Although I sometimes wish for a cure that would let me hear normally again, hearing loss has brought unexpected gifts into my life. I admit this grudgingly. Losing my hearing is an unwelcome—and often painful—experience for me.
I first noticed I was missing some everyday sounds and people seemed to be mumbling. This began some 20 years ago while in the throes of a hard-won career working with individuals with disabilities and other marginalized people. My work was meaningful and important to me. The fear I might have hearing loss—and its possible effect on my ability to do my work—hit me with a wave of anxiety and uncertainty. I postponed a hearing test for months before taking the plunge. Finally, sitting in a soundproof booth, I strained to hear the tones and sounds of the hearing test as well as I could. When it was over, the technician shrugged off my questions and simply told me I needed hearing aids.
My hearing loss has gradually increased over the years, and I continue to strain and push myself in those hearing tests as if the outcome will make it easier for me to hear in the real world. The cruel reality of hearing loss isn’t that voices aren’t loud enough to hear, it’s the nuances of speech that can be missed or misinterpreted. Even wearing high tech, expensive hearing aids, which take time getting used to, I’m dependent on reading environmental cues, or lip reading. Background noises, someone speaking who has an accent, someone whispering, and riding in a car are stiff competitors in what feels like a contest to carry on a basic conversation. I must accept that no matter how hard I try, there are situations where I’m not going to hear or hear as well as I want to.
I continued to work for many years and was able to meet my clients’ needs and concerns, as well as participate in meetings with parents, caregivers, staff members, and colleagues. I felt I had accepted my hearing loss and successfully managed how it affected my life. But I didn’t anticipate my hearing would continue to get worse.
At first, I was able to manage using well-worn strategies of lip reading and by letting others know—even though I wore hearing aids—I had trouble hearing some things. I would say things like, “I want to be sure I’m hearing you, could you say that again?” Or repeat what I had heard them say. Despite these and other tactics, I feared what people thought of me. I’d feel embarrassed and that somehow this was my fault—I wasn’t trying hard enough. Being completely identified with my role as a competent, highly trained professional didn’t leave room for self-doubt and feels of worthlessness.
I started playing it safe so there was no risk embarrassment or feeling left out by skipping meetings (the work that connected me to others), avoiding talking with colleagues, and keeping questions on an interesting talk to myself, lest I give away that I didn’t hear something.
When an old friend I hadn’t seen in many years became impatient with having to repeat something she said to me, and got annoyed at having to face me when she spoke or say something another way, I was hurt and angry. But I also became curious about what was happening. Slowly, it dawned on me that her impatience mirrored my own. I was impatient with myself when I didn’t hear, and I didn’t show myself enough compassion in my struggle to stay connected.
Seeing through my friend what I was doing to myself, I was able to step back and reconsider the path I want my life to take despite hearing loss. Do I want to stick with what is familiar and comfortable? Or do I allow myself to be a whole person who happens to have hearing loss? Fear, embarrassment, and feeling dismissed may still accompany me, but I can choose to listen to my heart and passion rather than the raspy voice of my inner critic. The choice is mine, I can hear it.
Sandra MacLeod is an educator and clinician who works with individuals with disabilities, chronic health concerns and dementia. She is passionate about creating positive environments that foster well-being and growth. She loves trail running, hiking, and kayaking on the beautiful Olympic Peninsula in Washington, where she lives with her husband and three cats.
Hearing Loss: More than not being able to hear the TV
Avoiding treatment for hearing loss can keep us isolated from others, but it has a bigger cost in putting us at risk for dementia. According to research conducted at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, hearing loss is one of the major, but modifiable, risk factors for dementia, yet only 15-20% of Americans who have hearing loss seek treatment. If you have hearing loss, hearing aids can help reduce your risk of dementia by keeping you socially connected, and your brain stimulated and active.
The process of finding a hearing aid provider and managing the fears and judgments that may come along for the ride can be daunting. Here are some suggestions to get started on your path to better hearing and brain health: