I was born deaf. I heard for the first time last year at the age of 39.
It was thanks to cochlear implant surgery and in the months running up to my switch on I was frightened that it might not work. But the doctors at Queen Elizabeth in Birmingham were optimistic. They kept asking me to imagine using a phone, being able to hear music but I didn’t really know what they meant. I could never have imagined the power of music until I heard it.
Before the operation I mentioned to my friends that I might hear songs for the first time. They got so excited and everyone started sharing it on Facebook. There was hundreds of people all trying to pick one song. No two people picked the same. It went on for weeks and it included everything from ELO, to classical music to hymns. Even my family started. My Mum suggested Elvis, my Dad Journey and my sister Wham! and Oasis. It was amazing actually, very personal. It was like people were revealing a secret. I’ve got lots of biker friends, big hairy men with dip dyed beards and no one could believe that they were suggesting opera and classical.
The night before I went to hospital. One friend sent me a link to John Lennon’s Imagine. It was the first time I’d ever had music on my phone. I didn’t have things like Spotify or ITunes or anything. I knew a bit about the Beatles because people had talked about them but not much. I didn’t even know John Lennon had died. So the day after the operation I was really nervous but I played it for the first time. I could hear the lyrics. It was like electricity going through my body from my toes up through my head.
It took a couple of days before I could really take it all in. It’s a gradual process for the auditory nerves to adjust. My mate Tremayne Crossley had put together a memory tape for 6Music. Thirty nine songs: a song from each year of my life. It was the music that would be playing in shops, in Eldon Square, music that I might have danced to. I did always love dancing. I loved the social side and I would feel the vibrations and go for it. The tape was like a history lesson.
The first track that played live, on Lauren Laverne’s show, in front of the nation was Bat for Lashes but Elbow’s One Day Like This was the next and my favourite. This wasn’t just being able to hear. This was really hearing the instrumentals, the violins. I could not believe how beautiful it was. It made me feel so emotional. My hair stood on end. It was the first time I had ever felt like that. It’s weird, I used to think I experienced emotions but now I can hear music and can feel it so deeply I wonder how cut off I was emotionally before.
Of course the other great memory is hearing my family for the first time. They sounded nothing like I expected. Obviously I knew they had Geordie accents – we live in Gateshead but I didn’t realize how different each accent was. I travelled to Scotland and Ireland recently and couldn’t believe how many different versions of each there are. It’s exhausting!
In truth, it’s not all fantastic. At first you get overloaded- the hospital actually give you homework to make sure you’re out and about enough getting used to your implants testing them and acclimatising to all the new sounds. I was at the extreme end. I really thrust myself into it but the downside is that I’ve actually got to back to the hospital next week to have one side turned down. I’ve developed a twitch in my eye and it’s because my nerves are over stimulated on that side.
Unfortunately, the other bad news is that just as one new sense opens up, another is deserting me. My sight is dimming. It’s because of the Usher syndrome, a genetic condition that that I was born with. After causing my deafness it’s now progressively robbing me of my sight but being able to hear and being able listen to music goes a long way in making me feel less blind and giving me confidence.
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