Hearing, processing, and mindfulness

anatomy of the human ear
A diagram of the anatomy of the human ear. “Tidens naturlære fig40” by Morten Bisgaard – From the book “Tidens naturlære” 1903 by Poul la Cour. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tidens_naturl%C3%A6re_fig40.png#/media/File:Tidens_naturl%C3%A6re_fig40.png

This is a story about hearing and understanding, and it will eventually connect to burnout.

I have been dealing with what I believed to be progressively worsening hearing loss for quite awhile now, over a year, at least. I hear things, but I don’t understand. Everything sounds garbled, or I’ll miss the beginning of a sentence and spend the rest of the sentence trying and failing to catch up. Talking in a place with lots of background noise is the worst. I am constantly asking my wife to repeat herself, which is annoying and tiresome to both of us.

I finally mentioned it to my primary care doctor this summer while consulting him about other matters. He told me he could refer me to get my hearing tested, but unless I was willing to pursue getting hearing aids if indicated, there probably wasn’t much point in getting tested. At that point, I was quite resistant to hearing aids, so I did not ask for that referral. But over this past month, I found myself mentally ready to get hearing aids if it turned out that’s what I needed. My inability to understand people was not just impairing my domestic life, but it was adversely affecting my encounters at the reference desk and in the classroom. I was tired of asking people to repeat themselves, and I was also tired of feeling ashamed that I needed people to repeat themselves, because apparently it’s terrible to need accommodations. Yes, I know how dumb that sounds.

Last week, I returned to my primary care doctor, who referred me to an ENT practice. Today I had my appointment, which consisted of a hearing test with an audiologist and then a consultation with an otolaryngologist. I was totally gobsmacked to learn that I have normal hearing. In fact, the doctor and audiologist both said I had excellent hearing. The achievement addict in me preened a bit at this, of course, and then I was like, wait a minute, what’s going on then? Why am I having such a hard time hearing and understanding things?

It turns out that I have a processing problem, not a hearing problem. I am hearing people just fine when they speak, but my brain is taking longer to process the information, so that’s why it sounds garbled to me, and why I need people to repeat themselves, so I have more time to process and translate the information. My doctor said that the neurons that affect the processing of auditory input can decline over time due to the normal aging process–or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but that was the basic idea.

It was at this point that about eighty million revelatory lights came on in my head. I have always had immense difficulty understanding things like verbal instructions or verbal driving directions. When I’m making group study room reservations over the phone at the reference desk, I die a little on the inside when someone has to spell their name for me, because hearing a word spelled aloud sounds like gobbledygook to me and I usually have to have them repeat it more than once. In fact, despite my excellent vocabulary and spelling skills, I stopped participating in school spelling bees at an early age because I have great difficulty understanding a word when it’s spelled aloud, even if I’m the one doing the spelling. Hearing a word spelled out sounds like hearing a foreign language, or a grownup in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

Since nothing is real or true until I can research it, I started googling almost the minute I left the doctor’s office. It turns out that there is a thing called auditory processing disorder, which my doctor did not mention, and I don’t believe I have, because I’ve never had a speech problem, and I definitely have not had any academic problems. However, some of the characteristics strongly resonated with me.

A processing problem like mine is not fixable. This is not something that can be addressed with hearing aids. You just have to adapt. My wife almost seemed kind of excited at the prospect of helping me to develop adaptations to this challenge, which seemed weird at first, but then made sense, since she was born with a visual impairment and was educated at a school for the blind, where one of the main things they teach you is how to cope with a world that was not designed for you. My wife is the Queen of Adaptation ruling over the Kingdom of Making It Work. And looking back, I can see how I’ve developed adaptations to my difficulties over the years. For whatever reason, translating a spelled-aloud word into a typed word is about 10 times harder to me than it is to hand write it. So when I’m talking on the phone to people and they need to spell their name, or an author’s name, I take my hands off the keyboard and try to hand write it.

Another thing the doctor said was that when I miss the beginning of the sentence, I shouldn’t panic and try to figure what I missed, but instead I should pay attention to the rest of the sentence that I’m hearing just fine. If I do the latter, I probably can figure out the part I missed by context. There are some customer service encounters I have where this always happens–why is always so loud in Chipotle?–but if I pay attention and hear BLAH BLAH YOU? I can pretty safely assume that the words I missed were probably “May I,” so I need to not internally freak out so much and just do the best I can with what I do understand.

And isn’t this just like life in general anyway? It is for me. I struggle so hard to just fucking pay attention and sit with the feelings and that I end up not experiencing the actual moment I am in. I have learned and read a lot about mindfulness over the past several years, and it is something I am trying to cultivate, but it is hard. A few weeks ago, I had an especially restful and blissful and pleasant weekend, and I turned to my wife and said aloud, “I am experiencing happiness!” Everything just felt so amazing and perfect that I had to mark it in some way and bask in the loveliness of a fall day, a clear blue sky, a leisurely walk around my neighborhood.

And here’s how I’m connecting this to burnout: for me, responding to and resisting burnout involves mindfulness. It requires intentional, deliberate attention to what brings me pleasure and joy and what makes me feel alive. It was indeed revelatory to learn that I do not have hearing loss, but it was also meaningful to have my problem reframed in a way that made a thousand different kinds of sense. It was helpful to get yet another reminder that the only way I’m going to be able to continue shuffling through this weird life and feel moderately okay doing it is to just pay attention–to listen, to do the best with what I have, to adapt, to be here.

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2 thoughts on “Hearing, processing, and mindfulness

  1. Yes! This resonates with me so much! I usually try to keep asking questions in reference or other interactions (hopefully not the same question over and over) to see if I can get more context or fill in the gap of the thing that I missed earlier in the conversation. It’s not that I’m not paying attention; it’s that my brain gets in the way sometimes!

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  2. Oh man! I don’t have the full blown version of this (yet), but I definitely dread having people spell things out verbally – I tend to try a time or two and then pass over paper and pen. And it’s probably why I dislike the phone – no visual cues or workarounds!

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