Life and Hearing Loss-Part 1

. . . becoming hearing impaired in the prime of my life

You will almost never see a hearing impaired person in this pose

I became hearing impaired 44 years ago at the ago of 36. I had a bad case of bronchitis with a very high fever and emerged from my illness responding to my family with "what? what?" 5 or 6 times before I could grasp what they were saying to me.

My family was impatient with me. My husband would ask, "!@#$(snarl, expletive deleted) when are you going to get your hearing checked?" My nine year old daughter would roll her eyes heavenward and say, "Oh, Mother, never mind!" And my five year old son would cry - he'd just cry.

It took me months to accept the fact that I was hearing impaired, and the agent of that understanding was my son. One night when I was cooking dinner, he brought a step stool into the kitchen and put it down by the stove. He stood on it and patted my cheek, saying only "Mommy, Mommy," until I stopped what I was doing, lowered the flames, and looked at him. I don't remember what the question was, probably about something he had to do for school, but that gentle outreach by my son was what got me to finally acknowledge that the barrier that came between me and my family, between me and the world, was not something outside - but my own body turning on itself in a sense.

And I was not a stay-at-home mom. I had a job on Wall Street, not a hospitable place for women in the 1970s. That I had moved from Administrative Assistant to Research Assistant to Associate Securities Analyst was never to the liking of the partners of the firm but, due to the threat by my boss that he would walk, I was promoted ... and I was always grateful for his support.

The otologist who confirmed my hearing loss understood the confusion I was in and didn't mistake it for lack of intelligence. He explained the neurology of my problem with clarity and referred me to the audiology lab in the major teaching hospital nearby for further evaluation.

The initial designation was "mild hearing loss in the middle frequencies and moderate hearing loss in the upper frequencies". That doesn't sound too bad, does it?  But, human speech is centered in the middle and upper frequencies, and noise, the stuff of annoyance, is situated in the lower frequencies, where I had no hearing loss. That meant I heard noise better than speech and when I couldn't understand speech, speech itself became noise.

The first thing I realized, oddly: all my life I’d been totally clueless about what it  meant to be hearing-impaired. This cluelessness was not deliberate, just the ignorance of a person who can hear.

Out of all the hearing aids we tested(analog - digital aids were years away), one seemed like it would work. But when the audiologist brought his binder of hearing aid specs, the sound of turning  card stock brochures in a loose-leaf binder made me jump off my chair.

“Oh, that bothered you, did it?” the audiologist said in disappointment. Well, that was that. No hearing aid. And there would be none for five more years.

If I was terrified at work during my state of denial, it was even worse once I knew the truth. Over the years, some partners' objections to me became muted but one or two actively looked for signs of my failure. I could not afford to seem weak or needy.

Hearing-abled people mainly assume others are likewise and often start speaking before they reach their intended listener. Knowing this, I was on alert at all times so I could distinguish between general noise and speech so I could face the person speaking. And, yes, this tenseness involved in being alert was disturbing because I had never had to even think like this when I was hearing-abled.

If my gaze lingered too long on a speaker who (it turned out) was actually talking to someone else, I would get indignant glares which made me look away guiltily. So I developed another social adaptation, which I can only describe as what I think nuns mean by the phrase, custody of the eyes.

Practices such as keeping alert for sounds of speech, checking to see if the voices are meant for you, and custody of the eyes are defense mechanisms the hearing  impaired develop in a world that is fundamentally indifferent, at best, to disability.  And they don't go away when you get hearing aids.  They stay with you for life.   I still practice them all.

A hearing loss early in life has impacts on a child's development, sometimes even when there has been there has been extensive intervention with speech therapists, reading specialists, etc.


A hearing loss at the prime of one's life, pulls the rug out from underneath one.   All the skills one has developed for life seem inadequate, and you don't expect to reinvent the wheel in the prime of life.

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