I'm losing my hearing

I fear that deafness will lead to isolation

Published June 6, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I'm losing my hearing. This is not new. I've known since I was 17 that this would be a problem. And here, 15 years later, it is becoming a problem. It's starting to affect my life in little ways: hearing aids, not being able to watch television or movies without captions, missing things, getting names wrong, not hearing the timer or the kettle boiling. And yet, most people I know and interact with have no idea. Strangers at the store or the bus stop would never know. It will probably be many years before I get to a point where I can no longer pretend I can hear as well as everyone else.

I had a new hearing test recently. I hate them, sitting there in a stuffy, soundproofed room trying to distinguish the faint ringing playing in my ears from the constant ringing in my head. So, I don't go very often if I can help it. It's been about four years since my last one, eight years since I was first told I need hearing aids. But this last one was different. They asked me, as always, to repeat words from a list. It was easy, I nailed it. Well, I was pretty sure I got all but one of the words. Apparently I missed 32 percent of them.

This is new, this is worse, and I'm falling apart over it.

The rational part of me tells me that nothing is different from yesterday, you knew this was coming, your hearing today is the same as it was yesterday and the test itself won't change anything. The irrational part of me was apparently living with some denial and can't talk about it without tearing up.

The irrational part of me wishes my hearing, if it's going to go, would go all at once, so it could be a big deal and not just me being a drama queen. All of me is worried that as the hearing goes and the communication challenges mount, I will become even more introverted and antisocial and alone in this world.

I accept that this sucks, that nobody can make it better, that technology can help but won't make the problem go away. I guess what I'm looking for is a way to look at this, a way to live with the constant little losses and the big slow loss, a way to deal with the depressing hearing tests to come with grace. I'd appreciate any insight you can offer.

Not Deaf Yet

Dear Not Deaf Yet,

I suggest that you make it your life's mission to join the global community of deaf and hearing-impaired people. By joining them you will help them and by helping them you will acquire dignity and hope and knowledge.

Dignity and hope and knowledge are what you will need in the years ahead.

I kid you not, I walked around for days thinking, How am I going to answer this? If it were in the past I would know what to do. But it is not something that has occurred. It is something that is occurring and will occur.

One reason I walked around for days wondering how I would answer this is that I am listening to Bach's Sonata No. 5 in F Minor and it is lifting me up. It may be sad but it is lifting me up and I depend on being lifted up out of my  worry from time to time or life is too much for me.

So then I asked, What will lift you up in the years ahead? And the answer, I think, is the wonderful spirit and support of the worldwide deaf community.

According to Wikipedia, in deaf culture, "Deafness is not generally considered a condition that needs to be fixed."

I have been through tough times and so have you. You know how to do this. Seek out your people and stay close to them, letting them buoy you up in times of uncertainty and sadness and doing the same for them when they need it.

That's your life course now. That's your "trajectory." Get to know as many people in deaf community as you can. Learn the manners and lore and history. Learn how hearing-impaired people have lived throughout history.

It's not complicated. It's the same for every human: Your job is to consciously,  intensely, bravely become who you are.

Things you don't think about when you are a hearing person: I was sitting here typing and heard my wife come in and start doing stuff behind me and I spoke to her without turning around and she answered. We had a conversation without looking at each other and didn't even realize how amazing it is to be able to do that. (I guess you could say the ability to hear is a gift.)

Anyway, you can get through this. You know that. This is not World War II and people got through World War II. You can get through this. You can have a good life. It will be different from the lives of your current friends, who are not going deaf. But it will be a good life. You do not have to exclude your current friends. But you do need to make new friends. And you will need to educate your current friends about, say, not talking to you with their backs turned.

Some other things I came across:

It looks like there are about half a million deaf people in the United States ... depending on how you define it:
"Hence, one may begin with the assumption that when figuring the size of the truly-deaf population -- those who cannot hear at all -- one can come up with a figure of approximately 578,000 deaf individuals in a total 2008 population of 304,059,724." Defining the size of the deaf population is hard. It's complicated.

Finally, and somewhat tangentially, from Nabokov's "Pale Fire":

What moment in the gradual decay
Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?
Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism: other men die; but I
Am not another; therefore I'll not die.
Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time
A singing in the ears. In this hive I'm
Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had
Been able to imagine life, what mad,
Impossible, unutterably weird
Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!

By Cary Tennis

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