing I took off at night.

With the cochlear implant I don’t have an earmould. It doesn’t whistle. It barely feels like it’s there. It’s a sleek midnight blue. The colour is cool. It reminds me of a Lamborghini Reventon instead of a Morris Marina.

Lamborghini Reventon

But in the last couple of weeks, I began to wonder. Would the hearing aid complement my implant? Would the different way it processed sound fill in any gaps in my cochlear implant’s hearing? There’s also a medical need for me to keep stimulating the auditory nerve in the non implanted ear – otherwise, I’m told, it could atrophy and die completely, making my other ear useless should I want to get another implant, or genetic therapy, or stem cell treatment, or whatever other treatment might be just round the corner.

I investigated online – asking facebook groups and messageboards whether I should wear a hearing aid with my implant or not, and become bimodal. The results were inconclusive. Some wore one, some didn’t. No-one knew whether it made any real difference. I decided to leave it. I wanted my brain to focus on getting as much as possible out of the implant on its own instead of confusing it with the old hearing aid.

Then one morning, my wife found my hearing aid in a little box on the mantelpiece. She asked me if I wanted to put it on. I took it from her, changed the battery, eased it into my ear and switched it on.

It sounded absolutely awful.

In fact, it sounded a lot like my cochlear implant when it was first switched on. Just a series of loud beeps instead of sounds. Completely incomprehensible.

My brain, after just 4 months of hearing through a cochlear implant, has now decided that more than 30 years of hearing aid technology is inferior. It’s amazing how different it sounds after just four months. Not like ‘sound’ as I remember it pre implant at all.

The most disorienting thing was that the sound in my left and right ears didn’t seem to match up at all. It was like listening to two different pieces of music, played at different pitch and tempo. Or the aural equivalent of rubbing my tummy and patting my head at the same time.

After 30 seconds or so of switching on the hearing aid each time, I found that the sound from the CI began to get quieter, as though the brain was latching on to my old, familiar hearing aid.

I tried it in different environments – the street (a constant monotone buzz of traffic); in the office (clanking and whistling noises); and listening to music (garbled).

After just five minutes of bimodality at a time, my head was pounding. I couldn’t stand it. I turned it off, but I left it in my ear. It felt nice to have that silicone mode caressing my inner earlobe once more.

So what does all this mean? What happens now?

I’m going to try wearing the hearing aid for an hour or so a day, just to keep that auditory nerve stimulated… but I think this trial separation is going to end in divorce.

I’m sorry, little Sumo. It’s not you. It’s me. I want different things out of life. You can’t give me what I need any more. We both need to move on..

Actually, you know what? I’m lying. The whole whistling thing really, really irritated me. We’re done.

The hearing aids in this article were donated to Action for Deafness, who distribute them to deaf people in the Third World.

William Mager is one of The Limping Chicken’s Contributing Editors. He is also 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,  read his blogand if you’re on Twitter, follow him here.

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