“Can You Hear Me Now?” and Other Dumb Jokes About My Hearing Loss

The first job I ever had was as a summer janitor in my old junior high school. It was as mind-numbing as you would expect: scraping gum off desks with a razor, cleaning out lockers, stripping and waxing floors, etc. The worst two-day task I performed was emptying the shop-class sawdust collection system; outside the building, there was this two-story-tall cylinder about 5 feet in diameter, and when you removed a door at the base of it, there was a zippered cloth liner filled with a whole years’ worth of sawdust. My boss parked me in front of it with a large lunchroom garbage can and said, “Scoop the sawdust into it with your hands and then empty it in the dumpster. Have fun!” It took me about 10 hours. No gloves, no mask, no eye protection. For a month I had sawdust in my hair, ears, eyes, and other places that I will let your imagination come up with. I wouldn’t be shocked if an x-ray showed sawdust still lining my lung cavities.

What I’m saying is, we didn’t follow standard safety precautions at this workplace. The next summer, my brother got hired, and the district decided that he and I would be a great carpet-cleaning crew for the five schools in the district. We spent the next four summers working with an industrial carpet cleaning system. Picture a machine about the size and shape of R2-D2, with a see-through semispherical lid so we could see it fill up with dirty water, and a long hose attached to a vacuum that would spray the water on the carpet, then cycle a brush over it, then suck up the water. Exciting stuff.

We got all of about 2 minutes of training: a guy named Red plugged this eardrum-rattlingly loud thing in and yelled things like, “Dump the water thing in the hall closet when it’s full.” Then we were unleashed on the ugly green heavy-duty carpets in our old grade school. Since the whole freaking school was carpeted, we spent most of the summer there, clearing out the rooms of furniture, running the machine over the carpet, waiting a day for it to dry, and putting the furniture back.  We then rotated to the other schools, which only had carpeted offices and libraries, except the tiniest school, which for some godforsaken reason had a carpeted gym/lunchroom. Why?

What was nice about the whole situation was that the janitors in charge of the different schools treated our job like it involved some mysterious alchemy that we apprenticed at for years under a master carpetologist. We’d arrive with the machine at a school, a janitor would show us to the library and ask how long it would take to clean it. My brother and I would look at each other and both be thinking, About 2 days, tops, and my brother (who did all the talking) would say, “10 days would be reasonable.” The janitor would close the doors on us and say, “I will leave you boys to it; let me know if you need anything.” Then we wouldn’t be bothered by anyone for 2 weeks. (NOTE TO MY FORMER BOSSES: I’m kidding, of course! We worked hard every day!) (SIDE NOTE TO MY BROTHER: Wink, wink!)

I’m finally getting to the point of this blog post; thanks for hanging in there! Like most teenaged siblings, my brother and I could barely tolerate each other’s presence, let alone having to do a task that required us to stand within 4 feet of each other most of the time (one of us would pull R2-D2 backwards while the other would have the hose over his shoulder and run the vacuum). The machine was so loud that if we wanted to talk to each other, we would have to scream. People would avoid the wings of the school where we were because of the noise. You would think that, for safety’s sake, we would be given earplugs, earmuffs, or some form of hearing protection. Did you read the first part of this post where I talked about inhaling sawdust for 10 hours? Do you think I told you that just to entertain you? Of course we weren’t given hearing protection!

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My brother and I thought we were as cool as John Cusack with our boombox. In fact, we were more likely to be getting caught by our boss while dancing to the Miami Sound Machine’s “1-2-3″ than to be wooing a girl with it.

As a matter of fact, my brother and I came to the conclusion that the best way to spice up this mind-numbing job was to bring a boombox to work and blast a radio station all day. A “boombox,” for you youngsters who didn’t live through the ’80s and ’90s, was a stereo that played AM and FM radio and cassettes that you could carry around for the specific purpose of blaring loud music to annoy older people. Great times. It ate 10 batteries per month.

So we would be rocking out to the radio, cranking the volume up when the machine was on, and (sometimes) remembering to turn it down when we were done. Our conversations throughout the summers went something like this:

My brother: “I like this new Phil Collins song.” Me: “What?” My brother: “I said, ‘I like this song!’” Me: “WHAT?!?” My brother: “ARE YOU TRYING TO PISS ME OFF? BECAUSE IT’S WORKING!” Me: “WORKING? YEAH, WE’RE WORKING! WHY?” Etc.

And now, the real-deal-Holyfield point of this story: October is National Protect Your Hearing Month, and I’m here to tell you, you should take the proper steps to protect your hearing. I did not, and I’m paying for it now. Here’s what happened in the ensuing years since my adventures with my brother: I put on headphones and listened to loud music to drown out noises at a desk job and at home. I went to many rock concerts with no hearing protection and listened to very loud bands (Green Day, U2, the Ramones, and blink-182 being among the loudest; congrats, guys! You did it: you broke my ears!). I was a stay-at-home dad to three kids, and the primary summer caregiver to a godchild, for many years and seemed to always have a crying/laughing/yelling kid on my hip, bleating directly into my ears.

I started to suspect that something was amiss with my ears in 2018. I had gone to a concert, and the next day, as was typical, my ears were ringing. Eventually, that went away; also typical. A little while later (not clear on the timeline here because it was insidious and hard to pinpoint; weeks? months?), I noticed the ringing again. I thought it was temporary and would fade out; it never did. I started to ask around, and a few people mentioned tinnitus. I looked that up and saw a description of what I had: constant ringing or buzzing, worse when there was no other obvious noise to distract from it. I also saw a phrase that I dreaded, something like, “Many people learn to lead normal lives with this condition.” That’s never good. There’s no surefire cure for it,  just tricks to manage it or take your mind off of it. My tinnitus sounds like annual cicadas at their loudest; it’s a buzzing that is always there, louder in my right ear but definitely in both ears.

So I went for a year with tinnitus before I secretly planned on doing something about it. I say “secretly” because the other aspect of my hearing that I was noticing at the same time was that I was losing the ability to follow some conversations. Research on tinnitus led me to believe that tinnitus doesn’t necessarily lead to hearing loss, but I’d think, “Then why is the tinnitus drowning out peoples’ words?” It was frustrating.

I’d talk to people about it, and I’d mostly hear, “You’re in your 40s, that’s way too young, maybe you just have a listening problem.” But it’s hard to ignore when people are talking and they sound like every adult in a Charlie Brown movie: “Mwa-mwa-mwa.” It got to the point that it was easier to avoid conversations than to struggle through them, ask people to repeat themselves, or figure things out using context clues. Crowds were a nightmare; I’d let Jen talk with people and would ask her what they said afterward. If anyone thought I was ignoring them when they tried to say hi to me, it wasn’t on purpose. Jen and my kids were getting extremely irritated with my incessant “what did you say?” And if Jen wanted to whisper sweet nothings in my ear, that’s exactly what I heard: nothing. Very romantic.

I knew I had to do something about it, so I made a plan to see an audiologist in March of 2020.

Then the world shut down. So I put it off during the pandemic, and it got worse. In a way, it was easier for me to stay home and not talk to anyone. Mask wearing added yet another layer to the difficulty in understanding people in public. I have had to say, “I have a hearing problem,” on multiple occasions to cashiers.

Finally, this summer I went to an audiologist and underwent a hearing exam. It involved me wearing a headset to do the whole routine: raising my hand to indicate which ear I hear a beep in, repeating words if I understood them while there was crowd noise playing, and repeating about a hundred short words back to the audiologist in rapid succession. The results were a good news/bad news deal: The bad news was that I did indeed have hearing loss, of the “mild-to-moderate” persuasion. The good news was that I caught it early enough that hearing aids would help me. (Apparently, most people wait too late for hearing aids to keep the ear-to-brain connection working, so if you have an older relative who says, “I tried hearing aids and they didn’t work,” they probably should have gotten them earlier.) The audiologist told me that I was younger than most of her hearing-loss patients. This will probably be the last time in my life that I will be called “younger than” for anything. I’m not even going to pretend to provide technical info here about hearing loss and the associated health problems with it; talk to an audiologist for details.

I went to one more loud concert (the Hella Mega show at Wrigley Field with Green Day, Weezer, and Fall Out Boy), couldn’t understand most of it, and ordered the hearing aids.

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Sexy, no? (Answer: no.)

And has it changed my life for the better? Yes and no. Noises are definitely clearer. The audiologist took a piece of paper at my fitting and crumpled it up before and after my hearing aids were in; before, I didn’t hear the paper rustling, and after, it was amazing. It was like one of those toddlers who wear glasses for the first time and see their mom and start smiling. (Or are they color blind and they see colors for the first time? I’m a little fuzzy on this, since I’m basing this off one 3-minute video that popped up between cute puppy-adoption videos on my Facebook feed.) Many of the new sounds that I hear are ancillary ones, like these creaks in my kitchen when I step on loose floor tiles. Or running water: it sounds like I can pick out separate streams when my hearing aids are in. This isn’t mind-blowing, I know, but it’s different. I’ve learned that I still need to pay attention to someone speaking to me instead of multitasking.

How about the tinnitus? The audiologist said that some, but not all, people find that the tinnitus will go away when their hearing aids are in use. Alas, it hasn’t really improved mine. I’ve learned tricks to zone it out over the years, though. And if I don’t want to hear someone rant about something (way more common these days), I focus on the tinnitus cicadas and ignore the conversation.

Other questions: Does anyone notice them? Not really. They are small enough that people don’t see the clear tube coming out of my ear and connecting to the receiver behind it. The receiver is a similar color to my hair, and if I have my glasses on, it looks like part of my glasses frame.

Are they uncomfortable? At first, it was weird having something stuck in my ear canal. But I’m used to the feeling now.

Are they easy to maintain? Very. I got ones with rechargeable batteries, so at night and when I am going to shower, I take them out and place them in their charging case. I brush them off daily to keep clean, and that’s about it.

Was it strange or embarrassing to start wearing them? Sure, but it’s much better to deal with the awkwardness of people seeing and asking about them than it was to not be able to hold conversations.

Are they sexy? Heck yeah. There’s nothing sexier than a man who can hear when his partner talks to him. (At least that’s what Jen tells me; there might be sexier things, but I’ll take her word for it.)

So what did we learn, folks? If your hearing is fine, protect it now while you still can: wear earplugs with loud equipment or at concerts, keep the volume down on your headphones, and don’t have kids. I kid! I’m joking! If you already suspect hearing loss, I urge you to go get those ears examined. I promise you’ll end up in a better place. Also, if you find yourself cleaning out a sawdust collection unit, wear a mask; trust me on that one.