Untamed Sounds

by Diana Erskine-Hill

My wish is that you will gain a better understanding for people who have a profound loss of hearing presenting themselves for psychotherapy or supervision. I shall draw on personal experiences as a way of illustrating practical facts. By naming my own struggle to hear, to be part of relationships and society and to be heard in what is essentially a hearing world, I have found writing this article daunting.

The American poet Mary Oliver (2009) says “Not there, however, but here is where the story begins. Nature has many mysteries, some of them severe.” I love the imaginary world of sound and relished playing the piano at home as a child; pretending I knew each note while pressing the black and white keys down as hard as I could and listening to the difference each key made. Disliking the dull dead-end range of sounds I moved to the opposite end, being drawn towards the light, thinner, then deeper notes on the middle of the keyboard. Soon bored, I would start speeding up so that the higher notes could be hit harder and the sounds grew louder until finally dragging the keys down from one end to the other in a grand finale, imagining the applause of the audience as I finished hitting the keys.

Born with near perfect hearing until the age of three, I luckily had the chance to assimilate naturally with syntax, language and speech up to then. I can remember at the age of two and a half hearing the frequent ringing of the doorbell signalling the arrival of others coming to Montessori school and being aware of what was being said all around me. Diagnosed as having inner ear nerve deafness with no bone conduction on left or right side from contracting measles, places my hearing in the profoundly deaf category for which there is presently no cure. My mother and father ‘pulled out all the stops’ to make sure I could see their face first, before they spoke. Articulation, pace, diction and much correction of my own speech kept me ‘on my toes’ more than I would have wished for at times, I might add.

Educated in normal hearing schools, I sat in the front row of the class. However, if the teacher spoke and turned her face away to write something on the blackboard those words were lost.

My parents, particularly my mother, gave me a deep rooted belief that ‘anything is possible’. I learned quickly from her that by observing facial expressions in different grades of emotional lightness or darkness it was possible to make more sense of the lip shapes and then get the bones of what was being said.

Griddling the stove/Embers shake/Live coke still/Reddened/Mother’s face/Is she cross or not?”

‘Home Fires’ (DEH)

Normal conversations in the context of any group talking together is a bit like the analogy of trying to pick out one colour and texture from dozens of bales of materials to match a new colour scheme in your own home. There is a similar element of guess work, imagination and adventure, taking a risk to figure out vis-à-vis (a) What the topic is about? (b) Is the subject matter of interest? (c) Is it worth the effort? (d) Go and find another pair of lips easier to follow? (e) Withdraw altogether? Making sense of what is being spoken about can amount to understanding three to five words in a ten-word sentence and that can be enough.

Lip-reading skills are not a replacement for good hearing. However the eyes certainly focus concentration on the pace, shape and width of lip movements and give access to how I relate to others. The tempo of the average speaker is between one hundred and twenty to one hundred and fifty words per minute or six syllables per second. Each word that is spoken can disintegrate for a range of valid reasons resulting in a sense of exclusion that is immediate.

Going to ballet school from the age of six to ten I copied the movements from the other girls as we danced each routine. The verbal instructions together with demonstrating the moves making it too complicated to follow the teacher. Rhythm through music was impossible without watching classmates directly or via the reflection of the studio mirrors.

At the age of eleven I went to the UK to be fitted with a body aid and spent some days with my grandmother learning, with her patient understanding, how to identify a myriad of strange loud noises. One new sound, I heard from another room, like something being broken up turned out to be the noise of plates being put onto a draining board. A clock ticking was another new sound to me.

Without the tick tock/No matter/Tick Tock/The arms moved/Tick Tock/Each hour on the dot/Was it night or day or what?”

‘Grandmother’s Clock’ (DEH)

Three years later a new hearing aid fitted, the quality of sound compromised for looks!

Outside everything changed/No more wires or ugly box/No more funny looks/Neither thick or stupid/Just a teenager/No more shame looking different/Deafness invisible/At last the freedom to look normal.”

‘Looks Count’ (DEH)

Working in open-plan offices proved to be a lethal cocktail of disturbing sounds. Take the incessant hub of multiple conversations nearby, the throbbing of photocopying machines, rapid clacking of electric typewriters or sounds of laughter drifting in. The frustration was immense. There are sections in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, ‘The Firebird’, that remind me of this period. Living with a frenetic rhythm of multiple sounds being played that encapsulate the drama associated with effort, energy and death. To stop pushing equalled annihilation of the self. To admit to being deaf meant exposing my fear, anger, shame, helplessness, a sense of capitulating or giving up and then what…?

Each word not heard/Another loss/Laughter dried up/Deadness invisible/Nobody knows/A mask/Let’s pretend.”

‘Don’t Tell Anyone’ (DEH)

The ballet ‘Petruska’ is a perfectionistic union of movement, colour and sound. Stravinsky, Diaghalev and Nijinsky redefined ballet forever and yet all of these men died young. The continuous strain to hear others pure and simply has always been a battle and one which I assumed I had to fight to the exclusion of everything else.

The depths of my frustration hit a new high when I went to College to do my core training in counselling and discovered the speed with which lecturers would forget to speak clearly or wave their hands in front of their mouths or, worse, cover their face with their notes. Then asking myself, “if I write this piece down will it matter if I will miss the next bit of what is being said?” In training or group therapy, missing pieces of other people’s stories or not able to share in their distress due to looking to see who is speaking or, later on, seeing the face obscured by a tissue. Physically-exhausting questions that were ongoing at that time. I felt quite powerless to ask others to speak up, as it did not feel appropriate to interrupt them. In the background there was a growing sense of comfort as I learnt more about the Gestalt modality in the context of how I was in a relational sense.

Judy Cannato says: “One of the forms of poverty that we human beings experience is the provisional nature of our lives”, referring to Johannes Metz who suggests that the person who resists this provisionality will deafen himself to the call and challenge of the present.

Profoundly deaf herself, she has often been tempted to avoid the poverty of spirit that is at the centre of this experience of hearing loss, sometimes trying to live around it, twisting and turning in order to avoid embracing its reality.

So what is it like this reality not to hear ‘normal’ sounds? Can you imagine being in a busy restaurant when suddenly there is dead silence? You have no idea why but you have a sense that the atmosphere has changed. You notice everyone seems to be looking in the same direction. It appears that someone has dropped a tray of glasses onto the hard floor. Tracking movement is key to knowing what is happening. You cannot source where most sounds originate. You depend upon visual clues to emerge simultaneously. Restaurants can be like a pot that is filled to the brim with noise, i.e. groups talking, laughter, background music, coffee machines, phones.

Alienation from others can be quite subtle and take the form of someone talking while chewing gum, putting a pen near their mouths or speaking too close to a microphone. They are a few examples of distractions that chip away and create a barrier between self and others.

Whilst ill with shingles I found nourishment in playing a buffalo hide drum daily. The gentle reverberation of playful sounds became a healing balm that helped my body to filter new energy that was not dependent upon listening via reading other people’s lips.

Illness a gift/Opportunity unexpected/Less is more/Stillness to explore/New Sounds/Quieter richer resonances/Embracing moments.”

‘Drumming with Shingles’ (DEH)

At a workshop a few years ago I noticed a Tibetan singing bowl nearby. Experimenting by tapping the bowl and singing with this new sound engaged me. It became possible to feel a vibrational harmony flowing through my body. The combination of using the bowl and voice created a sense of pure sound like liquid colours moving up and down all the cells inside the body. The microphone on my hearing aid is positioned on top of the left earlobe so I held the bowl parallel to it. As the sound of the bell began to recede, I slowly turned my head to the right yielding an extension of sound that I would have completely missed. Eva Rudy Jansen, (2002) says, “the bowls are a musical companion that does not rely on rules dependent upon traditional melodies”. I can sing my own form of music which is free of conventions.

Growing into the silence/Deafness less of a burden/Singing bells a godly sound/Whose mystery and invisibility/Works through you/New sounds tilting/Inside your heart/Vibration like a command/To a surrendering/That stills the mind.”

‘Singing Bells’ (DEH)

Singing with others has never felt right, while when singing alone there is a sense of connection to self at a soul level. There are no constraints, rather a spontaneous desire to sing, just that. Participating in voice workshops inspired by the absence of judgements (mine) singing for the first time with others. Creating sonic landscapes in which everyone is quietly humming, breathing in and out, blending in with each other to form layers of sounds; the time often appearing to stand still, giving birth to a unified sound. A safe container for singing and also, as part of the work, spending time alone in silence, getting to know my own inner and outer sounds intimately. The meditation component outdoors and the playful array of untamed sounds everywhere, accessible without effort or struggle, are now a resource or tool.

I do not seem to be as defensive about being deaf. It is easier to feel more warmth admitting I can’t hear without resentment, apologising or making a fuss. I notice when I let go of my own neediness to hear everything in the way that I once did, it can be more an unexpected enhancement. Communications through observing body language and the option to switch off my hearing aid when I want can be a bonus. Exploring new realms of silence within; that sense of inner stillness that is so different from merely switching on or off to sound, raises more questions than answers. However, it is becoming easier to accept that I have no musicality and somehow playing more with what is. In turn, my relationships are changing as I am not forcing dialogue in quite the same way as before. Not putting the same pressures on my family or close friends with normal hearing to be a certain way with me so they are not having to ‘watch their backs’ as much as in the past for fear of excluding me.

Speckled sound/Light and dark/Each moment/Unshackled//Inside and out.”

‘Energy’ (DEH)

It is not always apparent that people who are born deaf, or children who become deaf before they learn to speak, have a natural language of their own – sign language. Although they are taught English as a second language it is difficult for them to learn, and it is extremely difficult for them to develop clear speech.

People who acquire a hearing loss have to learn how to combat an invisible disability and fit in with the hearing world They have to redefine how they view the whole spectrum of relating and interacting with themselves and others. They have to learn to adapt to the sounds reproduced by a hearing aid which bear little relationship to the sounds they have been used to all their lives. The hearing aid not only picks up sound you want to hear, but also unwanted background noises are amplified. The hearing challenged person must physically and psychologically learn how to filter out extraneous noises so that they hear only what is necessary. This can frequently lead to either a rejection of the hearing aid as being useless or create a building of additional stress trying to hear quite simple sentences, once heard and responded to spontaneously. Initially, at about 12 years of age, I resented not being able to use the telephone in the same way as my family. I tried lying my first box hearing aid flat against the phone receiver and discovered I could hear my best friend’s voice – the sense of connection was amazing.

There is a clear distinction between deafness and hard of hearing. The term deaf is usually used for people with profound hearing losses while hard of hearing is used to describe those with mild to severe hearing losses. According to an acoustic definition, deafness is an average hearing loss of more than 92 dB in the speech area. I can hear the sound of a car horn directly behind me. I cannot hear an ambulance siren until I see cars pulling over to one side.

A person with a hearing loss of 70-90 dB is severely hard of hearing. A person with a hearing loss of 50-60 dB is considered moderately hard of hearing (Davis, 1970). Measured losses of less than 20 dB are considered normal acuity (Frederiksen et al: 1989: p32).

Do’s and Don’t’s that are useful:

Do avoid single words and very long sentences.
Do vary the way you say things when repeating something. Do speak clearly.
Don’t exaggerate facial movements.
Don’t shout.

Edwards (2009)

At meetings and conferences understanding questions by the audience could be greatly improved by the repeating of the question by a designated speaker with a strong voice who is positioned to face the audience.

Blindness separates people from things. Deafness separates people from people”

Helen Keller

Diana Erskine-Hill MIAHIP MIACP works with individuals and groups and can be contacted by email: derskinehill@gmail.com or text: 087-2804765


Cannato, J. (2000) ‘The Poverty of Provisionality’. Weavings, Jan/Feb: 6-12. Davis, R.R. (1970) Hearing & Noise in Industry. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.
Edwards, K. (2009) Living with a Hearing Loss. Dublin: Farmar.
Frederiksen, J., Martin, M., Puig de las Bellacasa, R., Von Tetzchner, S. (1989) ‘Statistics’ (Chapter 6). Use of Telecommunication: the Needs of People with Disabilities. Proceedings of the 13th International Symposium on Human Factors. Jansen, E.R. (2002) Singing Bowls: A Practical Handbook of Instruction and Use. New Dehli: New Age Books.
Oliver, M. (2009) Extract from ‘At the Pond’. Evidence. UK: Bloodaxe.

Poem extracts quoted are from published and unpublished poems by Diana Erskine- Hill.