From Unknowns to New Discoveries

Sophie Woolley, Thu, 30 Jul 2020

My progressive deafness started twenty years ago when I was eighteen. By the time I was in my thirties, I had profound deafness in both ears. I wore hearing aids in both ears, and they were turned up very loud. When I decided to go ahead with cochlear implantation at thirty-nine, I had a lot of questions, more than my hospital had time to answer. Thankfully, my AB Mentors answered some of them by email, and they were a lifeline for me during this time.

Augmented production image by Helen Murray

My progressive deafness started twenty years ago when I was eighteen. By the time I was in my thirties, I had profound deafness in both ears.

I wore hearing aids in both ears, and they were turned up very loud. When I decided to go ahead with cochlear implantation at thirty-nine, I had a lot of questions, more than my hospital had time to answer. Thankfully, my AB Mentors answered some of them by email, and they were a lifeline for me during this time.


The many unknowns 

Still, even though my mentors could tell me about their experiences, I had no idea how my life would change, or how much I could expect to gain or lose. I worried about losing my last remaining fragments of hearing. I feared it would be a hassle doing “hearing rehabilitation” that would take up loads of time. 

I often searched forums and the Internet for stories of people who grew up hearing, became deaf, and got cochlear implants. I wanted to know if I’d have to continue using lipreading, sign language interpreters, and stenographers. Another question was – “How would things sound?” Many bloggers wrote about the strange sounds they heard just after their cochlear implants were switched on, but then they stopped talking about it. 

I didn’t dare hope my life would change much. My worst fear was that implantation wouldn’t work and I’d have to deal with the disappointment. So I told myself it might help a bit, but probably not. I told myself it might be awful, so there was no point getting my hopes up.
 

Hearing again

In 2013, I got an AB Naída Cochlear Implant on one side. In the weeks and months after it was switched on, I found out to my utter shock that things began to sound almost the same as I remembered they did when I could still hear. 

I was able to follow speech completely independently. I rarely had to even lipread. I no longer got tired from carrying on conversations, unless they were long meetings or video conferences where hearing people become fatigued, too. I didn’t have to spend the next day or so utterly exhausted like in the old days. 

I didn’t expect to enjoy music with my implant but it turned out to be amazing. At first music sounded artificial, but gradually it became natural. It sounded like how I remembered it. I went out to listen to live music as soon as I could. At home or when out and about, I got a ComPilot to stream music directly into my implant, which turned out to be an incredible way to experience music. 

Instead of a hassle, hearing rehabilitation turned out to be fun. At first, I could only follow the news on the radio. I followed audio books using the print copy, stopping and replaying them over and over. Soon I could listen to audio books without reading. 

I still use subtitles for TV because the sound on TV is not as good as radio. But sometimes, if there are no subtitles, I use a Phonak Select plugged into my TV. Depending on the soundtrack and the theater acoustics, I can even enjoy films at the cinema without subtitles.
 

New discoveries

I am a writer and an actor. Before I got my implant, I also had so many unknowns regarding my job. I wondered if I’d be able to follow the radio plays I’ve written. Comedy was the hardest to follow on the radio at first, so I put off listening to my radio sitcom for a few months. What if I didn’t laugh at my own jokes? I was nervous. Once I could follow comedy, I listened to my show and it was extraordinary to discover what the actors had done with my script. I did laugh, and that was a relief. 

One day, I listened to a BBC Radio play that had been produced before I got the implant. In the play, I portrayed a deaf vampire victim. Listening to my former self, I realized that my voice sounded different. I had never heard how I sounded as a deaf person before. 

Augmented production image by Helen Murray

That was when it became apparent to me that my speech had also changed after I got the implant. One close friend even said that I spoke like I did when I was twenty-one. I realized that all this happened naturally. As I was able to hear myself better with the implant, my brain was able to monitor and modify my speech on its own. Not only was I hearing and following speech, I was also starting to speak more clearly. 
 

Reconnecting with people

Because I always had my hearing aids turned up, especially in noisy restaurants, I always felt like I was shouting, when in fact, I was talking too softly. My husband and I became the couple who ate in silence because it was too stressful for me to talk loud enough for him to hear me, even though he is not deaf. After the implant, we found that we could communicate easily now and he could hear me in noisy places.  

My sister, who went deaf at the age of twelve, also got a Naída three months after I did. Her experience hearing again with the implant was similar. I enjoy chatting with her on the phone, and walking down the street while talking without the need for us to stop or look at each other. 

After my CI activation, I’ve often found it easier to talk to strangers. I find they have no idea that I’m deaf, so we just get on with communicating without any preconceptions. But I’ve also gotten to know my friends and family better. They’ve helped me learn to hear at first by pointing out sounds and saying, “Can you hear the plane/washing machine/children playing?” I’ve phoned people up and arranged to meet up. I’ve gone to parties and haven’t gotten bored or sad. 
 

The right choice for me

I know not everyone is able to hear as easily after implantation as I do. I think because I had an auditory memory to start with, and because I’d worn hearing aids for many years, I had a much easier time learning to hear again with my implant. 

My life has changed in a thousand ways. While it might look the same as before to others, I feel different inside.  I am more confident and less withdrawn. I have more access to more joy. The ability to have small talk means that my career has progressed in new and exciting ways. Although I had to overcome so many unknowns and uncertainties before getting a CI, it’s clear now that I made the right decision. 

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Written by:

Sophie Woolley

Sophie Woolley is a writer and actor from London, UK. Her company, Augmented Productions, is the Associate Company of Told by an Idiot. Her play, Augmented, toured UK in 2020. Sophie has worked with BBC and Channel 4, as well as theatres around UK.  In 2019, she was a Clore Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme. You can learn more about her and her work at sophiewoolley.com.

Author headshot credit: Justin Munitz

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