Shirley Stott Despoja’s recent posting on bullying took me back to when I lost my hearing. I lost my hearing between the ages of 8 and 10. Young enough for me to realise what was happening but not mature enough to realise how it would impact on me.
My overriding memory is how it impacted on those around me. Particularly my parents. Doctor appointments were frequent. Discussions went on between Doctor and parents while I just sat quietly watching it all unfold. I had enough hearing to understand what they were saying. I had several surgeries and after the first one to rebuild my eardrum I can still recall the conversation:
DR: The surgery was a complete success, a complete success. It is baffling why there has not been a significant increase in his hearing. (I was always ‘his’ never mentioned by name.)
Mum: But will it improve? (Asked in a panic stricken voice.)
Dr: Absolutely no reason it should not. ‘His’ inner ear is very healthy and everything has healed beautifully.
Suitably relieved both my mum and I went home thinking all would be ok. But of course it was not. It got worse so that by age 10 I had a severe to profound hearing loss.
As my hearing began to drop the Dr refused to acknowledge it. My parents also refused to acknowledge it. I remember that my parents sought a second opinion as to whether I was deaf or not. It was recommended that I get a hearing aid without delay. My mother went into mini-hysterics insisting I did not need one, was not getting one etc. My father, who had taken me to the appointment, tried to convince her that perhaps it was time. But she was adamant. There was no way I was getting a hearing aid, all would be fine. A classic case of denial.
At one stage the Dr actually tried to blame me for my hearing loss. He suggested that it might be psychological. I was sent to a psychiatrist for an evaluation. Nothing came of it of course but I vividly remember being in a room with a group of kids with severe behavioral problems. They screamed, threw things, punched and kicked. The safest thing to do was to sit quietly in a corner and read a Dr Seus book. The the psychiatrist actually suggested that my hearing loss might be related to being withdrawn and shy. But as I said, nothing came of it. It was just a bizarre period of my life.
The attitudes of those around me had impact. My mother refusing to accept I needed a hearing aid, the Dr suggesting it was my fault and my parents constantly talking about hearing loss in a negative way led me to believe that deafness was a bad thing, something to be hidden and ashamed of. I eventually did get a hearing aid. This was put on in the toilet where no one could see. Hair was grown long so no one could see the aid. The shame and embarrassment factor was reinforced by people saying -“You cant even see it.” Kids are impressionable and I certainly was.
As my hearing began to drop I became quite paranoid about it. I would wake up of a morning an issue a few grunts “UH UH UH UH” in different pitches to check I could still hear. I would bang on my bed-head to make sure I could hear the noise. Check that I could hear the birds outside and the next door neighbours dog. The morning my mother woke me up and I realised I could not hear her voice at all. That has stayed with me forever.
What really gets you when you lose your hearing is how people’s attitudes towards you change suddenly. As a kid I was great at sport. When they selected teams I was one of the first chosen by the captains. Suddenly I was the last. Friends thought it was hilarious to test my lipreading ability, “Are you a girl?”, they would mouth or “Are you a poof?” I knew what they were saying and would always answer “yes” just to see their reaction. Needless to say I found out who my true friends were very quickly.
Looking back I realise I was an incredibly strong character. I just took it all in and tried to make sense of it. But the image of shame and embarrassment associated with hearing loss is always my first memory. I once wagged school for 14 days in a row before the school saw fit to call my parents. I wagged it because I got fed up of teachers pressuring me to wear my hearing aids. I left hearing aid batteries at home, dropped ear moulds down the toilet and deliberately lost hearing aids. The hearing aids were the thing – without them at least no-one would think I was different. Another classic case of denial.
I’m 44 now and an active member of the Deaf community. My job is with the disability sector. Deafness has taken me all over Australia and overseas. I’ve made it my life and I would not change it for quids. It is character building, it is interesting and most of all it is me. But I don’t kid myself, losing ones hearing is hard work and people did and do treat me differently. It takes time to adapt – some people do and many do not. It is certainly true that being young I was more adaptable but there was pain involved in adapting and it never fully goes away.