Can you HEAR me NOW?

(appeared in Sept. 2014 Missouri Hearing Society Newsletter)

Two college boys shout at me across the living room, their white cotton shirts lifted with one hand to conceal their mouths.

“Can you hear me?” “What about now?”

“Hey! Hey! Can you hear me?”

They shout at me through the fabric assuming I can’t hear them. I can.

“What am I saying now?” the first says, proceeding to speak softly once more through the shirt.

The other is laughing, his shirt falling back below to his neck. “Dude, that’s not nice!” he shouts at the first who is still speaking to me through the thick curtain of white threads.

“Did you hear what I said?” he asks pulling his shirt down off his face. “Did you hear me?” he asks laughing.

I heard him, but I didn’t hear him.

Everyone has something they are ashamed of. For me, it has always been my ears.

It began when I was 13, but it wasn’t noticeable until I was a junior in high school. My parents and friends simply believed me to have an incredible ability to focus and zone out against distractions. I let them think that for a long time. When my teachers started asking questions about it at parent-teacher conferences junior year, my parents realized it wasn’t focusing. I couldn’t avoid the truth anymore.

My ears weren’t normal. They still aren’t normal.

In high school I could hear just a little bit better than my then 45-year-old father, which as anyone can tell you wasn’t great. I didn’t believe my parents when they said I had hearing loss, and I stubbornly refused to be tested or conserve what little hearing I did still have. An avid runner year-round, I blasted music through snug-fitting headphones and from the stereo while driving to the barn, the volume so high that my car windows vibrated.

By the time college came, my hearing had deteriorated further, and when I was tested, it showed a significant loss in both the ranges of volume and frequency. As a freshman and sophomore I was still incredibly ashamed of my hearing loss, feeling as thought it made me an alien, an outsider, someone with a disability that made everyone treat me differently. I avoided telling anyone I could about it including teachers, new friends, roommates and boys I dated.

When someone found out, the ensuing look on his or her face was so painful, so shameful, that I did everything I could to avoid it. I often stayed in, avoiding parties and bars so as to avoid the possibility of someone finding out I couldn’t hear normally. I avoided dating or getting close to people. I avoided concerts, football games and anywhere where there was loud talking, loud music or where it was dark.

Why? Because at these places, some people, when they did found out – often sadly because my best friend drunkenly told them- would suddenly do a double-take, stumble in our previously flowing conversation and make an excuse to leave. Instead of being the girl they had just been flirting with, I became a leper, someone they were disgusted or disturbed by.

My hearing loss made me abnormal. It made me ashamed. It made me hide. It made me frustrated.

Despite my attempts to avoid loud music and to actively conserve my hearing loss, by junior year of college, my hearing had progressively worsened to affect not only my personal relationships but also my ability in the classroom. While throughout high school and the first couple years of college I had been able to take notes, hear the professors and perform spectacularly from any location in an auditorium, come junior year, if I wasn’t in the front row I might as well have not been in class.

At this point my hearing was so degraded that I ceased to feel normal at all.

I could not hear my professors from the back, side, or even middle of the room, and if their face wasn’t visible from where I sat, their words, though heard, were indistinguishable from sounds one hears from a babbling child. I could hear music, but I could not understand more than five words of the lyrics for the entire song. I could hear TV shows and movies at the theatre, but I could not tell you what was said, what was going on, or even sometimes if someone was actually speaking; subtitles became a necessity. I could no longer hear the birds sing in the morning or the whistles blown at swim meets and football games. I could not interpret words on the radio, nor words spoken through a microphone. Bars became my own personal Hell and school was suddenly hard for the first time in my entire life.

What I could hear, I couldn’t understand. What I couldn’t hear, I grieved the loss of it.

Hearing became work, the mere act of trying to listen as exhausting as running eight 400m sprints all out. I struggled to hear professors speak and often left class in tears born of frustration and anger.

I hated myself and sometimes my family for this problem, after all it was genetic. I even hated my brother sometimes, for until me, only the men in my family had experienced such significant hearing loss. But above all, I hated everyone else for being normal.

At a certain point, my shame lost its driving force. I had to choose between struggling in silence or finding a way to adapt and work with my hearing loss instead of against it. In fact, for me as journalism major, letting go of my shame and embracing the courage to open up was absolutely essential.

I was a sports reporter. Reporters have to interview – in person and on the phone. I am horrible on the phone, it is my other Hell, and interviews today are still a nightmare. But with an entire summer ahead on the sports beat and an editor who demanded nothing but the best, I had no choice. I sucked it up. I braced the wind and told them all.

I told my editor, Greg Bowers, first; in an email and months before the summer would start. He called me into his office. We met, we talked, but he didn’t seem to fully grasp my hearing loss. He would understand better later on. So would some of the other editors I would work with.

My hearing that summer was so bad that people often had to call my name multiple times until I heard them, and this was often the case in the bustling, noisy, phones-always-ringing newsroom environment of the Columbia Missourian. I got in trouble a few times with people and professors who thought I was ignoring them, being rude or arrogant. They did not think so after I explained I couldn’t hear them.

By the end of the summer, I had 32 published articles and had gained the respect of my editors and peers. By the end of the summer, I’d told the entire newsroom and my 70-plus article sources the following: “I have significant hearing loss, auditory and phonetic, so I apologize if I make you repeat things.” And, by the end of the summer, I realized I’d learned to work with my hearing loss.

I had subconsciously learned to read lips. I had instinctively figured out how to do my job without my ears. I had adapted, using my eyes to counteract the lack of my ears.

And, I had gotten so good, so incredibly good at reading lips, that I hadn’t even realized I’d done it until the end of the summer.

My sources never knew I did this, reading their lips. They simply believed me to be mature for my age, professional and attentive, for I always looked them in the eye. They knew I had hearing loss, because I told them, but none of them ever realized how bad I had it, never realized that in reading their lips I was masking how severe my disability really was.

And, that in truth is what it is. A disability. I have a disability.

It is not as severe as others, and I can’t say I suffer as those without limbs, without sight or without certain physiological capabilities do. My disability doesn’t actually keep me from doing anything; it just makes everything a little bit harder. But, it is still a disability, and it affects who I am and how I can do things.

I had to accept this – having a disability. I had to label it what it was – hearing loss, a disability. I had to accept that no matter what I tried, whom I prayed to or what stars I wished upon, nothing would make my hearing normal again. I had to accept that it was irrevocable, a permanent element of who I was.

Acceptance is a powerful thing. Acceptance allowed me to let go of the anger, to accept and work through the frustration. It allowed me to realize nothing was impossible but that I just had to find a different way of doing it. Acceptance gave me pride and cast away my shame.

Acceptance made me open, honest and carefree about my damaged ears. It made me brave.

Months after the summer term, a professor and editor at the Missourian, Elizabeth Brixey, pulled me aside and asked me about reading lips. She asked how I did it without my sources knowing and if it help in my interviewing. I told her it did help, that it made me a better reporter because it created constant eye contact and interaction with the source. Reading lips forced me to look more at the person and less at my pad of paper, forced me to listen intently, remember more and write faster. When she asked me how I did it, I couldn’t really answer her.

I tried to explain how I did it, but I couldn’t. I realized after she left me that while my father’s and uncle’s later hearing loss had forced them to learn to read lips, mine in coming on sooner and faster had forced me to do so long without knowing it. Nature had gifted me with compensation; my eyes instinctively counteracting the degradation of my ears. I couldn’t explain to Prof. Brixey how I read my sources’ lips without them realizing it, because I didn’t know how I did it. I simply did it. I still do it.

And, you know what’s funny? My hearing loss really did make me a better reporter. In having to adapt, in having to listen harder and work harder, I interviewed better and wrote better. My hearing loss landed me awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors Association, the Missouri Press Association and the Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence.

It’s still hard living and working with my hearing loss, and on a daily basis I struggle with it. It’s hard to speak on the phone or have quiet intimate conversations. Secrets are annoying and frustrating, and I only go to movies at home in Dallas because they have captioned showings. My friends, family and loved ones are all understanding, and while sometimes they get frustrated with me, never once do they make me feel stupid, ashamed or different. 

It will always be hard. I do and will always struggle personally and professionally every day.

But, every day, to whomever I meet, new or old, I tell them or remind them: “I have hearing loss, so please bear with me.”

I don’t say I’m sorry anymore, because I’m not going to apologize for who I am.

I am disabled, and that isn’t going to change.

I’ll never hear the birds sing or understand TV and music without captions. I’ll never be privy to whispered secrets and romantic bed-talk spoken in hushed tones is something I will never be able to appreciate.

I have hearing loss, and it is a disability. I will never be normal, and that’s ok. I will always have this problem, but I won’t be ashamed.

So I can’t hear…

So what?

I’m not different. I’m not stupid. I’m successful, driven, smart, an award-winning journalist and in love.

I’m not different from you, and depending on who you are, I may even be better.

So again…I can’t hear…

So what?

What’s your point?

Exactly…There isn’t one.

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