If you’d asked me before I became deaf in one ear, what I imagined it would be like to live with single-sided deafness (SSD), I probably wouldn’t have paid it much thought. At least with SSD, you still have hearing in the other ear—it can’t have much of an impact on your life, right? Wrong! Since my sudden hearing loss in 2016, I have been living with SSD, and for me, I lost so much more than just half my hearing.
SSD presents unique practical consequences, including the following:
- Difficulty locating sounds
- Problems hearing speech over background noise, e,g. In social situations such as cafes or restaurants
- Struggling to gauge volume levels
- Feeling disorientated in crowded environments
- Difficulty multitasking
Let’s take a walk together…
For Deaf Awareness Week 2022 (2nd-8th May), I’m going to share a little about the practical and associated emotional impact of living with SSD by inviting you to spend some time in my world…
… Imagine it’s the start of a typical day.
Since the moment you lost your hearing in one ear, the world’s volume dial has been turned up, and you don’t have access to the control. You walk outside into a mess of noise and proceed to cross the road. You hear the sound of a car approaching, but your ears don’t indicate from which direction. Your heartbeat quickens. Luckily, you spot the car advancing towards you from your deaf side and you hurry to the other side of the street.
Your eyes are your best friend to help you on your journey, and you constantly scan your environment for visible obstacles to avoid. But this heavy reliance on your sight causes you to feel overwhelmed, imbalanced, nervous and fragile. Dizziness sets in. You take a deep breath and continue down the street.
You turn around to notice a stranger walking next to you on your deaf side, gesturing and giving you an unimpressed look. You’re a little startled to see somebody standing so close. Chances are they asked you a question which you didn’t hear, in fact, in not realising they were there, you failed to even acknowledge them. You smile and begin to explain, but they are already walking away.
An ambulance siren screams with a high-pitched ring. Your hands immediately go to your ears. For some reason, your deaf ear finds this loud noise painful. Your hearing ear also struggles with the intensity of the noise, and you have an instinct to protect it. You notice a person across the street watching your response with interest. Conscious of this perceived overreaction, you feel a pang in your chest.
You’re on your way to meet a friend for a coffee. While walking towards your meeting place, you hear a loud bang. It sounds close, or maybe not, you can’t tell. You quickly turn to your right side, your hearing side, where all sounds seem to be coming from. You don’t see anything. You look to the left—nothing… Do I need to move out of the way? Which way should I move? Is there something dangerous happening? You scan the area and observe the reactions and facial expressions of others in the vicinity to gauge whether it is something to be worried about. Nobody else seems phased. Perhaps it was just some nearby building work.
You believe you hear someone call your name, but you can’t be sure. The buzz of traffic dominates your mind. You hear the call again or think you do. You spin around looking in every direction. Ah, it’s your friend! You spot her across the street, smiling and waving. You cross the road, again carefully repeatedly checking each direction for possible oncoming cars.
You greet your friend. As you begin to walk together towards the cafe, you circle around her to position her on your hearing side, so you have a chance of hearing her on the short walk to the cafe.
You enter the cafe, it’s generally a quiet place, the reason you chose it. Your friend kindly orders two coffees and being aware of your hearing loss, asks you where you would like to sit. You select a table in the corner so that your deaf ear is facing towards the wall and your hearing ear is facing her.
You start to catch up with each other and things are going well. There is minimal background noise until someone drops some cutlery. In the moment it hits the floor, the clang of the metal short-circuits your concentration and hearing ability, and you miss a vital part of the conversation. You ask your friend to repeat herself. A loud whirring sound from the coffee grinder interrupts…
… You scramble around in your brain to follow the movement of your friend’s lips. You can see she’s talking, maybe you hear some sounds, but not enough to have any meaning alone. Your ears are ringing. The louder the background noise, the louder the ringing. Listening fatigue hits you suddenly and hard. Your heart is beating fast with frustration. This used to be so easy. You wait until the noise has stopped, apologise for not hearing, and ask again for repetition.
Back to a quiet chat. You take a deep breath and enjoy the words that you now receive more easily. Your head is still throbbing from the previous noise, but you feel your body relaxing a little into the conversation.
Next, enter a group of people who sit at a nearby table. They are speaking loudly and your hearing ear fills with the jumbled sound from their table. There is little capacity left for your friend’s voice. You want to tell the group to leave or be quiet!
One of the people at the noisy table recognises your friend, a colleague from work. They approach your table. You haven’t met them before. They introduce themselves, but you don’t hear their name. You respond by telling them your name. You suspect you have just shouted, as the barrister turns around sharply to look at you. The colleague continues to speak to you and your friend, but they have a heavy accent and keep covering their mouth with their hand. The conversation bounces energetically from lips to lips. You try to follow the momentum, your gaze searching for moving lips, like watching the ball during a tennis match. They both begin to laugh. What’s so funny? You join in with them, laughing cautiously.
You have to admit defeat and smile and copy your friend’s facial expressions and physical responses to the conversation. Your body is tensing up. You feel alone in this invisible struggle and can no longer contribute to the discussion.
When you arrive home, you are exhausted. Your head hurts from trying to follow the conversation and navigating the outdoor environment. You’re finding it difficult to concentrate on anything, and are mentally exhausted and need to sleep. You lie down with your hearing ear pressed against the pillow, managing to block out all external noise with this one simple action—a little perk of SSD.
For me, losing hearing in one ear has been life-changing. It took time for me to accept the loss and to understand how to function in the world with only one hearing ear. My hearing loss cannot be seen and it can be lonely, particularly in social situations where you have limited control over the listening environment. Yet, it’s amazing how my brain has adapted to its new circumstances and challenges. I rarely consider the details of how my hearing loss affects my days.
This Deaf Awareness Week 2022, I want to celebrate my hearing and my hearing loss. I have a lot to thank my hearing loss for. I am a stronger, more resilient and compassionate person because of it, and I now appreciate all the sounds I can hear, so much more than I ever did.
Do you have SSD? I’d love you to share your experiences in the comment section below.
Excellent piece, so much I can relate to here. I have always had some hearing loss and when I suddenly lost what little hearing I had in my right ear I thought my hearing aid had gone wrong! When I took it to the audiology department to be fixed I discovered it was fine, it was my ear that had shut down. Managing with one ear is challenging in so many ways and you’ve captured the frustration and fatigue it entails beautifully. The inability to place sounds accurately, with noises all seemingly coming from the left in my case, can leave me turning my head, or spinning in slow circles, to try to locate the mystery sound. For those who don’t know me this must be quite unsettling! Oh, and I’ve had somebody ram me with a shopping trolley when they’d obviously asked me to move a few times and not had a response, that was a particularly unpleasant experience. But, as you point out, there are positives too and I’m grateful for those.
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Thank you for reading and for your comment.
Yes, sound localization is ticky to manage. Sorry to read about your experience with the shopping trolley. I find supermarkets can be challenging to navigate because of the background noise, and I often see annoyed looks from people standing on my deaf side!
You’ve captured everything so beautifully. Like you, my loss is on my left side. I just looked it up and I cannot believe it, but it’s been over six years since my sudden hearing loss.
One thing I’ve found is that I feel a bit more isolated and more reluctant to attend larger gatherings, primarily due to all of the challenges you’ve pointed out. That said, I value the time with a small group of close friend more than I did prior to my hearing loss.
Wishing you the best as you navigate this one-sided sound world that we inhabit.
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Thank you for reading and for the comment.
I agree, larger gatherings come with many challenges. I much prefer meeting people one-to-one or in small groups 🙂
Best of wishes to you too!