T’was The Night Before Xmas

T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house
Deaf people were stressing, it’s far from grouse
The hearing coming, deaf slumped in a chair
Lipreading, socialising, its really not fair ….

Christmas is a time to be jolly. It is a time to sit back and relax. It is when you catch up with family and share the love. A tipple or two is to be had. The diet goes out the window. Hugs and kisses abound. It’s a great time for many, but Xmas often highlights awkward social issues and compounds them. This is especially so if you are deaf. While the cheer and gatherings of the holidays are a welcome break for many, some find this time more difficult. For those in the Deaf community, the holidays amplify existing challenges.” Pfieffer, 2020..

For me, 2022 was quite a tough year. It began with so much promise. I was leading a team of very dedicated advocates. One other, whom I was not leading, was deaf too. I felt I belonged and was enjoying the role immensely. And then it happened, as it often does within an organisation designed for people with a disability. An abelist and non disabled person spoils it. To cut a long story short, when I complained about the appalling behaviour of this person to the Board, that person turned on me. Gaslighting and victimisation ensued.

“Screw this ..” I said to my wife. At 57 I just wanted to enjoy my work. I tendered my resignation, with her full support. The Board didn’t want to accept my resignation. I said to them that I was willing to reconsider but under no circumstances would I continue to work with this person. The Board had no choice really, they accepted my resignation.

Before my last day at this organisation, I had found another job. I had two jobs to choose from but the one I chose allowed me to return back to my roots and work with the Deaf community again. I am loving it, but come Xmas I was tired. It had been over a year since I’d had a proper holiday. I was looking forward to a break at our holiday home in Adelaide. In fact, I was craving the break. My expectations for a relaxing break were high.

It is fair to say that both my wife and I were exhausted last year. Working in human services can sometimes take its toll. People you are assisting are often going through difficult times. The behaviour and support of these people needs careful consideration and management. Human suffering or stress can be difficult to experience. It’s not always possible to remain untouched by it.

I am sure I speak for many in this area when I say dealing with the trauma of others can be draining. In a year I have experienced other peoples depression, suicide attempts, family break ups, deaths and cost of living trauma. Human services workers are not made of Teflon, it sticks sometimes. Hence, I am sure many of my colleagues in this area, including my wife, were hanging out for the break.

But for my wife and I that break involved Xmas gatherings of of mostly hearing people of which she and I were the only deaf people. We were both looking forward to it, but it is fair to say we had a fair amount of anxiety and apprehension about what we were about to confront.

We arrived in Adelaide on the 22nd December. Unfortunately, the people who had been renting our house short-term left a mess. We had been hoping that we could just wind down and relax. Alas no, we had to clean up the house as quickly as we could before our ‘hearing’ guests arrived. This was stress we could have done without.

Our first guests were my wife’s family. They are all wonderful people. They came for drinks on Xmas Eve. It’s fair to say that my wife and I were buggered having spent the best part of the day cleaning up and taking rubbish to the tip. Our defenses were pretty low. We all sat outside on the balcony and the conversation was rapid. Following the conversation was hard work. After about an hour I just wanted to crawl into bed. I looked over at my wife and I fancy she was feeling just the same.

This year was different from years gone by. I had an iPad with voice to text technology. It is very good and very accurate. I turned it on and tried my best to pick up the gist of the conversation. The technology is not designed for rapid fire conversations. Of course, with a social gathering there is never one conversation. To the left a couple of people might be talking about theatre. Across the table they were talking about Covid, to my right it seemed they were talking about sunsets and the beaches. All of this was coming up in text at the same time. It wasn’t perfect but I managed to join in bits and pieces of the conversation.

Not so long ago this would not have been possible. What I used to do is find someone who was easy to lipread and try to chat with them. Inevitably after a time that person would tire of just me and seek out others. As I got older, rather than make the effort, I just withdrew. I would find a quiet corner with my beer and hope that people would ignore me. Alas, this rarely happened. Some kind soul, seeing me on my own, would come over and try to chat. Often these kind souls are really hard to lipread. Conversations would be difficult and halting. It will surprise no one that I and my wife are often the first to leave these hearing gatherings. The exhaustion and effort is often just too much.

Christmas Day arrived. Being chief cook, I was up early preparing the food. My wife joined me and this was sort of the calm before the storm. My adult kids woke up and my eldest arrived with his partner and step-son. It was fun. My kids are obviously deaf aware. We began to open presents and then my sister arrived early to help.

That was fine. She is easy to lipread as is my brother in-law, John. Then everyone else began to arrive. My nephews and their partners. Suddenly the house was full of chatter as the ‘hearing’ greeted each other. I looked over at my wife, she seemed to be in a mild panic. “What’s up?” I asked. She said she was feeling overwhelmed. I tried to reassure her but if I am honest, I was feeling exactly the same.

These situations give rise to a lot of social anxiety. Society has these unwritten rules of conformity. We had guests in our house. It is our job to make them feel welcome. It is our job to show an interest in them. It is expected and my wife and I are acutely aware of this.

But it is hard. Everyone is chatting. You have no clue what they are talking about. How do you interrupt? How do you join a conversation when you don’t know what people are talking about? I look around and people greet me and smile at me. Sometimes they say something and I have no idea what they have said. I often pretend that I do. It’s awkward and it is stressful. But I had my iPad, it would be different this year. But fuck! It was flat and I had to charge it so first hour was a complete blur. (Not helped by the fact that I mucked up the turkey.)

I looked around for my wife. She had taken herself outside. She was with a small group that included my brother in-law. I joined them. The chaos of conversation inside had worn me out. Later my wife was to tell me that she was so thankful for John. He is laid back and makes sure you understand him. He helped her to relax. I spent a fair bit of time out there with them too. So exhausted and stressed was I, that I didn’t even have anything to eat!

Later my iPad charged and I went inside and had some conversations and mingled. I couldn’t catch everything with the iPad but I managed to find out what people were talking about. Holiday homes, wine, dogs, sick family members, work, music, Melbourne vs Adelaide – Just lots of random stuff. It was actually brilliant having them all there and after a time I began to enjoy myself. When they all left I was kind of sad but also thankful. I was spent.

And that was the pattern for the whole holiday. New Years Eve was spent with my sister in-law and her partners family. It was lovely and they made us feel very welcome. This time I remembered to charge the iPad. This being a smaller gathering, it was easier to get involved. A retired ophthalmologist was talking shop and it was fascinating. My sister in-laws partner was talking single malt whisky. Her partners mother was chatting about the loathsome Scott Morrison and the equally loathsome Royal Family. Before the technology, I would have had no clue.

There were a couple there that I met for the first time. They were fascinated with the iPad technology. They asked me how long I had been deaf, except the caption came up as dead. I said that I was very much alive. They look confused and I explained that the caption had come up as dead instead of deaf. Laughter all round.

Later my wife and I retreated to the kitchen and just sat together. A week of communicating and concentrating had caught up with us and we needed a little time out. I apologized to the host for being so unsociable. The host said not to worry, she understood that for us the communication was hard work and told us to take all the time that we needed. I thanked her. The empathy was very much appreciated.

And that was my Xmas. It was great to see everyone. It may not seem it, but I really did enjoy catching up with them all. But it is hard work. These gatherings give rise to a lot of anxiety and they wear me out. This is what it is like for many deaf people the world over who have to fit in to a hearing world.

It’s bittersweet. Returning to work can be almost respite.

I think the deafness affects me more than I realise; I think it makes me more tired. I loathe parties. I attend, smile and leave.

Stephanie Beacham


2 thoughts on “T’was The Night Before Xmas

  1. Your article about the Deaf experience of communicating in hearing family get-togethers resonated with me. After years of trying to keep up (and missing out on) hearing family conversations, I, too, developed anxiety and exhaustion. Eventually, I stopped going to these gatherings. My Deaf husband would still go, because those gatherings comprised mostly of his family and relatives. Yet, he still missed out on most of their conversations. No one appeared to think about how isolating it felt to be the only two Deaf people in our hearing family. I found that, as I became older, lip-reading became much harder to maintain. I simply didn’t have the mental energy to keep up with the rapid hearing conversations, even on one-on-one levels for a long amount of time. I also noticed that when hearing people talk, they can look around, thus resting their eyes. For me, I have to concentrate with my eyes on one person with no chance of eye rest. I became mentally and physically tired. Not only that, I noticed that, when my husband and I started a topic to make a conversation, it was taken up quickly by the hearing and duscussed among themselves. We were left out, because we could not follow their conversations nor all the lip-patterns at once. So, I declared to my husband, “Enough is enough! I’m not going to any more hearing family gatherings.” This went on for a few years. Then, something positive and beneficial happened for Deaf senior citizens like us – free interpreting services. Hooray!

    At the next family Christmas gathering, I brought along my interpreter. What a BIG difference that made! My husband and I were able to follow all the family news (even shocked about things we were the last to know). At first, the family weren’t comfortable having a stranger in their midst. Then, over time, they realised how much we were able to participate in their conversations through an interpreter. Now, they are used to us bringing interpreters into future family gatherings. By exercising our need (and right) for an interpreter, we now feel more inclusive in hearing gatherings. Now, I look forward to those family gatherings.

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