I saw them watching me. Their small eyes taking in the way I was faking it. How I laughed at the jokes I didn’t hear. The way I nodded neutrally when I could not understand what someone was saying, careful not to agree or disagree just in case they were saying something controversial. The times I avoided certain people that I had trouble hearing. Or sat by myself at a party because I was afraid my hearing loss would be discovered.
My father did all these things. That is how I learned them. And now I was teaching my children the same tactics. Avoid. Deny. Hide. This had to change.
Our hearing loss is genetic, so I may have passed it onto my children. While I hope they will not develop hearing issues — it doesn’t manifest until adulthood — I didn’t want them to feel the same embarrassment and discomfort about hearing loss that my father had and I seemed to as well. I needed to stop the cycle of shame.
When I was growing up, my father’s hearing loss was an unmentionable. I don’t recall a time when he didn’t have hearing problems, but I do remember the progression from no hearing aids to one to two. And the long sideburns he wore well past the time it was in style to conceal them. He did his best to hide it at home, at work and with friends, who slowly stopped making plans with him.
Our family was not supportive. My mother sometimes muttered things behind his back to my sister and I, telling us not to worry about what she said because he couldn’t hear us. I remember thinking this was odd, but I was a young child and content enough to play whispering games with my mother if she that was what she wanted. I don’t think my father heard what we were saying, but I am sure he felt the disrespect that this behavior communicated. And we were the ones who were supposed to love him.
Maybe that is why he didn’t count on us for help. He never asked us to repeat what somebody said or rearrange the seating at the dinner table to make a place where he could better hear. He didn’t teach us to look at him when we spoke to him so he could lip-read or to speak slowly and clearly. Perhaps he did not know these tricks — the ones I use in my life today to communicate with my family.
So when I saw my children watching me, I recognized the damage I was doing. I was passing down the shame and the embarrassment and the unhealthy behaviors. I needed to break the cycle. It was time to come out of my hearing loss closet. So I did.
I began volunteering with various hearing loss charities and attending monthly chapter meetings of Hearing Loss Association of America, where I developed friendships with other people with hearing loss. It was amazing to talk with others who understood the challenges of hearing loss but led engaging and exciting lives nonetheless. I learned tricks of the trade from the more experienced members of the group and shared some of my own.
My involvement with hearing organizations was a good excuse to be more public about my hearing loss, which I had always kept hidden, modeling my behavior after my father. When my friends asked me why I was involved with HLAA, I would tell them about my hearing loss. Most of them had no idea, but none of them cared. I am not sure why I thought they would.
Eventually, I became a hearing health advocate, joining the national board of HLAA and starting a blog called LivingWithHearingLoss.com to share the ups and downs of living with hearing loss and provide tips for living a vibrant life despite hearing loss. I hope by sharing my stories, I will help others live more comfortably with their own hearing issues.
Coming clean about my hearing loss has made my life much easier. I no longer avoid socializing for fear of embarrassment about not being able to hear. I assume I will find a proactive solution or simply make my apologies and try again another time. I wish my father had been able to experience this freedom before he passed away.
Today things are very different. When my children watch me, they see someone who is comfortable with her hearing loss and does not let her disability hold her back. They see me announce my hearing loss and ask for the accommodations I need. They observe me request quiet tables in restaurants and caption readers at the movies. They have even helped me reorganize an entire Thanksgiving dinner seating plan in real time so that I could have a more hearing-friendly seat.
My children understand the challenges of hearing loss, but they also see that these hardships can be overcome. They will be much better prepared to deal with these obstacles in adulthood should they need to. Mission accomplished.
Here's what you need to know about hearing loss:
1. Hearing loss impacts 48 million Americans, including 20 percent of teens and 60 percent of veterans. Most people with hearing loss (65 percent) are under the age of 65.
2. Hearing loss is associated with many health problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and a higher incidence of dementia. Treating hearing loss with hearing aids and other devices has been shown to decrease this risk.
3. Typical signs of a hearing problem include:
- Finding it difficult to hear in noisy situations
- Hearing speech sounds but having trouble understanding their meaning
- Your family complains the TV is too loud
- You often ask people to repeat themselves
4. Getting your hearing tested at an audiologist or otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) is quick and painless. If you think you might have a hearing problem, get tested. It will provide important information about your health.
5. If you have a hearing loss, don’t ignore it. Treat the problem and continue on with your vibrant and engaging life.