My Experience with Sudden Hearing Loss

Reflections on The Train in the Night by Nick Coleman

Sudden_hearing_loss
When music journalist Nick Coleman described his sudden hearing loss, clamorous tinnitus, and extreme sensitivity to sound in his new memoir, I could relate.

One night as I was heading to bed a year and a half ago, I noticed that I couldn’t hear out of my right ear at all, even though it didn’t seem like anything had actually happened to cause such a change. The rest of my body, even my ear, felt fine—so fine that I got up the next morning and, instead of going to the doctor, completed a 45-mile bike ride, as planned.

The rest of my body, even my ear, felt fine—so fine that I got up the next morning and completed a 45-mile bike ride.

The dizziness came later, so that I was weaving back and forth on the sidewalk after the audiologist’s first set of disorienting and mentally exhausting tests. Who knew that a virus (that’s what the doctor says probably led to my sensorineural hearing loss) could cause all of the words the audiologist enunciated into my right ear to sound like mud, except for “ice cream” and “mushroom”?

Music writer Nick Coleman, who also lost the hearing in his right ear suddenly while getting into bed one night, had it much worse in terms of balance: he was running into lampposts and using canes to get around. Having followed Nick’s story in the British documentary film Lost and Sound, I had decided to read his memoir The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss after it was released last month in the U.S.

Like me, Nick touched his earlobe incessantly to check for changes in hearing, but the hearing in his right ear never returned. I was lucky in that within a couple of months, most of my hearing came back, except for the highest-frequency sounds; so that while rubbing my left ear in a quiet environment brings the same papery, high-friction sound it always has, on my right side it elicits the duller texture of a snuggly blanket.

As the frequencies came back gradually, my biggest triumph was hearing birds sing in the morning again, no matter which side of my head was buried in the pillow. But I learned that the highest-pitched sounds, no longer transmitted by the tiniest of my inner ear’s damaged hair cells, include “voiceless” consonants in speech (like f, s, h, and th) and—more conveniently—the terrible chirp of our broken air conditioner.

Nick writes, “Music has changed now that I can’t hear it properly any more. . . . Since my collapse, it is now flat and unrevealing, distorted and partially concealed behind the uproar filling the right-hand hemisphere of my head, as if hiding.” For me, the change in music was more subtle. I didn’t want anything to do with music for the first few weeks, but since my limited recovery I’d say I’m simply more picky about music now.

Much of my favorite music now is music that I can control, that I feel with my whole body, that I help create.

Music that’s being blasted—if it’s not something I can lose myself in—feels like an assault, not unlike a blaring TV commercial or the clattering of the elevated train. But if it is music I like, I can enjoy the experience; I might suffer minor pain and louder ringing in my ear afterward if I don’t bring along earplugs. Worth it for something like live brass on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, or dancing with old friends at a wedding.

Quieter music is usually fine, although my standards of quiet are stricter now. All the more reason to play music myself, on the piano. Much of my favorite music now is music that I can control, that I feel with my whole body, that I help create.

I wonder if Nick has tried this approach on his excruciating but now hopeful path toward getting pleasure out of music again. Because it seems to me that no matter your skill level (and, according to many musicians with hearing loss, no matter your hearing ability), when you’re making music yourself, there’s almost no way you can’t enjoy it and feel an emotional connection.

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4 Comments

  1. This exact thing happened to me 4 years ago. It took a month or so for my hearing to return. In the meantime, I got aggressive steroid treatment, including injections into the eardrum. I don’t know if that helped, but it certainly didn’t hurt, and I wanted to try everything. The first few weeks, I was able to play music if I put an earplug into the bad ear to avoid that distorted, tinny sound. The first music I remember hearing without distortion was, oddly enough, the Dvorak cello concerto on my car radio as I was driving home from an ENT doctor appointment.

    Ever since then, every little twinge in my ears makes me start panicking, and I’ve been much more careful about not abusing my ears and of taking care of my health in general. But so far, so good.

    • Harriet, thanks for your comment. I’m so glad yours came back quickly. Yes, I have also been more careful with my ears and health since this incident. Now I worry more about certain things, but I’m also more grateful for certain things.

  2. I lost my hearing altogether, through having a viral infection in both ears, within the space of roughly 3 months.
    As a hearing person I too played piano. I now play Clarinet & Alto Saxophone. You say there is no way you can make music yourself and not feel an emotional attachment to it. . . I so agree with that statement.

    • Nadien, thanks for your comment. I’m so sorry this happened to you in both ears. But that’s great to know you are still playing music and getting something out of it!

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