By Mary Louise Kelly
The interesting thing about going deaf is you don’t realize it’s happening. It’s impossible to pinpoint when everyone began to mumble, when you ceased hearing your own footsteps clicking down a hall.
“Is it the accents?” my husband asked when I complained that the actors on Downton Abbey spoke too fast. We started watching with subtitles. At the theater, I focused on the beauty of the sets and costumes because—though I would have denied this—I couldn’t follow the dialogue. Meanwhile, car horns and sirens dimmed. Packages didn’t arrive, yet the UPS man insisted he’d rung the bell three times. “Impossible,” I shot back. “I was home.”
My lowest moment came last spring at a reading to promote my first novel. A woman rose and recounted what I later learned was a risqué tale about a CIA spy (the book was an espionage thriller), then asked a question that had the audience in stitches. I squirmed, laughed along, and responded with what was surely a non sequitur, as I’d caught barely a word of what she’d said. In the taxi home, I thought: Enough.
Still, none of this prepared me for sitting in an audiologist’s office at age 43, being told that I suffered severe hearing loss. How severe? In one test, he stood across the room, spoke a series of words in a normal voice, and asked me to repeat them.
“Void,” he said.
“Void,” I repeated.
“Ditch,” he said.
Out of 20, I got 16. “Not perfect,” I sniffed, “but hardly severe.”
He repeated the test, now holding a sheet of paper before his face.
“Mumble,” he said.
“Um . . . repeat that one?”
“Nope. Mumbledy mumble.”
This time, I got 6 out of 20. When I couldn’t see his lips move, I missed 70 percent of what he said.
“How are you even functioning?” he inquired, genuinely mystified.
As a reporter, I’ve spent time on aircraft carriers, in helicopters, in war zones. For two decades, I’ve edited stories on deadline through headphones cranked too loud. But the most likely explanation for my hearing loss? Genetics. My father is hard of hearing. So are his sisters and 96-year-old mother. I’ve long known what loomed in my future—I just hadn’t expected it so early.
My first day with hearing aids, I went about my routine with a sense of wonder. It was astonishing to rediscover that pop songs had words I could sing along to. “Have been bopping to an ’80s dance mix all morning,” I posted on Facebook. “I challenge anyone to deny Debbie Gibson was a genius ahead of her time.” (To which came the inevitable reply: “You need to get your hearing checked.”)
By day two, I was on sensory overload. Starbucks left me near tears—I’d had no idea frothing milk made such a racket. I jogged in Rock Creek Park and for the first time in years didn’t jump every time cyclists whizzed past, because I could hear them coming.
The doctors can’t say whether my hearing has stabilized or will worsen. And hearing aids are an imperfect solution. The experience is different from, say, getting glasses and instantly being able to see. It takes time for the brain to adjust, to relearn the pathways it once knew. You almost never recover all that has been lost.
But you do learn to savor small triumphs. The other day, the UPS driver rang my doorbell and I heard him—and tipped big. I still can’t watch TV without subtitles. But at a play recently, the curtain rose and I slumped in sheer relief at being able to follow the words. Not every line, but enough. I’m holding onto that theater program, a memento of a pleasure once dimmed, now mine once more.
Mary Louise Kelly is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. She has spent two decades reporting on national security and international affairs for NPR and the BBC. As NPR’s intelligence and defense correspondent, she covered wars, terrorism, and rising nuclear powers. Kelly has also anchored NPR programs including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” She has taught national security and journalism at Georgetown University. Kelly’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Politico, and others. She is the author of two novels: Anonymous Sources and The Bullet.