A few weeks ago I attended an evening open house at a local business. The idea was to network for 45 minutes or so until it was time to listen to the featured speaker. In the lobby I filled out my name tag, grabbed a glass of white wine and stepped around the corner into the open-construction space where the networking was supposed to happen.
I knew right away I was in trouble.
I am 47 years old, and I have what has been described by audiologists as typical hearing loss for my age. But in this roomful of hard surfaces and boisterously talking people, loud and unintelligible sounds were bouncing off the walls and floor like laser beams. They actually hurt my ears. This evening, meaningful conversation—at least for me—was going to be almost impossible.
As it happens, I wasn’t alone. Others commented (or yelled) on the noise level, and a few people simply took refuge on the edges of the room. But it got me thinking about how isolated and anxious I would have felt if everyone else had been just fine with the noise level.
Experts say hearing loss is one of the most isolating things that can happen to a person, that it leads to depression and reduced quality of life. On Networking Night I got a glimpse into that world.
NOT SO BAD … YET
As I mentioned, I have pretty typical hearing loss, degraded at the high tonal end. It bothers me quite a bit, though, in crowds and restaurants, where I often have a hard time following group conversations. It’s surprisingly emotional.
When I’ve missed a key sentence or word, I sometimes feel almost panicky, like I was just thrown into the deep end of the pool and can’t swim. I cast about for possible meanings so I can catch back up to the group, but tend to come up with nonsense. “President Obama signed a stealth care bill? Is that a drone thing? Why are we talking about drones?” I’ll wonder to myself. No kidding: in the moment I will miss some really obvious clues.
And then—and this is maybe the deadliest thing in terms of isolation—if I can’t catch up, or it’s just too hard to hear what’s being said because the place is so noisy, I drift off. I stop trying to participate. I read the menu or check my phone or start looking around. And bam: like that, I’m out of it. Out of the group, out of the dynamic, out of the action until we get to a different environment.
And as anyone with degraded hearing knows, once you’re out of a conversation, it’s hard to get back in.
HOPE FOR BETTER
I don’t like the direction this is going. So I’m doing Neurotone’s LACE training for the next three weeks in hopes that I can establish some strategies for staying grounded and connected with people, even in noisy environments. I’ll be sharing my progress on this blog.
LACE (it stands for Listening And Communication Enhancement) isn’t about hearing aids, which help your ears collect sound waves. It’s about training your brain to listen, to focus, to pick a voice and follow it like a hound dog through the brambles and brush of clinking dinnerware and laughter at the next table.
LACE was created for people like me—with hearing that’s starting to be a problem—and for people with new hearing aids, which can really be miserable at first. A lot of people (my mom is one of them) abandon their hearing aids because all the new noises coming at them—noises they haven’t heard in a long time—are simply overwhelming. They need help learning to sort those noises out. LACE helps them do that.
So far I’ve done three 20-minute sessions, and my weak points are obvious: Competing Voices (when more than one person is talking) and Speech in Noise (just what it sounds like). I won’t write about my first few LACE training sessions right now—this post is long enough—but I can tell you this much: it’s easy to follow, and it’s kind of fun.
I’m documenting my experience and I’ll be posting regularly on this blog. Wish me luck.