Billy 2.0 – Coming up on an E

Human Traffic
I’ve been switched on for a couple of days now. After a great deal of reflection, I’ve realised that the only way to explain what I’ve been through is by using drug references.

So be warned: this article contains references to consumption of illegal drugs and their effects on the brain. It may also make much less sense than other stuff I’ve written in the past, for reasons which will hopefully become clear.

When I went into the audiologist’s office to be activated/switched on/turned on, I was expecting the unexpected. I knew it was going to be strange and uncanny. Even the audiologist told me that today would probably be the worst day of my life with a cochlear implant, and it would only get better from this point onwards. What happened next wasn’t really the worst thing ever, but it was deeply, deeply weird.

When she activated that first electrode, sending a tiny electric charge through it, the sensation was so unexpected and so different, that it made my left eye twitch, my hands shake, and my face go completely white. It took 20 minutes before the audiologist felt I was well enough to try again. During that time she went to the surgeon to double check that the implant wasn’t stimulating the “wrong part of my head”. During those 20 minutes I was experiencing what I can only describe as ‘a whitey’.

A whitey is when you smoke too much weed and have a bad reaction. You go pale, you get a bit shaky, and communication becomes difficult. That’s what I was having when those first electronic pulses were sent through my ear.

When she came back, I was feeling a bit better. She started switching on my 12 electrodes, one by one. She slowly increased the volume on each one until the pulsing of the test signal was too much to bear. Once they were all switched on, she gave me the implant to put on for the first time. The way the magnetic microphone part slid home felt strangely natural, like it had always belonged there.

Then she clapped her hands, and it made my brain do funny things. It felt like loads of synapses were literally firing inside my head, making the shape of a peak, with the highest point being the loudest part of the clap sound.

It’s really hard to explain what it feels like experiencing sound through the cochlear implant.

I no longer feel a physical sensation of hearing – sound waves travelling through my eardrum and into inner ear. Instead, sound is a pulse, inside my brain. Sometimes the pulse is so loud that it makes a shiver go down my spine and my shoulders do a little shudder. I’m not ‘hearing’ sounds. Instead sounds are being turned into tiny electric shocks inside my head.

What do these little electric shocks feel like?

When I was younger, I might have taken ecstasy. When one takes an e, you start to feel a ‘rushing’ sensation in your head as it takes effect. Each single sound that is transmitted into my head feels like the ‘rushing’ sensation of being on drugs. I stood in my kitchen yesterday and tapped an empty margarine carton rhythmically on the kitchen surface, and it felt exactly like coming up on a Mitsubishi.

What things are giving me that rushing sensation in my head? Well, I can hear a little bit of the human voice. I can’t hear traffic yet. A lorry going past is completely silent. Sitting in an office is a weirdly quiet experience, where I get startled by the loudness of someone’s footsteps or a cellophane packet rustling. The noisiest things in my life are the sounds of hard objects hitting other hard objects. Two plates clinking together, a spoon tapping on a plate, high heels on a wooden floor.

I spent an hour yesterday walking round the house tapping different surfaces with a wooden drumstick. Before, with a hearing aid, I’d have heard these taps simply as a ‘tap’ sound. But I had a eureka moment when I realised that tapping a wooden stick on a wooden surface sounded different in pitch and tone to tapping on a glass surface, or a metal surface. Of course, I knew that was the case – but this was the first time ever, EVER… that I’d actually heard that and been able to distinguish so clearly between the different sounds.

I had another eureka moment when I was sitting on the toilet checking my emails… and there was this damned noise. A rhythmic ‘plink’, ‘plink’. Then I realised it was a single drop of water falling from the shower head and splashing in the bath. That made me feel lightheaded and weird.

For every eureka moment, I’m having a WTF moment. I was warned by the audiologist to be ready to turn the volume down when I went outside for the first time, into the roaring traffic of Gray’s Inn Road. Instead, I walked out through the double doors into complete silence. I just stood on the pavement and watched buses and motorbikes roaring past, so loudly that I could feel my skin vibrating as they passed, but nothing happening in my head at all.

Then I got onto the tube. Silence. Apart from the tannoy, which cut into my head like a knife. Walking past a busker on a silent underground interchange, his guitar was the loudest thing in the world.

The TV in the living room sounds really far away and quiet, even when I turn the volume up so high the wine glass in my hand starts to vibrate. But then my iPhone sounds like being inside a goddamned IMAX cinema watching Transformers 4.

I’m used to hearing a dull roar of background noise through my hearing aids. Traffic, humming, random voices. Not fully understood, but there. An undercurrent that reassures me that yes, I’m deaf, but at least I’m hearing something.

Now I’m sitting in a world of silence, punctuated by random, violent bursts of sounds that I’ve never heard or experienced quite in the same way before.

What I’m experiencing now isn’t hearing as I imagined it, or as I’ve known it for the last 30 years. It’s completely different, and it’s making me feel really tired and disconnected from everything. I’m finding it really hard to concentrate, to hold on to a specific thought for a long time. I just watched the entire final of Masterchef: The Professionals without really registering anything I was seeing.

Most disconcerting of all is the dawning realisation that what I thought I was hearing for the last 30 years of my life wasn’t actually hearing. It was just compressed, distorted garbage noise through a hearing aid. What I’m feeling in my head now is much, much closer to actual sound, but it isn’t sound.

I’m basically living out my own real life version of the movie Inception. Everything from now on is going to feel like a half remembered dream, all those things I remember sounding like one thing are going to sound completely new from now on, and working out what these sounds are is going to be a long and complicated journey to consciousness.

I don’t know how much sense any of this makes. It doesn’t make much sense to me at the moment. But I do know three things, with which to conclude:

1 – Drugs are bad.

2 – I’ve only been switched on for two and a half days – but it’s getting better and better every day.

3 – I’m looking forward to watching Singin’ in the Rain again at some point soon.

14 Replies to “Billy 2.0 – Coming up on an E”

  1. Brilliantly descriptive Billy.
    Excellent post.
    I really can’t wait for you to watch Singin’ in the Rain again either. 😀

  2. Wow, this takes me back already! I can relate to everything you are experiencing right now and yes, believe it or not Billy, it does make 100% perfect sense. (And probably only to CI implantees) How you have described every eureka moment, I could have not explained it any better. Really. Except the ‘E’ part (I’ve never tried), I described my activation as my brain’s being intrusively prodded with the regular brain shakes! It’s been two days for you so far and I do empathise but it does get better. By MILES. The next challenge is wearing it ON at all times. I’m quite amazed at your quick conclusion, comparing what you THOUGHT was normal (and frankly good enough) hearing but in the CI world, you’re in for a serious ride through some latitude and longitude of HD hearing. The destination is definitely worth it, see you on the other side. In the meantime, enjoy your bizarre m*therf*cker of a hangover – you’ll only get to experience this type once :o) x

  3. (((((Hugs))))))
    Sounds like hard work just at the mo. Those f*cking buskers in confined echoey spaces! There’s a woman in the tunnel on the way to the central line at holborn going West. Lord deliver us.

  4. Makes complete sense to me too! Although I haven’t tried E either so can’t relate to that. I had the same silence and gradually I was able to hear high pitched sounds, so I would get on a bus and hear the brakes …. and nothing else except crisp packets and people chirping like Mickey Mouse. After a few months, I was able to hear the bus engine. Everything came together slowly.

    I laughed at your bathtub moment. I had a similar moment of wonder, when I was in my garage listening to the rain beat on the roof. A hole in the roof allowed some rain through and a raindrop falling on a pipe clearly sounded very different from a raindrop falling on a box. I dropped a sweater on the carpet and could hear that swswsw as it collapsed on itself. It really stops me in my tracks when hearing aid weareres ask me if a cochlear implant is better than a hearing aid … and it makes me sad too.

    Looking forward to reading about the rest of your journey. Keep experimenting with different sounds and have fun with it all!

  5. You’re living your own alternate reality and you described it beautifully, though I have led a fairly sheltered life . . .

    I found at first that places like Paddington Station were so noisy they fell silent – just as you describe. I think it was because it was too much for me to process all at once. Trains, tubes, traffic,, hooting, hissing, clunking, clattering, trundling, pinging, booming, tills, ticket machines, coffee machines, chatter, ticket gates making happy noises, ticket gates making “thou shalt not pass” threats . . . now I can actually hear my platform being called above all that. You start picking out particular components of noise and when they’re identified – they go into their proper place.

    Good luck! It’s a very interesting process.

  6. I was switched on 2 years ago and it was an astounding experience. I can understand your difficulty in describing it! I went for lunch after leaving the hospital. The bus sounded terrible, there was an absolute cacophony of sound, none of it meant much it was just noise. In the restaurant the waitress sounded as if she was on helium but I understood every word. I couldn’t stop grinning, she must have thought I was coming on to her but it was amazing to hear her voice.
    During the afternoon the sound settled down to something decipherable and on the train home I distinctly heard a little girl say “mummy what is that thing on that man’s head?”. I just went all deaf….
    ” years on and I am still hearing new things. You hear a noise and you think “What the hell was that?”. The shower drips if you don’t turn it off properly and the noise drove me nuts until I tracked it down. I can hear birds … outside! As a matter of fact the noise is irritating and in the Spring it is relentless. I enjoy my deaf periods, I just take the CI off and have a break. I will never be a hearing person because of this. Sometimes it’s all a bit too much and I need a rest. I’m not wearing it now, can’t hear the keyboard clacking but who wants to listen to that? I listen to the radio all the time, BBC announcers are famed for their clarity of speech and it’s a great way to get listening practice. There are social effects too… I had no idea of the impact that radio makes upon the hearing population, they are running discussions and putting forward ideas about the world that simply pass deaf people by. No wonder we are sometimes a bit out of step, radio is a major opinion changer and not accessible to deaf people.
    It has been and still is a learning experience, sometimes stressful, sometimes fun. I’m very glad I went ahead and ultimately I think you will be too.
    Incidentally it’s fun to talk to people without having to look at them. You have to grow into this!
    Drug references…. mind your back dude, remember who you work for.
    Have fun, I am!

  7. This is so well written, thank you for sharing it. When I upgraded my hearing aids, to get stronger ones, the first things I noticed which seem similarly acute and LOUD are the cups and taps on surfaces, footsteps, and the little noises. Then this normalised. The busker thing never got any easier though.

  8. This is fascinating – mixture of scientific/rational discussion and really challenging personal journey. Keep it up, hope it gets better and better. I recently started a hearing aid – nothing like your experience – but have had pleasure and curiosity from sounds like crackling supermarket bags. I can hear traffic better, not sure I like it. But I now remember why my dad called peeing ‘tinkling’ !

  9. Please keep the updates coming. My son pointed me in your direction as I may need an implant soon and I have been wondering about how it all works and feels like etc. I have heard mixed stories but yours does sound positive.

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