Perfecting the Smile and Nod

I always thought it was the refrigerator or a computer or the television. Then one day I realized the constant humming was coming from inside my ears. I can’t remember how long ago that day was.

I think I first noticed my difficulty hearing when I taught English 106, but I blamed the students. I thought they just mumbled a lot, even after I caught one of them saying, “She can’t hear anything.” I heard that.

But Amanda is the one that really brought it to my attention. She could always tell when I was just smiling and nodding because I didn’t really hear what she said and she would call me on it. Every. Single. Time. But I was still in denial. I thought I was just really good at focusing my attention on one thing. Or that people just needed to speak up more.

I still can’t remember how long my ears have been humming. I can’t remember not hearing it.

When I was little, I remember hearing soldiers marching in my ears. At least, that’s what I pictured. They would stomp along for a few minutes late at night, but their march always receded. I used to secretly wonder if I had some sort of dog mutation (I can’t believe I am confessing this online) because every once in a while, I would hear a high-pitched whistle that no one else seemed to hear. I thought maybe I was hearing a dog whistle.

Sometimes the humming is comforting. I bring my own white noise with me wherever I go. And sometimes it drives me a little crazy. I think it’s getting louder, now that I know what it is. Sometimes it’s all I can hear because I’m so conscious of it.

Slowly I’ve acknowledged it more and more over the years. I finally feel more comfortable asking people to repeat themselves and will say, “I’m a little hard of hearing.” I did a little research online and ordered a bottle of herbal remedies that smelled like vanilla and were almost one-inch long. I was supposed to take 2 every four hours. I would remember every once in a while. I didn’t really have faith that it would work. The humming seemed like such a part of me.

Finally, I was ready to talk to a doctor. Of course, I used another malady as an excuse. I’ve had a congested nose for what seems like a few years now. It started in New Orleans, and I was hoping that it was just the change in humidity and that once I moved back to my arid homeland, my nose problems would go away. I decided to kill two birds and see an ENT for my nose and my ears.

I did that yesterday. The doctor took a look at my nose and told me it was the smallest nose he had ever seen. And then he gave me two bottles of different nose spray and told me to squirt each one twice once a day. Then I went for the hearing test. The audiologist checked my ear drums (normal) and then she put in a room by myself. She put headphones on me and handed me a trigger to press every time I heard the beeping. She sat in a separate room across from me, but I could see her through a window. I heard various pitches and frequencies. Then she put on a headset that checked the nerve in my left ear (my bad ear) and played white noise in my right ear. She read words to me that I had to repeat. When she was done, she told me that I was definitely below average in the lower tones and she thought it was my middle ear and that the doctor would tell me more about it.

When the doctor came in, he asked, “How old are you? 32?” I corrected him (because 33 is so different from 32), and he said, “Well, you have horrible hearing. Your hearing is even worse than mine and I’m twice your age!” And then he told me that I needed hearing aids. HEARING AIDS! And I started crying. Because that’s what I do. I told him that I didn’t think it was that bad, and he said, “Oh yeah, it’s pretty bad. But don’t worry. Hearing aids will change your life!” And then he told me to make an appointment for hearing aids. As he escorted me out the door, he saw the audiologist who had administered my hearing test and told her that I would be coming back for hearing aids.

She told me to follow her, took me into a side room, closed the door, and told me to get a second opinion. She didn’t think I needed hearing aids, but she does think I have something called otosclerosis. It’s treatable with surgery. I did some reading about it today, and I started thinking about what it might be like to live without that constant humming. What would it be like to experience true silence? It sounds kind of heavenly.

Of course, I can’t get in to see the specialist she recommended until the end of next month. So I won’t know for a while what the truth is. Hearing aids might still be in my future. Although, that wouldn’t be so bad either. It sure beats the smile and nod.



  1. Amanda · March 22, 2012

    katie I had no idea it’d been going on this long. I’m so glad you’ll be getting another opinion. I hope this dr will have a better bed side manner:) It can be scary to hear things about your body not working right. I recently learned I have an underactive thyroid. I don’t know why it bothered me, but it did. I love your writing style. This was a great post. And for the record, I don’t mind the smile and nod:)

  2. Mikey_Doodle. · March 22, 2012

    “….she told me that I was definitely below average in the lower tones…” No wonder you have trouble hearing my deep velvety voice, ha ha!
    I think I know how you feel. When I’m talking to co-workers I’m often doing it over the roar of a very large engine on a bus. If they’re sitting more than 5 feet away (and they always are) then I can hear maybe 30% of what they’re saying. As such I’ve had to adopt the smile and nod as well.
    I think a second opinion is a good idea, and it’s good to already know there’s some options for you.
    This was both a funny and almost heart-wrenching post! Love ya lots.

  3. Kate · March 22, 2012

    Thank you for sharing something so deeply personal and scary. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. Please keep us posted! I will send you all the positive vibes and prayers that I can.

  4. Kylie · March 22, 2012

    Holy crap! Hearing aids?!?! Good luck at your next appointment. I totally didn’t realize you’ve been dealing with this since you were a child! Love you Kate!

  5. katie · March 22, 2012

    Thanks for the encouragement friends. It was a little shocking at first, but I’m feeling better about it now. If I end up with hearing aids, it will be an adjustment, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. And maybe that doctor is right. Maybe they would change my life. 🙂

  6. sarabaldwin · March 23, 2012

    Oh, Katie, I am so sorry. If I were in your shoes, I would have cried upon hearing the doctor’s reaction, too. The initial thought of wearing hearing aids would be really shocking to me. But, I think your attitude is totally right – wearing them can’t be the worst thing in the world. In fact, to me, the idea of a constant hum is worse than wearing hearing aids. In any case, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you that the specialist is able to deliver encouraging news. Good luck.

  7. english · March 24, 2012

    yes, a great post, Katie. I don’t know how I’d write about something so personal and so recent. Sounds like it will be good to have a month or so to think about this in the mean time too. Good to know you have some options, are already making a lot of progress.

  8. katie · March 25, 2012

    Thanks Sara and English!

  9. Taryn · March 26, 2012

    I was so intrigued reading about your experience because I feel like I can relate a teeny tiny bit. I smile and nod all the time when I can’t catch everything people are saying and I actually have thought about having my ears checked too because I know my hearing is not the best. I kinda have a hum in my ears too but I only hear if I concentrate on it, so it’s not something I hear all the time. Hearing aides dont sound fun, but not having to struggle to hear people talking all the time sounds nice! I’m curious to hear how your follow up with another doctor goes. Keep me posted! 🙂

    • katie · March 26, 2012

      Kartch, I would definitely recommend getting them checked. I wish that I had years ago, but to be honest, I was scared. And I thought it was just tinnitus, and from what the Internet tells me, there’s not much you can do about that. Anyway, I think it’s always best to know (even though more often than not I follow the old adage “Ignorance is bliss”).

      I still don’t know for sure what is the matter with my ears, but if it’s what the audiologist thinks it is, then it’s actually hereditary. I really just thought that I had ruined my ears with too many loud shows when I probably should have worn earplugs. It’s kind of nice to think that it wasn’t my fault. Although, she did tell me that if I don’t do anything about it, it will get worse. So yeah, definitely best to know for sure.

      I’ll definitely keep you posted, though.

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