On Waking Up Deaf

When I first met other people with hearing loss, I was fascinated by their stories, often  inspiring but also heartrending.  Other people had great difficulty in expressing their emotions, and I realized I could help do it for them, by creating  a dramatic, spoken-word depiction of life with hearing loss.  I turned to my friend Dalene Flannigan,  a fellow actor and a brilliant playwright, and the result was Unheard Voices. This performance piece of connected monologues aims to illustrate the impact of hearing loss on not only those who have it, but family, friends, co-workers and even our hearing care professionals. The characters include a woman trying to explain her communication challenges, a man who has been sidelined from his job, a teenager trying to fit in, and the battle between a hearing daughter and her aging mother.

After I had been performing Unheard Voices for a couple of years, several people asked me to include a character experiencing the trauma of sudden deafness. One of the first deaf activists I had met was a woman who went to bed ‘hearing’ and woke up deaf. She and others shared their stories of sudden deafness, and again I turned to Dalene, who created the following monologue which now forms part of Unheard Voices.

 

Scene:  A woman is talking to a retail specialist in a hearing assistive devices store.

blue_jay_pearched_in_a_sweet_gum_tree

 

Wow, I didn’t realize that there would be so many, uh, styles to choose from. I’ve never used one of these vibrators – oh, not a vibrator, you know what I mean – an alarm vibrating-vibrator-thing…

I never needed one – when my husband’s alarm went off in the morning, I never heard it.  I think I’d trained myself to ignore it because it was too early – I could get another hour’s sleep!  David would shower and get ready for work, and just when he went out the door, that was when I had to get up.  But I never needed an alarm – just the sound of the front closing would wake me. It wasn’t loud, just a soft puh-phht!  I always thought it was funny that I wouldn’t hear David’s loud beeping alarm right next to my head – yet I could hear the soft closing of the door downstairs.

Strange, eh, these signals that we don’t think about consciously, yet we respond to? At least, I used to respond….

So, after the door closed, I’d lie in bed bartering with myself for more time. Like, I don’t have to wash my hair this morning, I’ll just pull it back – that’ll save me ten minutes. Or, it’s Wednesday, so Dana, my daughter, doesn’t need a drive this morning – that’s five more. And I always thought that I was lying there just thinking about nothing, but now I know differently.  I was actually listening to things.

We live near a busy road and I could tell the weather by the sound of the tires on the road – slurpy meant it was raining and crunchy meant  it had snowed.  And if Dana’s bedroom door was open, I could hear her breathing,  a sort of snuffling-snore.  There was this one bluejay that used to drive me nuts with his scratchy, high-pitched drone. I put a plastic owl in the tree but he wasn’t fooled. And, like clockwork, I’d hear the tapping of my dog’s nails on the hardwood as she paced between her food bowl and the bottom of the stairs, waiting for me to serve her breakfast.

I heard all of this before I got out of bed – before I even opened my eyes. This was before…that morning.

That morning I woke – this is ironic – and sat bolt upright, startled, as if someone had banged a drum or shot a gun or something. My heart was pounding. I listened for something unusual – the sounds of a burglar, maybe?  Nothing, thank god. I breathed a sigh of relief – and that was it,  the precise moment when my whole world changed.

I didn’t hear my breath. My own breath.

I didn’t wake up because of a loud noise – I woke up because of nothing.  A silence so deafening that it woke me.  And it  terrified me.  I shook my head, to be sure I was really awake and not trapped in some nightmare – which of course, I was.

“Hello?” I said politely, as if answering the phone. “Hello!?”

(She is now very upset.)  Um…they say it was a virus of some sort. They’re not sure. Just some virus…!

But boy, did my life change – and my job! I used to be glued to the phone and now I have to learn how to communicate, all over again.  Now, I’m texting and my life is full of all these things that vibrate and have  flashing lights. I’m working on my speechreading – and the whole family is learning sign language, but the kids are better at it than me.

You know, it’s like being tossed into the deep end to learn how to swim. It was blind panic – I had zero coping skills. And the thing about tossing someone into the deep end is that – if  they can’t get the hang of swimming fast enough – they drown.  But not me, no way, I’m treading water now…and I’ll be swimming laps soon…and…

(She pulls herself together, tries for humor.)

Well, I’m sure you’ve heard all this before, working here and all.  Um, this one here will be fine, I guess. Yes, I’ll take it, thank you.  Uh, does it come with instructions?  You know, if I ever thought of buying a vibrator for the bedroom – I’m sure I never thought of this

 

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

2 Comments

  1. Hello Gael:

    Thanks for the monologue and bringing some attention to Sudden Hearing Loss Syndrome (SHLS) I think it’s now called. This happened to me as well when I was 28 years old and in my fourth year of university (as an older student on temporary leave from the workforce), where I was studying to be a teacher where being able to communicate effectively is extremely important. However, unlike many others who lost their hearing during sleep, mine happened when I was wide awake and I’ll never forget it. It was a Friday afternoon about 3:00 pm (and I day dreaming about going to the pub after class), and I wasn’t paying much attention to my professor (sorry about that Mr. Chapman, but it was Friday afternoon after all). However, I suddenly realized that something was different; it was like I had an aura about me and it was as if I was an observer of events around me, rather than an active participant as I was supposed to be. Similar to the lady of your monologue, I became aware a, “silence so deafening that it woke me”, out of my daydream and made me realize that something wasn’t right. It was like watching a movie at first with the sound off where I could see the picture, but only see the lips moving, however, I then realized that the sound wasn’t turned off, my hearing was for some reason. Well, needless to say, it was quite the shock to my system and unfortunately, we didn’t know about steroid injections and the 72 hour treatment window then. But now we do and your monologue will help bring some awareness of the issue. Thanks!

  2. Our CART reporter for our HLAA Chapter woke up deaf one morning. Her family physician scheduled an appointment two weeks away. She knew immediate attention was needed. An appointment with an otologist (ear specialist) was scheduled the same day and her hearing was saved. Sudden deafness must be treated within 72 hours.

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