The music man who lost his sense of hearing

New book shows how people redefine themselves when calamity strikes. By Genevieve Roberts

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The Independent Culture

Imagine a world where you lost your sense of smell or hearing, a limb, your face, even your mind. Now imagine that world if your entire livelihood depended upon the very thing you'd lost.

Nick Coleman's memoir The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, published this week, explores exactly that – a music critic afflicted by sudden neurosensory hearing loss, as "silence descended suddenly and without warning" – struggling to cope in a world that has suddenly lost its most important dimension.

His experience of adapting to a new world, accepting he is deaf in one ear and that music will never have the same architecture, echoes that of Molly Birnbaum, who lost her sense of smell but continued to cook at home. "I concentrated on other cues: colour, sound and touch. I would listen to the crackle of mushrooms as they expel water while being cooked," she said. Alongside Clive Wearing, the conductor who lost his memory, Rick Allen, the drummer who lost his arm and Katie Piper, the television presenter who lost her face, their identity has been reshaped by their loss.

Dr Kerri McPherson, a psychologist, says: "Key to all our identities is how we see ourselves, and how we would like others to see us. The loss has a huge effect on how they evaluate themselves, because it is part of their identity, and affects how they think other people are evaluating them.

"If someone can no longer to do something, and it impacts their employment or social life, it requires a massive shift."

Katie Piper, the television presenter who lost her face

In March 2008, Katie Piper had sulphuric acid thrown in her face by the accomplice of a violent ex-boyfriend. "It spread through my body like fire. I felt as if I was being burned alive, that I was melting like a candle," she wrote in her memoir Beautiful. Her entire face was rebuilt with grafted skin in pioneering treatment. She lost sight in her left eye. She launched the Katie Piper Foundation to help others with burns. "I am proof that disfigurement doesn't have to destroy lives," the 28-year-old wrote. "I'd seen what was truly important in life, and found a strength I never knew I had."

Clive Wearing, the conductor who lost his memory

Clive Wearing has anterograde amnesia: it is impossible to make new memories. He contracted a brain infection, herpes encephalitis, in 1985, leaving him with a 10-second memory span. While he cannot remember new people, his love for his wife, Deborah, who wrote the memoir Forever Today, is undiminished. If she leaves the room, he greets her with the affection of not having seen her for years. But despite his amnesia, Wearing, 73, retains his musical ability, and is still able to read music and play the piano.

Nick Coleman, the music critic who lost his hearing

Nick Coleman told doctors he would rather lose an eye or foot than his favourite sense. "Music to me has always been a handsome three-dimensional container, a vessel, as real in its way as a Scout hut or a cathedral or a ship," he has written. He has learnt to adapt, to listen to music at low volumes. In 2010, three years into adapting to his new way of living, he listened to Exile on Main St. "It sounded starkly beautiful, as it always used to," he wrote in his memoir. "Music hasn't changed after all ... It's just that I get to it through unpleasantness now, not pleasure."

Molly Birnbaum, the chef who lost her sense of smell

"My world faded from colour to black and white, especially in the kitchen," recalled Molly Birnbaum, author of Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way. As she was training to become a chef in 2005, she was involved in a collision with a car while jogging, fracturing her skull. Her olfactory neurons were severed; her sense of smell disappeared. She had to abandon her place to study at the Culinary Institute of America, and gave up her job cooking at a bistro in Boston. Gradually, her olfactory neurons began to regrow. The first smell was rosemary, now her favourite scent. "I always appreciated my sense of smell because I love cooking, but there's also the smell of people we love, the ties between smell and emotion." Last year she became confident she could smell everything again. "It was a long, hard journey with a lot of work – and a lot of luck."

Rick Allen, the drummer from Def Leppard who lost his arm

On New Year's Eve 1984, Rick Allen was involved in a serious car crash. "I left the car and landed in a field. My arm was left in the car. I didn't think I'd be able to do anything again," he told Lynn Redgrave in 1992 in BBC 1's Fighting Back. Allen realised he could play many drum parts with his feet, and continued with the band. "I appreciate my life more than I did back then. But there are always going to be reminders: it's more a process of leaving things behind."

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