Sept 2018 Toronto Star
In this excerpt from Sound: A Memoir of Hearing Lost and Found, Greystone Books 2018, English author Bella Bathurst writes about how silence and sound contribute to our lives. And she tells the personal story of losing her hearing for 12 years — and then regaining it.
Sound had come back into me with the force of revelation and I had no idea what to do with myself. I could hear! I could hear!!!! I’d been hearing for 28 years and deaf for 12, and since I’d gone back to being hearing again, everything was bigger than I had the capacity to express.
I wanted everything. I wanted to try everything, listen to everything. I wanted to go up to strangers in the street and ask them if they had any idea of the miracles taking place inside their heads. I wanted to tell them that this hearing thing — this basic feature, fitted totally as standard in every working model — turned out, upon examination, to be a piece of kit which made the works of Shakespeare seem slack by comparison.
I wanted to scroll dotingly through photos on mobiles, pull up proud scrapbooks of cochleas and temporal lobes, exchange reminiscences about auditory cortexes. I wanted to declare myself sound. I hoped these people knew how many miracles they had inside their heads, and just how much of the time they squandered those miracles on automated lift announcements and three-for-two offers on fabric conditioner.
I sat in cafés, blissed by the opportunity to eavesdrop on people bitching about their colleagues. I struck up conversations with strangers on trains or found excuses to offer directions to tourists. I rang up friends in Orkney or Greenock just because I wanted to hear the way they said “modern” or “cosmetic” and savoured the tastes of each professional dialect — the wipe-clean tones of nursing staff or get-in-quick diction of cold-callers. Several times I lost the thread of discussions because I was too busy listening to the sensation of listening rather than the sense.
I talked to people on the tube. I took my new hearing to films, parties and bicycle races, I experimented with power tools and hung out round chainsaws. I stood below telegraph lines to hear the scribble of swallows or climbed hills to find the lilt of a curlew. I greeted the three-note preamble to a train announcement like an old friend and tripped out on the sheer poetry in “Cashier number THREE, please!”
I watched TV not because I was interested in what was on, but because I loved the indulgence of sitting there just moving the volume button up and down. I wasn’t groping for a single word any longer or making approximate swipes at possible topics. I could hear a whole sentence! Every letter of every word! I could make out all of what people were saying from beginning to end! I was astounded by the thrill of exactitude. I could hear accent, dialect, nuance, mood. I could understand, and once I understood, I could connect. I had come home.
And that, to be honest, is how it felt. For 28 years I had been a native in the land of the hearing and for twelve I had been a traveller through the world of the deaf. Sometime in 1998 I had taken my place in the 10-million-strong queue of dispossessed hearers all shuffling down the lines towards a place we didn’t want to be.
I’d left protesting and bewildered, and I’d arrived at my destination transfigured. I’d been one person and now I was another. Somewhere along that journey I’d discarded many of the things I’d been carrying and picked up new tools better suited for the job. I’d left a lot of myself behind, and I’d brought some along for the ride. I learned the language, I picked up a few local habits and secrets, I met some people I would be glad to call friends for life.
By the end, I loved the deafened world and understood it as a place of magnificence and revelation. But the truth is, I had never stopped walking. I was always just a tourist. At the same time as I was savouring sound I was also readjusting to a world in which I could, if I chose, be completely indifferent to it. In many ways I found it bizarre how easy I found it to return to the world I’d lived in before. There was nothing I had to do, no recalibration to be made. Sound was there, sound was gone, sound came back. It was as if I’d walked back into the space I’d walked out of 12 years ago and found it unchanged. Two stupendously sophisticated, complex operations had produced something that was … simple.
For a couple of months afterwards, I still dabbed around on the bedside table in search of the hearing aids every morning when I woke up. After the operations I’d put the aids away in my makeup bag, where they sank beneath a layer of eyeliners and vanished from view. After a year or so — or some period of time long enough to convince myself this new hearing thing was for real — I took them out, cleaned them up and sent them to Jacqui so she could plunder the mechanisms for someone else.
When the second ear had healed fully, I also discovered I was no longer tired all the time. Because my brain was no longer working at full capacity to filter and process sound, whole holds of internal storage space seemed suddenly to have become free. I didn’t need nine hours of sleep a night, and I no longer slept like I’d been hit. And if I was woken by car alarms or drills, well, that seemed like a fair exchange to me.
I also felt a certain amount of survivor’s guilt. I had been astonishingly lucky, and I knew it. For 12 years, I had believed that this was only going to get worse, and then at the last moment I had been offered an alternative. At the moment, there are very few hearing conditions which are operable, though the possibilities continue to expand every year. The real breakthrough will come when we can work out how to regenerate hair cells just as birds do. After all, if there are 11 million people with hearing loss in the U.K. alone, then that’s 11 million incentives to improve the situation. Until then there are no real cures for sensorineural hearing loss, only remedies.
So for all I had returned to a world I’d inhabited before, this time it was different. Though it might initially have seemed reasonable to behave as I had for the first 28 years, it wasn’t the same. I knew more. I understood more.
I understood what hearing could do and what it couldn’t and the spaces it could fill between one person and another. I understood that I had been given a second chance, and that it was my job to live every last drop of that chance. So I got happy — just straightforwardly, normally happy. I moved out of London, kept writing, used what I’d learned about listening and about life. The things I’d discovered while deaf came with me. This time around I truly knew the value both of what I’d got, and what I’d got back.
And one day it might happen again. Some stapedectomies last forever, some don’t, and statistically I’m exactly as likely to suffer age-related hearing loss as anyone else. But I’m lucky. If it happens again, I know the old country now. I know its landscape, something of its politics and a lot of its people, and if I need to, I can go native.