A complaint I’ve heard a few times lately in the hearing loss support groups I hang out in is that “full-hearing” people resist making the effort to talk to us in such a way that we can understand them. Or they do sometimes, but then forget. I feel a lot of frustration around this for some people, sometimes translated into judgements about the other “not caring” or “not paying attention” or “being offended”.
This reminds me a little, in a “through the looking-glass” way, of how we “less-hearing” people are sometimes accused of “not paying attention”, “not making an effort”, or “being distracted”.
How does the stigma of mental illness affect hearing impaired people? Mental health problems, as well as being their own illness, can be a symptom of physical ailments. According to the Speech-Language-Hearing Association of America, untreated hearing loss is connected to depression and anxiety.
In a study out of 4000 subjects, the rates of depression were higher among individuals with untreated hearing loss. Typical symptoms of depression include an inability to focus; fatigue and excessive sleeping; feelings of sadness or emptiness; an inability to enjoy once beloved activities; feelings of hopelessness, and a desire to commit suicide. These symptoms can also be a sign of an undiagnosed hearing loss.
It started in 1993, several months after my first birthday, with one simple word. Both of my parents were surprised to hear me talk because struggles with ear infections delayed my speech. All it took for me to speak was the daily visit from the neighbors’ cat. Tigger was sitting outside the kitchen door, expecting to be let in for snuggles, cuddles, and food. I took one look at him and exclaimed “cat!” After my first word, however, nobody could have predicted the battle I would fight to maintain my hearing.
Ear problems considered typical for infants transformed into a chronic illness, which disintegrated my eardrums over the course of 10 years. Delays in speech became social delays caused by hearing loss, and frequent absences related to illness. There were plenty of things that upset me about ear infections; not having a lot of friends; ice-cold eardrops that gave me migraines; teachers who did not understand my health problems. Nothing upset me as much, however, as not being able to hear a cat purr. I knew it existed because it vibrated in my fingertips, giving me a “thank-you” massage for stroking the cat’s back. No matter how close I put my ear though, I could never hear the cat’s wordless way of saying “thank you” and “I love you.”
By age 10, I worried that would never happen. Half of my left ear was eroded by ventilation tubes, and only one scrap of my right eardrum was left. I was told, if my health did not change, I would be stone deaf at sixteen. Would I lose my chance to hear the cat’s purr? Would I ever find a way to stop these infections?
“I don’t hear very well.” This is what I’d been saying since I discovered, age 13, that I didn’t hear very well. “I don’t hear very well.” My hearing was checked, I was given the verdict “yeah, so you have some hearing loss, we’re going to give you hearing aids”, and sent to an audiologist to be fitted. They took some measurements, filled my ears with pink stuff, and next time I went there I left with a rather big pair of skin-coloured inside-the-ear aids.
They felt uncomfortable, I could hear background noise, the world was too loud, and girls at school made fun of me. I wore them two days, maybe three, then put them back in their box, never to be taken out again. I decided that it wasn’t that bad after all to “not hear very well”, and that I would cope.
And I did, for the next 25 years.
In 2012, after a couple of years of “getting there”, I finally decided to get fitted again. My brother had got hearing aids a few years before and what he told me of the process and the changes in his life really encouraged me. (We have similar hearing loss, hereditary.) I shared some of my thoughts on my blog right after getting my hearing aids (“A Week With My Superpower”) and a month or so later (“More About Hearing Aids…”).
Nearly two years later, my hearing aids are part of my life, and I wonder why I waited so long. I still end up saying “I don’t hear very well” every now and again, but now I can add “I’m not wearing my hearing aids just now,” or “Even with hearing aids, I don’t hear as well as you.” The impact is different!
It’s easy to pretend that I am just like everybody else until someone blurts out a subtle, but painful statement.
“But you look so normal!”
Those words were uttered to me in the library after another student lost her temper because I could not hear her whispers. My response to her irritation was to pull out my hearing aid, wave it in her face, and say, “I’m sorry, I’m hard of hearing. Could you repeat that?”
My hearing has been stable since birth, and chances are it will probably stay that way until age-related hearing loss catches up with me. I was fitted reasonably late in life, at 38 (two years ago) and so my interest for audiology and hearing loss in general is quite fresh. I’m a bit of a geek, so I did my homework when I was fitted, but hearing loss wasn’t really a big part of my life growing up (I considered it a detail), and as my loss is mild to medium I clearly approach things from another angle than people with severe hearing loss or profound deafness. Hence the variety of contributors that we are currently getting in touch with for this blog.
I’m aware the field of hearing loss/audiology is fraught with occasions to say things the wrong way, so I hope you’ll forgive me (and gently let me know) if I blunder into an issue with big uninformed boots. I’ll do my best not to, of course!