Monday, May 5, 2014

The slow death of isolation


I’m getting used to not hearing much of what people say around me. For a quarter of a century, I’ve had a hearing deficiency, and it’s slowly getting worse. A little earlier, I developed tinnitus, that ringing in one’s ears, but that affected my hearing only incidentally (the noises I experience seem to begin at around 5000 Hz, and that’s about where my hearing begins to fall off). The real loss appears to be in understanding what people are saying, even when their voices are loud enough. No amount of amplification seems to overcome that part of it. I attribute it to faulty wiring in my brain, the part which “makes sense” of what I hear. It makes sense (!) to me that the vibrations striking my eardrums and converted to neural signals by the hair-like cells in the cochlea of my inner ears go through some pretty complex transformations on the way to “hearing what is said.”

In a quiet environment, I can converse easily with someone who is speaking at a normal level close to me and directing their speech directly at me. Not always, actually—some people’s voices don’t register well, but most do. Add some background noise, however, and my hearing loss becomes increasingly apparent. The worst situation is a noisy restaurant, sitting at a table with a number of people who are talking among themselves. I end up simply ignoring what others are saying, because to question them repeatedly is to interrupt the conversation and call attention to my deficiency. More and more, I choose to drop out of such group conversations. And thus isolating myself even more.

Ironically, what I miss most in my life is intimate connection with others. Before this hearing loss began, I discovered something about myself that I hadn’t realized before, that I treasure exactly that intimacy that comes from sharing of feelings with others. In an ongoing community someone introduced me to, I found that I’d always felt separate from people in general, too shy to approach others, “lacking in social skills,” because I hadn’t had enough practice. In that community, I learned some of the skills and confidence to overcome my isolation. With the loss, in time, of that community my reclusiveness returned.

Perhaps this shyness is what encouraged me to focus on writing. Since adolescence, I have written a lot. With practice, I developed comfort in putting words together. Writing makes me think and it gives me time to gather my thoughts enough to share them with others. I’d much rather write letters than to engage in a telephone conversation. That preference has intensified with the growing loss of my hearing. Just this essay is an example of something I’d be hard put to express orally. Few people would want to wait for me to put the right words together in a conversation.

Yesterday, I was having one of those rare intimate conversations with someone I have known and loved for a long time, but whom I have not been with much. The environment was an ordinary family gathering, with people talking and working together, focused mostly on the tasks at hand. I thought I was hearing well enough to taste that intimacy, but I found out later that I had missed completely at least one remark, one that would have made a great difference in the depth of my understanding of the conversation. I missed the significance of what was said to me. The moment is unrecoverable, at least for now.

I share my life with someone who knows me deeply, with whom I share just as deeply, and most of the time with her I feel understood, in spite of this growing silence in my head (replaced by amorphous clicks and pings and other racket). Otherwise, I find myself increasingly isolated. I have a number of people whom I count as my friends, but seldom do I have the opportunity for extended sharing of intimacy.

Just as my physical body is slowly deteriorating with age, my sense of life seems to be fading away. Medical remedies may postpone the failure of my kidneys and my blood-making processes, but I despair sometimes at the loss of myself as a person—defined and supported by interaction with others. The nothingness of death sometimes seems not all that awful.

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