Talking Back to the Toilet
by Tina Blue
October 27, 2001
Everyone knows that those of us who are hearing-impaired often don't hear when we are spoken to. What many people with normal hearing don't realize, however, is how often we hear when we are not spoken to.
A hearing impairment doesn't just leave you unable to hear certain sounds. It also distorts the sounds you do hear or causes you to hear sounds that are not there at all.
Take, for example, the effects of tinnitus. Tinnitus is a sensation of noise (ringing, whistling, roaring, whooshing, humming, buzzing, etc.) that originates within the ear, not out in the world where other people can hear it.
Sometimes an individual will have more than one form of tinnitus. (I describe some of the amusing effects of my four different types of tinnitus in "The Sound the Universe Makes Is Really Just Tinnitus.") I frequently hear someone talking to me when, in fact, there is no one present, or when no one who is present has said a word. This often happens when my various types of tinnitus have momentarily combined to sound like words, or when they have merged with some external sound to make me think I have heard someone speaking.
Usually I can't make out what these "words" are, but that doesn't prevent me from thinking they are words, since I can't make out most words that I hear.
But what's really funny is when I can understand those words that no one has spoken. What must it be like for those who are in a room with me when I respond to a remark or question no one has uttered? Maybe they think I am communing with spirits.
Or maybe they just think I am a total flake.
Another sort of problem is created by sounds that really do exist outside of my flawed hearing apparatus. A neighbor's lawnmower, the muffled sounds of traffic, the
thunk of a cat jumping down from a high place--almost any sound that my ears pick up can seem like spoken words to me.
And sometimes, when I try to share that experience, I end up looking like a complete idiot.
My friend Michael's toilet is one of those that makes a very loud noise after it has finished flushing, while the tank refills. At the moment the refilling is completed, the toilet makes a particularly distinct sound. I don't know what it sounds like to someone with normal hearing, but every time I hear it, it sounds exactly like someone saying, "Tina?" with an interrogatory inflection.
At first it seemed to me that every time I used the bathroom at Michael's apartment he would suddenly need to ask me something, because every time I was in there, I'd hear him outside the door saying, "Tina?"
"Just a second," I would respond. "I can't talk to you through the door." (The hearing-impaired consider it strange magic that people with normal hearing can carry on conversations through closed doors. To us it seems as miraculous as telepathy!)
Then I'd open the door, but Michael would be nowhere in sight. In fact, sometimes he'd be in another room working diligently at the computer, or even out on the balcony having a cigarette. When I'd ask what he wanted, he never knew what I was talking about.
A few weeks ago, though, Michael happened to be in the hallway outside the bathroom door when I said, "Just a second. I'll be right out."
"What was that about?" he asked when I opened the door.
"Didn't you just call me?" I responded.
No, of course he didn't. He never did. He knows I can't hear through closed doors.
So the next time I was in the bathroom at Michael's apartment, I waited for a few moments after flushing the toilet, and I paid very close attention to all the sounds inside the bathroom.
Sure enough, as soon as the toilet stopped running it said, "Tina?"
I threw the door open and called Michael to come and listen to the toilet say my name. He came to the bathroom, and I flushed the toilet. "It takes awhile to quit running," I said. "Just wait a bit."
He stood there patiently until the toilet finally stopped running. Then just as it subsided, it said, "Tina?"
"Did you hear that?" I asked. "It sounds just like someone calling my name!"
He shook his head and chuckled. "Tina," he said, "your ears are a lot weirder than you realize."
That's it. Next time his toilet tries to talk to me, I'm not answering. If it really wants to keep in touch, it can send me an e-mail, like everyone else.