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“I have the same problem with understanding conversation in a noisy environment.”

I met with a friend over lunch yesterday. We’ve known each other for at least 4 years, and our visits usually take place in one noisy restaurant or another. I enjoy her immensely, and we’ve talked about many different topics over the years. She has known from the start that I am deaf and hearing with bilateral cochlear implants. I have periodically made reference to my hearing in the context of one thing or another, but at lunch, while discussing the search for employment, it took on a different tone. Ultimately, it taught me old lessons through a new lens.

It is immeasurably difficult to explain adequately what it is about my struggle to filter out noise in order to hear speech (conversation) that is different from the struggle of the person who has difficulty hearing in noisy environments but has otherwise normal hearing. My friend asked me if I’d consider working as, say, a waitress in the bar and grill we were sitting at right at that moment. I proceeded to explain that though I’ve done that sort of work in the past and am not opposed to it in principle, I probably would not pursue it because a key aspect of the job is to take food and drink orders and I cannot count on being able to reliably understand all the details of the order provided by the customer. The background music, conversation around us, the overall noise level creates significant challenges. Even if I were to be successful most of the time in not needing a lot of repeat information or making a lot of errors, I am aware from experience the level of cognitive fatigue I would endure simply from the kind of intense and focused listening and lip reading that would be involved. I know that not only would that exhaust me physically, it would exhaust me mentally, and if I were to need to do other intense listening activities outside of work, my mood might be altered to the point that I would become irritable and unable to modulate my responses to external stimuli ONLY because of that cognitive fatigue. It would become a quality of life issue.

I tried to say all that face to face, but I don’t think I got it all out, nor do I think it would have made that much difference. Why? Because my friend has only her own experience, which is to struggle with hearing conversation in a noisy environment as a normal hearing individual. That’s her reference point and she cannot be expected to relate to a completely foreign experience, i.e. to hear electrically with bionic technology. One of the things I started to tell folks I mentored through the cochlear implant process is that I no longer spend a lot of time trying to describe what it sounds like, initially as well as in later stages, to hear with cochlear implant technology. It is not possible to understand unless you’re hearing with it yourself. The issue of hearing in noise as a hard of hearing person who wears hearing aids is somewhat similar. We use the same language to describe it, yet again it is different from my experience with cochlear implants.

I also took note of the fact that I was becoming somewhat defensive. I took my friend’s insistence that I can do this, that everyone struggles with the same problem, as an attack on my ability and willingness to pursue all reasonable options for employment. We discussed this, and she was able to help me see that she was just trying to understand. I appreciate her curiosity and willingness to stick with it all the way through. Many will not even care enough to try. However, it really is not something that is entirely possible to resolve. The message for me is that I must continue to build on my internal strength, to know and love not only my strengths but my limitations. Good life lessons over lunch.

Photo: cochlear.com