“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” sang Joni Mitchell, and it’s a saying which certainly rings true when it comes to hearing.
We think nothing of enjoying music, speaking with friends, or having our attention drawn to alarms or sirens.
But what if you lose that ability? Or what if you never had it in the first place?
It’s a challenge faced by 700,000 people in this country, according to Hearing Loss Ireland. That’s one in every six people, and the figure increases to one in every three for over-60s.
I was given first-hand experience hearing loss, albeit temproary, last week when audiologist Lynn Morris at SpecSavers in Longford invited me to become ‘deaf for a day’.
Lynn and her colleague Ronan Byrne conduct free hearing tests at the branch on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and she said they see around 10 people on an average week.
“Approximately eight will have some type of hearing problem, and out of that number, three will require a medical referral” she explained as we entered the examination room.
After inspecting my ear canals, Lynn conducted a hearing test, which involved wearing a set of headphones and listening for sounds of varying volumes and frequencies, and pressing a button when I noticed them.
Another device was used in a similar way to test the inner ear.
With no cause for concern flagged, it was then time to have my hearing impaired, which Lynn achieved by syringing a silicone compound, normally used to make moulds for hearing aids, into my ears after first inserting protective foam. The difference was immediate and profund.
There wasn’t complete silence - the inner ear was still working away by picking up sound vibrations - but what I could hear was quite faint, and it was impossible to understand what anyone was saying without much yelling and gesticulation on their part.
Leaving the premises, I took a quick walk around town. Buying a bottle of water in a shop suddenly wasn’t straightforward; the girl behind the counter was politely telling me how much I owed, but not being able to understand her, I handed over some coins and hoped it would be enough.
Crossing the road became an unnerving experience, too, with cars appearing undetected even though I had scanned up and down the road.
Pedestrian crossings provided piece of mind, but even then I had to pay close attention to the traffic lights so as not to miss the green man.
I then paid a visit to Longford County Council’s planning office and asked to view two files.
The lady behind the hatch handed one over and indicated she would have to search for the other. In the meantime, I walked over to a table a few metres away to peruse the first folder, and minutes later the second file landed beside me. The lady had presumably been calling me from the hatch to go and collect it, but received no response from me.
While the experiences up until then had been inconvenient, this stirred up a sense of helplessness and embarrassment.
That sense of helplessness became one of frustration back at the Leader office.
Sitting at my desk, I suddenly realised the work I could get done was limited. I had phonecalls to make, but it was useless trying, and when there was an incoming call the person on the other end of the line had to be told that I’d call them back later.
Interacting with my colleagues was difficult, too. I could speak to them but couldn’t understand their replies, and eventually I gave up trying to talk altogether.
In addition, two of my favourite forms of entertainment - radio and television - became redundant for the most part, and this heightened the feeling of isolation.
There was activity taking place all around me but I wasn’t a part of it, which was dispiriting in spite of me normally being comfortable when left in my own company. Lynn had outlined the link between undiagnosed hearing problems and dementia when testing my hearing, and I could now understand why.
Returning to SpecSavers to have the implants removed not only brought a great sense of relief but emphasised how important the gift of hearing is.
It also instilled a new appreciation in me for those who live with hearing loss and have learned to overcome the daily hurdles that come with it.
Stepping out onto the street again, I was greeted by the graceless sound of traffic making its way through town. It certainly wasn’t as idyllic as birdsong or as soothing as a gentle melody, but for a few moments it was the most beautiful sound in the world.