Living a deaf girl’s adventure tale

I’ve spent the past three years writing about how music has changed for me – from being a hearing person, to a deaf person, to a cochlear implant user. The song that I keep coming back to as my example piece is “Take On Me” by A-ha. I’ve talked about how each time I listen to it I hear something new – a nuance that I missed before. Well, recently I got to have the ultimate listening experience as I caught A-ha live twice on a visit to the UK. It was both amazing and awful and I loved every second of it.

When I finally arrived in Leeds, about 24 hours later than I was originally scheduled, I’d been awake for something like 36 hours – a few minutes of dozing don’t really count. Add in the migraine I’d had and all the Imitrex I’d taken and I was kind of a complete mess. Still, I managed to clean up, doze a little more, and meet my friend James for dinner before the show. James and I had never met in person before, but I’d heard his voice so conversation was surprisingly easy even in a loud restaurant. There was one issue, though, that I hadn’t predicted.

Several weeks before my trip, I’d visited my audiologist for a programming appointment. We didn’t change much, except an overall lowering of the volume. Things had been sounding too loud after I’d replaced the microphone on my implant processor. She also added a new software update that was supposed to handle softer sounds better. No big deal. Shortly after, I’d noticed my headpiece cable was failing – the cable connects the processor that sits on my ear to the piece that has the magnet in it that connects to my head. This is nothing unusual, these fail pretty regularly. I was on something like my 6th cable in 3 years. You can tell it’s going because the sound on the implant side basically just randomly cuts in and out. I ordered a new one, but kept using the old one for awhile because it wasn’t too bad and I thought I’d start the trip with the fresh one.

In my medicated haze, I did actually remember to change the cable before I met up with James. And shortly after I sat down, boom – the sound on the implant side cut out for a few seconds. Um, what? The new cable was supposed to fix that? Okay, well, I’m nothing if not adaptable, so on with the evening we went. Off to the show!

We met up with a few of James’ friends, had a drink in the VIP lounge, and everything seemed okay, I’d switched to my “conversation in noise” program and there were no more issues. Then it was time. We were 4th row from the stage, off to the side, and I was about to hear this band that I’d fallen in love with – the only music I felt strongly enough about to fully embrace since getting my implant. Starting with the song I’ve spent two years over-analyzing and writing about. Lights went down, crowd cheers, and I switched back to my normal program to wait for the band to take the stage, anticipating every second.

There they were, Morten, Magne, and Pål, in front of me looking like Nordic gods and sounding like angels. At least on the video. I wouldn’t know, since the instant the song started, my cable cut out again. It was awful. It was really probably only a few seconds that it was out, but it felt like a lifetime given how desperately I’d been wanting to hear that song.

“Take On Me” – A-ha, live in Leeds, UK, November 2 2019

Then…. magic happened. The rest of the evening was incredible. There were a few more issues with the cable, but none that were substantial. I could deal with it. There it was, what I’d wanted to hear – that voice, first highlighted so well on the song “Hunting High & Low” and then that killer first note on “Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale”; the beautiful piano solo before “And You Tell Me”; the driving keyboards and guitars they are known for in “The Sun Always Shines on TV”. It just kept going. The second half brought my one of my absolutely favorites, “Foot of the Mountain” and “Stay On These Roads”, so full of hope and longing. Even a new song, “Digital River”, which while I couldn’t get the lyrics at all, I found myself able to still distinctly hear – I wasn’t relying on anything from auditory memory or making something up in my head. I was actually hearing it. And enjoying it.

After the show, I said my goodbyes to James and his friends, walked back to my hotel and absolutely crashed. The next day I was off to Peterborough to see other friends (which was fantastic) and then to London for another A-ha show at the incredible Royal Albert Hall, and the All-Star Concert Staging of Les Miserables (which was worthy of a post of it’s own). The Royal Albert Hall show was overall better sound for me, and I heard every note of “Take On Me” just as I’d dreamed. There were no other cable issues.

Morten Harket & Magne Furuholmen of A-ha, Royal Albert Hall, November 5 2019

So what happened? I looked into this software my audiologist added in October and it seems one of the features of it is “dimming” the sound of sudden loud noises. Just like normal hearing, sudden loud noise hurts for implant users as well. We have a threshold set programmatically of what the loudest sound is that is still comfortable to hear, and it’s set for each frequency. It’s one of the first pieces of programming done with a new implant. So this program was taking loud sounds – like the opening of a rock concert – and diminishing it. To my inexperienced brain, that was interpreted as the sound cutting out entirely. It wasn’t the cable at all! It stopped happening simply because my brain finally adjusted to what had been going on.

Was it everything I’d dreamed it would be? No. But did I love it? Absolutely. The idea that I can even hear it at all still astounds me every day.