About the Time I Went Deaf


I had a great post all ready to go on what it’s like to be deaf. For the past year I couldn’t hear anything with my right ear. I could only hear out of the other ear if you basically yelled into it. I could barely talk on the phone. Everyone sounded like they were mumbling.  At night when there were no noises I could close my eyes and hear this static that would get louder and louder. That static was the only sound I could hear. I was convinced I was going deaf. What a great blog post this was going to be, I thought.

(I was starting to learn to read lips)

I liked it. My kids would talk to me and I could ignore them. Sometimes Claudia would start to say something to me in the other room and I could vaguely hear but I would pretend not to. I was tuned into my own static. It was a wonderful feeling. I felt like the static was all over me, comforting me.

Then yesterday, after three months of delay and at Claudia’s insistence, I went to the doctor. “Ugh,” the doctor said after she spent some time peering into my right ear, “you should see what’s in here.” Then she started squirting hot water in my ear.

She got some tweezers and pulled something out of my ear. I swear to god it looked like someone had taken a shit in my ear. I said, “ugh, is that shit?”

“Ear wax,” she said.

“Yeah, but what is ear wax? Is it made out of the same stuff as shit?” I vaguely remembered Claudia telling me on a few occasions that my head smelled but I always thought it was my hair or something.

“Well,” the doctor said, and like doctors do, she had to figure out how to say something amazingly complex in layman’s terms, “the cells in your ear have secretions.”

“So it’s cell shit?” I said.

“Let’s just check the other ear,” she said. And that was that. She kept showing me what was pulling out of there. It was like my entire brain was being shat out of my ear.

But then suddenly I could hear. I think it had been about a year or so since I heard properly. Everyone’s voice sounded different. It was like when you play with the car radio and you turn it all the way to treble from where it was previously all the way at bass. I didn’t like it.

“I can hear things now,” I said.

“Isn’t that nice?” she said.

I went outside. Claudia was waiting for me. “I can hear things now,” I said.

“Really?” she said. She was disappointed. Later, she told me she had gotten used to talking about me behind my back with my daughters and laughing because they knew I wouldn’t hear it. She tried testing me. While she was in the kitchen and I was in the living room she started whispering. (As she proofread this she said, “we weren’t making fun of you! Well, just a little.”)

“I can hear you,” I said. “Darnit!” she said. She doesn’t curse. I felt like a superhero. If I wanted to I could charge up my superhearing and hear conversations miles away, particularly if people were talking about me.

Later that night I woke up at three in the morning. I couldn’t sleep. There were no sounds. I missed my static. I tried to listen for it but it was gone. Sometimes I had let the static rock me to sleep. I could almost feel it on my body it had been so loud. But now there was no static there. I also heard Claudia snoring.

A few months earlier I had told my youngest daughter that I was going deaf. I think that scared her because she then asked Claudia if I was going deaf. I think I would’ve been scared if I were nine years old and my dad told me he was going deaf. The only deaf person I had ever read about at that time was Helen Keller. If my dad turned into Helen Keller the other kids at school would’ve made fun of me. Just like they made fun of me because of my mom’s polio.

Howard Hughes, probably the richest man ever, inflation adjusted, was mostly deaf. He could only hear people if he was talking one on one with them and they were close. This made him shy in groups. It also made him intensely good at focusing on whatever he was interested in. No distractions.

(Howard Hughes began going deaf at an early age)

He only really enjoyed going on dates with women when he could take them up in one of his planes (he owned, among other things, the airline TWA). The roar outside the plane was so great that there was no point in having a conversation. Instead he would romance them with his abilities as a pilot, the beautiful sunsets he would fly through and of course, his money, which didn’t require conversation or hearing.

There was one aspect of being partially deaf that had me nervous. I was afraid I was talking too loud to people. Also, at dinner parties, I couldn’t hear people who were sitting to my right so I started saying “no” to more invitations. If someone was sitting to my right I would have to look directly at them, even behind their left ear a little, which made it a bit awkward. And when I gave talks I always used to enjoy Q&A at the end but I couldn’t hear anyone now unless they had microphones on at the loudest volume.

But the aspect of potentially talking too loud worried me. Already my kids were telling me to keep the volume down, particularly when their friends were around. I was suddenly “that dad!”

Monday I’m starting a radio show. I’m going to be on at 11am EST on about 15 different stations. I was worried I would be screaming into the microphone. Most people don’t like to listen to someone screaming at them on the radio. I’m hoping now that won’t be a problem for me. Now, if someone chooses not to listen to me, it will be totally my own fault. And then they can slightly change the dial and fade me out and listen to the only other sound worth listening to – the static that I now miss.



PS. There’s a post-script to this. Over the past few months, because of my increasing deafness, I’ve become fond of the song “Everybody’s Talking” by Fred Neil. Part of the lyrics are “Everybody’s talking at me. I can’t hear a word they are saying. Only the echoes of my mind”. He eventually retired and disappeared to live in the woods. Harry Nilsson then redid the song for the movie “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969.  The song was then sampled by “Paul Oakenfold” in a version called “Starry-Eyed Surprise” about the great effect MDMA / Ecstasy has on people. That song was then re-done by a tiny soft drink company called Coca-Cola when they were advertising their Coke Zero drink. Funny how things go.

Two posts I did were inspired by the song:

The Greatest Musician You Never Heard Of (about Harry Nilsson)

7 Things Happen To You When You Are Completely Honest (Which includes the Coke Zero video)

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  • http://twitter.com/dkrich dkrich

    That’s hilarious, I was just reading about Harry Nilsson the other day. Saw he died of a heart attack in his 50’s and then read that Mama Cass and Keith Moon both died in his apartment at the same age (32).

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

       Wow, I didn’t know that about Mama Cass and Keith Moon.

  • Sim Kolev

    Another amazing post. Uplifted my spirits. Is it possible to tune into your radio show online?

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

       Yes, I’m not sure where though. I’ll find out.

      • Gonzalo Gandia

        Yes, online would be the only option for me as I live in Chile…let us know!

        • Mike Raeder

          Would be thrilled to get your radio station online, James!

      • http://www.twitter.com/kalimkassam Kalim Kassam

        The best for me is if there was a podcast version that I could subscribe to and listen to at my convenience. I imagine many others are the same and having a podcast of the show would multiply your audience by many times. Please look into this and keep us informed!

    • Joe Mcguire

      There’s a radio show? Im in Australia and would love to find this online. Can someone let me know when they find out where we can hear it?  

  • Anonymous

    Great story, James! I’ve sometimes wondered about being deaf and living in utter silence. No more noisy neighbors, midnight car alarms or laptop fans. What would this silence feel like? I may like it. 

    PS: I know Howard Hughes was wealthy, but I don’t think he’s the wealthiest man ever lived. John D. Rockefeller pretty much owned all the oil back in the days. Although it’s difficult to find his net worth in today’s dollars, I’ve heard figures like $700bn or even up to a trillion. And then there were the Rothschild’s, but since their wealth was mostly divided by different family members, I’m not sure whether any individual Rothschild could have had more than J.D. Rockefeller. 

    PS 2: Speaking of net worth, do you know how many dollars has Bill Gates donated to charity (or his Foundation)? And is it included in his net worth today? Cause I was thinking about it the other day. He is worth something like $60 billion these days. And he was worth 60 billion back in 2001/2002. But where was gold, crude oil, etc?! If all he’s got is his (virtual) 60bn, then he has lost quite a lot of purchasing power. Of course, when comparing Microsoft to Apple, I’d say he’d be worth 60bn in 2022 as well (while crude oil is something like $500 and gold $10k). 

  • Anonymous

    Another Epic post. Your posts inspirational as always.

  • http://www.andrewriley.net Andrew

    I use “Q-Tips” to clean my ears every morning for the last 20 years.  People keep telling me it’s dangerous to stick Q-Tips in your ears, but if I don’t do it my ear canals will itch all day.  After reading this I feel like doing it twice a day.

    • Anonymous

      You want to use hot water and salt to clear out your ears, Not Q-Tips

      • http://www.andrewriley.net Andrew

         After 20 years of using Q-Tips every day and having zero problems, you think I should switch to a messy and complicated alternative.  Thank you, but no.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=732244537 Priscilla Paredes Wood

          Q-Tips rule!

  • Rick

    Deafness can really be tragic.  I’ve never been physically deaf, but I have been deaf, or maybe really stupid/insensitive, and I put people I know through so much, and I wish I could make it up to them.  Was so confused, frustrated, and I tried so hard at something that ended up failing so badly.  I hurt them awfully, and my hurting them hurt me.

    • Bling

      Find your sack dude. Everyone is guilty. They will probably join you in hell so you’ll have plenty of time to mull it over.

      • rollingdancefloor

         Are you trying to pick a fight? Like it baby! My wife just asked me who I was talking to. I told her I’m talking to the blog.

        • Bling

          No. Just some perspective. Theyre not really making a first person account in any case.

  • http://www.facebook.com/yoav.ezer Yoav Ezer

    Had the same experience. After he scooped a ton of wax out of my ears the doctor said that I held the monthly record – which is pretty impressive because this guy scoops ear wax for a living.

    Also…when you talked about the experience of hearing, all I thought about was this…


    • Anonymous

      Amazing: 29-Year-Old Deaf Girl Hearing Herself For The First Time! A great video

  • http://twitter.com/fzeng96 Feng

    Man, a new book, a new radio show, a new ear. You are living it. Happy for you.

  • JP

    When this happened to me, it annoyed me so much that I immediately went to the ENT doctor and got the wax removed.

    It was one of the most annoying things that ever happened to me because it felt like one of my ears was underwater.

  • http://736hundred.tumblr.com/ 736hundred

    Besides your most entertaining writing (as always), there one thing I really like about this post.  It’s current.  It covers something that’s happening in your life now.

    Ever hear of ear coning? http://www.coningworks.com/

    My SIL did this for my whole family it’s very relaxing when done by a professional.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Mark.L.Carson Mark Carson

    I didn’t notice a loss of hearing, but a few years ago my doctor announced that my ears needed cleaning and he had his nurse spend about half an hour between both ears with the water pik.

    Besides little bits of brown crud, the largest hunk was the size of my little finger down to the first knuckle. Almost the size of a mini-Tootsie roll. OK, maybe not quite that big, but certainly as big around as a pencil eraser tip and twice as long.

    Now I just use my car keys on a daily basis to keep them clean. Kidding of course.

    Thanks for another unexpected post James.

  • Anonymous

    Is there a podcast of  the radio show?  How do we get it on the best coast??

  • Nillie Goldman

    Congratulations on your new radio show? Where and when will it be on?

  • rollingdancefloor

    Just another reason to love iTunes and creating play lists. Glad you didn’t go deaf. Oh yeah Andrew I agree with you I am a devout Q-tip user. When Q-tips came up with the slogan “Variety Of Uses” I took um serious. Q-tips are also great for cleaning your nose. When the kids were little I gave them a lesson in using Q-tips instead of their finger to clean (some people say pick) their nose. There is a special rolling technique that I perfected that works very well. Anyway I think the boys still use it to this day. Now that I think about it I need to show it to the grand kids.

    • http://www.marketmentat.com GT

      ‘Variety of uses’ reminds me of the John Cusack scene in “Better Off Dead”.

      One of my favourite Australian comedians (Carl Barron) did a ‘bit’ about the pseudo-sexual (and vaguely masochistic) thrill of sticking a cotton bud (‘Q-tip’ is an American brand: the devices themselves are cotton buds) in his ear… seeing how deep he could go.

  • Rod

    James, I had a similar story years ago. Likely you will become a fanatic about cleaning your ears out every day with an instrument of choice… Q-Tip, bobby pin, whatever. Just don’t let us see you standing on a street corner using your house key.

  • Emma48352

    I just start to learn ASL recently, I
    am hard of hearing. I can sign some simple words
    now. I joined a great deaf dating site, deafmatching,com, and met some good deaf/HOH
    friends over there. They help me to learn ASL.

    • Raoul

      This is comment shit. It’s made of the same stuff as shit. It’s exactly like someone had taken a shit in you comments section.

  • http://twitter.com/PurviRajani Purvi Rajani

    Will “I Was Deaf But Now I Hear” be a follow-up to “I Was Blind But Now I See?”

  • http://twitter.com/VeehCirra Veeh Cirra

    Man am glad you got your ear fixed before you started your radio show. Can you imagine screaming at people like that? Hilarious. All the best in your new venture.

  • http://www.minutebox.com/ Josh Liu

    Hey James,

    Have been reading your blog for quite a while and really enjoy your blog, but never put a comment here.

    I am actually half deaf. When I was at college, I lost my left ear hearing out of blue. Doctor said it was Sudden Hearing Loss. I always took my healthy body for granted until this happened. After seeing all the famous doctors in that field, I knew and accepted that I would only have my right ear with me, and am nder the risk of losing my right one if the same thing happens again.

    Having said that, I am still grateful that I learned something from my deaf ear.
    Actually, hearing is a great sense to experience the world. I am grateful that I still can listen to the person I love, the birds, everything. If there is something unpleasant to listen, I turn my left ear to it. To me, that is life. Things are not always pretty in our life, appreciate the nice things, and turn left ear (ignore) the annoying ones. We always have the choice to feel good or feel bad. Of course, we should take control of it, and enjoy our lives. :)

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7KZQ7XOSG2ZUHEIUVCTG5IULYQ Prince Harry

     Altucher –

    Love the blog. Since I have been reading
    this blog I have stopped making negative posts on other sites because it serves
    no one. I have to say however that you have some serious personal hygiene
    issues. I wont go any further than that. Sort it out mate.


    Howard Hughes was a giant. Probably one of the most influential American figures of the twentieth century; and essentially mentally ill.
    I think I’d give up my hearing to have half his drive and half his genius.

  • KB

    Turn your radio segments into podcasts for iTunes after you do them.

  • Onebornfreeatyahoodotcom

    RE: “Everybody’s Talking”

    James, interesting to me that you brought up the great song “Everybody’s Talking” . I had just recently finished a “jump  blues” arrangement of that song [ kind of how  I think B.B. King might approach the song] . It’s still only a demo , and _still_ took months of work to get to this stage, but you can hear it hear : http://soundcloud.com/onebornfree/everybodys-talking-jump-blues

    Regards, D

  • Huh?

    Man, this sounds like the story of my life.  I read it and cried laughing.  Then my wife read it and she cried laughing too.  I just made an appointment with my doctor just to make sure that my hearing loss isn’t simply because I have gross gunky wax in my ears.   Hey, it’s worth a try!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chad-Williams/37616303 Chad Williams

      Wow, I’ve been going through the same thing for years and it’s been horrible.  I’ve actually been to many doctors and they say there’s nothing in there and that all the damage to my hearing has come from loud noise (being that I am a 24 year old, AMATEUR musician-which is important because I’m not actually around loud noise and concerts, etc., THAT MUCH).  Anyways, it feels to me like there’s gunk stuck in my eustachian tubes and not so much actually in my ear canal.  Different alternative remedies and such have helped here and there over the years, but it’s still a persistent problem that I hope will go away some day.  Maybe someone reading knows more about this?  I’ve read some things about kundalini energy and an “ear blast” phenomenon that may or may not be associated with the kundalini, but I’ve only been able to find very limited and vague information about this stuff.  I do not know a lot about Eastern philosophies, so who knows if this sort of thing is related to me or not.  It’s all simply speculation at this point.

  • http://twitter.com/K0JEG Eric

    I had the same thing happen to me when I was in high school. I was actually very worried, not really understanding what was happening. But it taught me to appreciate hearing and listening to the world. Unfortunately I now have a fair amount of tinnitus due to years of playing in marching bands and working in equipment rooms, but I still take time to sit down and just listen to the world.

  • Andrew Murphy

    Yeh just cleaned out my ears – use the small paper clips works a charm