“Were you born with ‘it’?”
I get this question a lot when I, and my hearing loss, meet someone for the first time. Sometimes they ask hesitantly, not sure what to call ‘the problem’, which they indicate with little finger jabs at their own ear.
Talking about hearing loss is usually one of my favorite things to do, and I’m drawn like a bug to the light by anyone wearing a hearing aid. (Aha, one of my people!) When someone asks me about hearing loss, either mine or generally speaking, they often get more information than they expected or wanted. How long the discussion lasts depends on my mood, whether the person is really interested, how much time I want to spend with this person, or how quickly they cut me off. “Gee, how nice, thanks for sharing.”
The Short Discussion is usually conducted with strangers, as a ‘sidebar’ to a conversation when I’ve had to ask the person to repeat themselves or speak up.
“Uh, how long have you had ‘it’?”
“All my life.”
“So, you were born with it, then?”
“Oh, wow. Do they know what..you know…?”
The Long Discussion might take place at social gatherings or at work where there’s more time to chat with a new friend or colleague. And Long Discussions are the backbone of consumer hearing loss conferences where people love to share their stories – and where you are honor-bound to sit through many tales of lifelong hearing loss and a traumatic recitation of past, horrible hearing aids. But the payoff comes when they are done and you can launch into your own hearing loss history, which they in turn must sit through, to the end! Luckily, most people and their stories are interesting, and there are useful tips to be learned from experienced hard of hearing people. (“Do not, as I did”, one person told me, “EVER put your hearing aid on the kitchen shelf while you are making a pie, or it too may be baked at 350° for one hour.” No danger of that, as I don’t bake.)
But I have come to understand why some people prefer to keep the fact of their hearing loss to themselves unless absolutely necessary. There are times – and this is a big confession for an avowed hearing health advocate – when I’m simply not in the mood to discuss my hearing loss or anyone else’s. Sometimes I’m just too impatient to handle the stream of well-meant questions that I’ve answered a thousand times before. This includes the jokers who, when I ask them to speak up, fire back a “pardon?” and then expect me to laugh as if it were the first time I’d ever heard this corny joke. (You have to be careful, though. Last week an airline check-in staffperson dished back a ‘pardon’ and, because I wanted to humor her into letting me pre-board, I just laughed at her joke. Turned out she was hard of hearing and I did some fancy footwork to show I was not an insensitive traveler who should be stuffed in the overhead compartment.)
Other inner sigh-inducing questions:
How old is your hearing loss? (73)
Really? How old ARE you? (59…)
Where did it come from? (An airborne virus)
How many ears is it in? (Three)
Do you use that sign language? (Just the cussing signs. Wanna see one?)
Is there anything that can be done for it? (Cooked spinach, but I can’t stand the stuff.)
Do you read lips? (Yes, but not yours.)
OK, can you guess what I’m saying? (Oh, Holy Mother o’ Fred, kill me now!)
In my experience, people asking questions are truly interested in your hearing loss and for several reasons:
- They are amazed at how ‘normal’ you look and/or how ‘well’ you speak.
- They suspect a personal hearing loss and are digging for useful information
- They have a close family member with hearing loss who is driving them crazy and they need to vent.
- They’re nicer than you and simply curious about life.
The occasional bad mood aside, I welcome these questions because the conversation often circles back to their hearing issues. There was a time when I was the one in need of information and this is an opportunity to pay it forward – to encourage the person to seek professional hearing care, to recommend a hearing loss consumer group, to suggest some informative websites.
And with all these questions, both the simple and the silly, what people are really asking is – I am struggling with the loss of hearing in my life; how are things going to change for me and am I going to be OK?
And the best thing we can do is say, “Got a minute? Let’s chat.”