Lend An Ear: Why Editor Paul Hagen is Only Half Listening to You

Written by | Columnists and Letters

Paul Hagen

The summer after kindergarten, I was admitted to the hospital. Something was wrong with my left ear, and the doctors were having difficulty identifying a remedy. They hoped a month of IV antibiotic treatment would be enough to correct the problem. If it wasn’t, they’d perform surgery at the end of the month.

The trouble with these IV treatments was that, after a while, my circulatory system became overburdened. The arm in which the needle was inserted began to swell and not properly receive the medication. So after a week, they switched to the other arm. When that arm swelled, they had no choice but to return to the other, still not-quite-deflated arm.

Having an IV inserted can be extremely disconcerting. There can be difficulties finding an appropriate vein, tapping into it and getting the apparatus to sit properly. When they went to insert the IV into my still-tender arm, it felt like liquid fire. Sensing that my discomfort might upset my mother, they wheeled me away to “another room” (really more of a supply closet) where a burly blonde orderly held me down as the procedure was completed. For decades after, I would wake from nightmares, reliving that moment.

Unfortunately, that suffering was for naught. The antibiotics had no discernible effect, and I was scheduled to undergo a surgery that would enable the doctors to clear out the damaged tissue – including my eardrum and the bones essential for conducting sound. When I woke from the surgery, the pain was extraordinary – as though someone were swinging a bat that was perpetually connecting with the side of my head. But the most lasting and life-altering result was that I was effectively deaf in one ear.

Having now spent nearly my entire life in this condition, I don’t have much with which to compare it, but I’ve noted how it interferes. When walking down the street with someone, I have to be on their left, which often leaves me performing a kind of pas de deux to get into position. People are constantly trying to whisper things into my non-functioning ear, such that I instinctively turn my hearing ear toward their lips – resulting in more than a few inadvertent head butts. When it came to music, I learned how to position myself around pianos and speakers to catch more of what was going on. And if we are seated such that my right ear toward an open car window, you might as well be trying to talk to me from the next room.

One learns to cope. I’ve known people for years before they noticed. I generally don’t feel differently abled. But I’m aware that I miss bits of conversation. I’ve fake-laughed at many jokes with punchlines I never heard rather than go through the rigmarole of asking for them to be awkwardly repeated. Occasionally I’ll listen to something designed to offer stereo sound and be unable to hear whatever portion of it is being delivered into the left channel. I worry that I might lose the hearing in my other ear (due to an accident or the passing of time) and be left without the ability to hear at all. I wonder if I should learn sign language preemptively.

Doctors have told me that there may be options that could restore my hearing – but I’ve been down that road and disappointed before. When I had an another corrective ear surgery in high school, the doctor optimistically decided to excise a piece of my jaw muscle to function as my new ear drum. Within months it had collapsed, causing more problems. I don’t need to have my head cut open again to know that my ear is a destroyer of anything put into it.

This is the life I know. In the same way I am gay or cisgender or white, this is a circumstance that the universe built into my experience on the planet. I suppose I could spend more time raging or complaining about it, but – with the exception of some basic medical upkeep – I prefer to focus on living the best life I can, adapting where necessary, and not putting myself in positions where my hearing loss will prove a disadvantage. I’ve accepted it. But if you should ever find yourself in conversation with me, I’ll take this opportunity to apologize in advance — because no matter what, I’m only half-listening.

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Last modified: August 21, 2018