After hearing loss, Katherine Bouton finds new purpose in life



Katherine Bouton is the author of “Shouting Won’t Help – Why I and 50 Million Other Americans Can’t Hear You.” and “Living Better with Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends… and Hearing Aids.”  She is a former editor at the New York Times where she worked on the NY Times Magazine and Book Review, and on the daily Science and Culture Desks.  Katherine is a frequent speaker to professional and hearing loss groups on hearing loss issues. Her blog  appears weekly at AARP online and also on her own site. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

I very much appreciate when someone responds to my blog pasts. Recently I got a very nice response from Katherine Bouton about my experiences returning to performing music again. We originally met via Facebook as readers of each other’s posts and blog articles. I greatly respect her writing and admire her work in the hearing loss community, so I decided to reach out to her. One thing led to another, which eventually led to the following interview. I know you’ll enjoy and learn from what she has to say.

Stu: Can you talk about the evolution of your own hearing loss?

Katherine: Other than age related, there is no hearing loss in my family. I lost the hearing in my left ear when I was 30. There was no indication that anything was wrong until one morning when I couldn’t hear on the telephone and later that day developed dizziness and tinnitus. An MRI and other tests all came up negative and it was diagnosed as Idiopathic sensorineural hearing loss. During my 30’s my hearing worsened and affected my right ear. By 50 I was profoundly deaf in the left ear and had a moderate hearing loss in my right ear. In 2002, I got hearing aids and they helped a lot, but my hearing loss continued to progress, often after periods of prolonged stress, and by 2008, I had lost much of the hearing in my right ear. After a series of last ditch measures, I got a cochlear implant in September of 2009.

Stu: What is the quality of your “hearing experience” now?

Katherine: It varies according to the environment and who is speaking. It’s also dependent on my emotional state. During the years immediately following the implant, I lost my job, and five members of my immediate family died – one after the other. I was the oldest child and the point person for all of them and it was stressful and debilitating. It took therapy and medication to get me back to normal (sort of). Now, as long as disasters aren’t occurring, I hear well enough. I’m a good lip reader, and I’m also pretty brazen about asking people to repeat themselves, even asking a whole dinner table full of people to stop and tell me what they’re talking about.

Stu: What hearing technology do you use?  

Katherine: I have a Phonak Naida hearing aid and an Advanced Bionics Naida cochlear implant. I use my ComPilot for listening to music and books on my smart phone and I love it. I also have a Roger Pen. I use captions on TV. I’m always delighted to find myself in a venue with a hearing loop. Continue reading “After hearing loss, Katherine Bouton finds new purpose in life”

“Right Hear, Right Now”: Hearing Loss Awareness as Works of Art

The statistics are well-known. More than 1.1 billion people around the world are affected by hearing loss, but only one in five people who would benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one. Ask anyone and they will probably either know someone with hearing loss, or have someone they know who could probably benefit from a hearing aid. But why is it that while people often recognize symptoms of hearing loss they rarely do anything about it? Continue reading ““Right Hear, Right Now”: Hearing Loss Awareness as Works of Art”

But Your Hearing is Perfect

We’ve all talked on this blog about how different the perception is between viewing aids (better known as glasses) and hearing aids (better known as “my ears” by people wearing them, and as “prosthetics” by people seeing them). A few months ago we were on holiday at the beach — don’t let me get me started on Corsica, one of the finest places in the world. We spent two weeks there; every day we’d go to the beach and dive among schools of fish.

Blue Corsica

Without my hearing aids, discussions on the beach were some approximate gibberish mixed with outcries from happy children playing around, the buzz from some distant sea scooters, the splashes, the regular pounding of waves. In fact I heard less than half the conversations. But you know how beach conversations go: most of the time it’s more chit-chat than life-changing decisions, so I didn’t really mind and decided to let go. I love reading books on the beach anyway.

Continue reading “But Your Hearing is Perfect”

What Can Hearing Impaired People Do to End Stigmas Against Mental Illness?

  • Have you strained so hard to hear that you collapse from fatigue, too exhausted move anything except your eyelids?
  • Has conversation swirled into a vortex, put you in its eye as you try to understand just one word, and then hit you with its back wall of sound?
  • Have you felt so disconnected from your world and other people that you give up hope of living a happy, productive life?
  • Have you seen people talking to you or about you, and immediately reject you with assertions of “nevermind”?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you can certainly empathize with sufferers of depression. Perhaps, in a greater possibility, you have experienced symptoms that can be found in  depression before discovering your hearing loss. Depression’s  signs, such as difficulty concentrating, fatigue, loss of interest in socializing and favorite activities, can also happen before hearing loss is properly managed. Being able to answer this article’s opening questions reveals your empathy, and why Mental Health Awareness Month (last May in the US) should matter to hearing impaired people.

Photo credit: Elizabeth M

As I mentioned in my previous article, depression-like symptoms can be a manifestation of untreated hearing loss. We bear the stigmas of mental illness if our losses are not understood because hearing loss symptoms can have strong resemblance to those of depression. What may seem like a curse, however, can be transformed into a gift if we understand the power that we wield. Stigmas, while being forced upon us by society, can be ended if we choose to speak out.

In discussing depression-like symptoms of untreated hearing loss, we can communicate that health problems, whether physical or mental, are never a choice. We can dispel the notion that being too exhausted to move is the result of “bad behavior”, or that disconnection from others is unwillingness to communicate. Some of us may suffer from chemical imbalances, as well as the strains that come before a hearing loss diagnosis. Others may know they’re hearing impaired, but fear the diagnoses because of hearing aid costs. Regardless of origin, however, we have the capability of empathizing with mentally ill individuals because of the experiences that come before we understand our hearing loss.

What can come of empathizing with mentally ill individuals? You’d be surprised where a little empathy can lead. Nearly all of my closest friends and boyfriends have suffered with a mental illness or condition of some sort—depression, ADHD, Asperger’s, anxiety. Though our symptoms originate from different places, we help each other if and when our symptoms overlap.

Understanding the feeling of sound swirling into a vortex helps me recognize signs of when friends with anxiety or Asperger’s are overwhelmed by noisy crowds. Friends with ADHD taught me techniques to maintain focus in lectures exceeding an hour, and how to listen—a skill with which I still struggle. Relationships have often begun with bonding over fatigued feelings that people who have not experienced depression or hearing loss cannot easily understand.

Without empathizing with people who are mentally ill, I would have spent many of my high school and college years in a painfully lonely place. With only 17% of hearing impaired individuals  in the US wearing hearing aids, the likelihood that I would find another hearing impaired person my age was low. Reaching out to mentally ill individuals started as a means of overcoming loneliness, but became a way of better understanding of the stigma mental illness carries. The stigma can affect hearing impaired people in the presentation of our symptoms, but it is one that we lose when our health problems are made obvious. Even with medication, mental illness can never entirely subside and the stigma never goes away. I lost it once I got a hearing aid, but the stigma will never leave most of my friends and exes.

Maybe some people can stand back when they watch others be ostracized for pains they understand, but I cannot. After experiencing depression-like symptoms from an undiagnosed hearing loss, I cannot be silent as ill friends are stigmatized. We, as hearing impaired people, have amazing power when we take our experiences and use them to help others and end prejudices of all kinds. Symptoms, regardless of origin, are never choices. Making this statement will help people recognize why stigmatizing mental illness is wrong. Outside of a doctor’s office, symptom origins should never matter in the treatment of other people. If we stand up to this stigma by discussing overlaps in symptoms,we can try to end the stigma on macro and micro levels.

For the latter, we can get involved through government resources, such as The former can be achieved through something as simple as opening your heart to another person’s experience. Even small actions are a big step in ending the stigma, as well as learning more through contact with others. Regardless of which method you choose, I hope you get involved in promoting mental health awareness, especially if you could say “yes” to the questions that opened this article.

The Highly Reluctant Consumer And The Invisible Hearing Aid

I marvel at the changes seen in the cosmetic design of hearing aids in the last twenty years. Hearing aids are now “cooler” in design, with fancy Bluetooth and wireless capabilities. They are more appealing than ever before–but the stigma remains. Sergi Kochkin rated fifty-three influencing improvements that could potentially persuade highly reluctant users to seek amplification for their hearing loss within the next two years:

Historically, the MarkeTrak survey has focused on obstacles to hearing purchase. We thought it would be of interest to present the hearing-impaired consumer with a number of improvements in four key areas: financial, hearing aid listening utility, product enhancements, and psycho-social changes.

The top influencing factor (for 2 out of 5 people) in the psycho-social category, ranking 15th overall, is convincing the potential consumer that the hearing aid is invisible, or nearly invisible. This strong desire for invisible hearing aids can only be from the negative stigma that society has placed on hearing aids.
Lyric-Hearing-Aid-Compariso Continue reading “The Highly Reluctant Consumer And The Invisible Hearing Aid”

Eyes And Ears: So Different?

Since I started spending so much time thinking about hearing loss and hearing technology, one of the things I’ve obviously been thinking about it social stigma related to hearing loss. Stigma is immediately cited as the reason people wait so long to get fitted, and the reason for which “invisible” is a great quality for a hearing aid. (Not everybody agrees, though.)

Corinne with glasses
Photo credit: Corinne Stoppelli

In an attempt to wrap my head around some of these issues, I’ve been trying to make parallels between eyes and ears, glasses and hearing aids. Why is “not hearing well” considered so differently from “not seeing well”? Saying “there’s more stigma” is not really an answer. Social stigma comes from somewhere, right?

Continue reading “Eyes And Ears: So Different?”