By Alex Creece
Osher Günsberg is a jack of many trades – an author, a presenter, a podcaster, Board Director at SANE Australia, and the television personality whose rose mathematics inform us how many hearts will be broken each night on The Bachelor Australia and its spin-offs.
Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down and having a chat with Günsberg. However, our conversation was not about any of these achievements (although I did slip in a sneaky Bachelor question at the end for good measure – couldn’t help myself!). Instead, we discussed a lesser known aspect of this beloved household name: his experience with acquired hearing impairment and tinnitus.
Many fans may not be aware that Günsberg’s hearing began to deteriorate as early as his late-teens from his work within the live music industry and worsened into his twenties and thirties. Still passionate about sound in its many forms, he not only reminisces about the “rich, full experience of appreciating music” by identifying the timbral differences of each instruments in a band, but also recalls his pride in learning local dialects during his travels. Günsberg was often complimented on his ability to speak different languages without an accent, and ultimately experienced a deep loss of confidence as his hearing impairment increasingly affected his ability to do so.
“I’m not an artist, so I could look at a hillside and say: the dirt is brown; the trees are green; the [tree trunks] are grey; the sky is blue. I see four colours. An artist will see four hundred shades of green. An artist will see the nuances and subtle differences in how the light hits the curvature of the tree trunks. An artist will see the different gradients of the light [against] the shade of the dirt. That is what my hearing was like before I suffered the hearing loss.”
Günsberg has now worn hearing aids for a number of years, noting that they have given him an appreciation of the various components of speech in “[how much] is auditory, how much is circumstantial, is visual, is intuitive”. Prior to his hearing aids, Günsberg’s hearing had reached a point where he could no longer distinguish between an “s” and an “f”, and he did not realise until later how heavily he relied on lip-reading and subconscious processes of adaptation. Another implication was social withdrawal and isolation, which left him dejected and confused as to why he was struggling to engage with large groups of friends. For Günsberg, the deterioration of his hearing had a parallel effect on his capacity for social contact – with his hearing aids now serving as “a big transformative thing in how [he lives] and [connects] with those [he loves]”.
Günsberg’s experience reflects the intersection between acquired disability and mental health, and how hearing loss can affect multiple domains of functional capacity. This also encourages us to consider our own aural health, given that his impairment emerged through popular forms of recreation—such as live gigs and raves—and the everyday industrial tasks of those employed in music, nightlife and entertainment. As a result, he stresses the personal importance of being able to eventually accept his condition after taking enough time to grieve the loss of experiences he will no longer have.
“Do I miss the … beautiful acoustic reverberance of an orchestra bouncing off the Opera House walls? Absolutely. I’ll never have it again. That’s okay … Do I miss the beautiful harmonic overtones of listening to Tibetan monk chanting? Yeah, I do. I miss hearing those extraordinary things. They’re gone … I took time to mourn it [and] that’s okay … There’s nothing I can do about it, so being in acceptance is the most powerful thing I can do. I’m grateful I’ve got that.”
For Günsberg, acceptance is also significant regarding his tinnitus, a constant ear-ringing which he describes like the loud trill of crickets in the summertime, or “the sound of twenty-five camera flashes recharging in each ear”. Günsberg manages his tinnitus by accepting it, letting it fade into the background, and refocusing on other stimuli – a process similar to Mindfulness in coping with unhelpful thoughts. According to Günsberg, concentrating on the sound only makes it louder and more untenable, like how being too conscious of one’s breathing can cause a person to “manually breathe”.
In his role as host on The Bachelor Australia, Günsberg is able to wear an earpiece during filming that is connected to all the microphones on set, and otherwise wears his usual hearing aids while off-camera. He expresses appreciation for his job and its compatibility with his condition. In public, however, fans are not often aware of his hearing impairment, so they tend to assume he is purposefully ignoring them and being “uppity” or arrogant. Sometimes, Günsberg can only hear them calling his name once they are fully shouting it – “[I] stupidly changed my name to a sound with no hard consonants, so it’s hard to hear my own bloody name!”, he laughs. In my opinion—and especially after having a great chat with Günsberg myself—these interactions serve as a general reminder to allow others the benefit of the doubt and to avoid jumping to conclusions. Many people have invisible disabilities, mental illnesses, or perhaps nothing but a bad day – nonetheless, we don’t always know these things, and we shouldn’t expect someone to disclose such details instead of simply exercising some compassion.
As well as his aforementioned accomplishments, Günsberg has recently been appointed an Ambassador at the Shepherd Centre, an amazing charity organisation that facilitates early intervention strategies for hearing impaired children and their families, such as learning different modes of communication or adapting to life with the cochlear implant. Günsberg talks passionately about these projects in how they maximise the capacity of hearing impaired children in learning to communicate, building social connections, and participating in the world around them. Early intervention is a powerful tool for those born with hearing loss, and generally enables these children to reach developmental milestones alongside their peers, and with comparable future prospects.
The work of the Shepherd Centre, collaborating with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, further demonstrates how hearing impairment is not simply a matter of physiology, but bears implications on an individual’s emotional and social health and development too. As Günsberg poignantly states, “it’s not just about hearing people – it’s about connecting with them”. The act of listening (no matter the mode of communication) is crucial in all relationships, and Günsberg reflects on how his impairment had made this difficult prior to using hearing aids.
“You hear stories of old couples who just shout at each other, and it doesn’t need to get to that … Allowing another person to be heard is one of the most powerful things we can do for [them]. To see [and] to acknowledge someone else [lets] them know that they matter … It’s not just about [being able to ask] where your socks are, it’s making someone else feel they’re not talking to a wall, and that’s the really big thing for me.”
When considering advice for young people in the music industry, Günsberg empathises with the common temptation to be reckless with aural health, particularly at live gigs. He states, “I know what it’s like to dance in front of a massive speaker tower and have your body shaking from the sound pressure level. It’s an extraordinary experience, physically. [It’s] sensory part of going to see a band. But is it safe, over a long period of time? Probably not.” Günsberg hopes to see more venues supplying ear plugs free of charge for those who need them. This is a cheap, simple option that allows people to access gigs more safely, and should be readily supported by the venue. He also endorses new developments in P.A. technology that use delay towers and different sound pressure levels to achieve the desired sensory experience without the same risk of auditory damage. Günsberg emphasises the “duty of care” of sound engineers in how they push these limits.
In terms of individual responsibility, Günsberg recommends that people are wary of their headphone volume, especially for those with heavy daily usage of personal music devices. While many of us only attend live gigs occasionally, headphones are an essential part of most people’s average day that need to be used with greater care. Günsberg also wants to see annual baseline hearing tests become a more common practice in maintaining one’s health.
“We jump on scales, we get blood tests [so we] might as well get a baseline [test] too. See where your ears are. If you notice [your hearing] degrading over time, talk with your doctor, because once it’s gone, it’s gone. And you want to hear your grandkids say, ‘I love you’.”
Image by Steve Baccon