How I broke the cycle of hearing loss shame
I remember the exact moment I noticed my hearing loss. We were in the midst of a heated class discussion at graduate school, when one student made a funny comment, almost as an aside. The room exploded in laughter, everyone except for me. I quickly scanned the room for visible clues to the joke, but there were none. I glanced at my seatmate who was laughing and then I started to laugh too, loudly and fully so nobody would know I had not heard.
My father did this all the time. I would see the flash of confusion on his face, the panicked shift of his eyes for clues, followed by his own boisterous laughter, sounding hollow because he didn’t know why he was laughing. But, now I did. He had hearing loss and had not heard the punch line of the joke. He laughed because he didn’t want anyone to know.
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Because my hearing loss is genetic, I was able to recognize the signs more readily than most people. Hearing loss often occurs gradually, so it can sneak up on you. You may start to have difficulty hearing in noisy environments or think the television sound system is on the fritz. You can hear some people well, but others have started to mumble everything. Communication has become more tiring and you may start to avoid social situations and talking on the telephone.
If this seems familiar to you, it may be time for a hearing test.
My father never accepted his hearing loss and it took a huge toll on everyone. It damaged his career, broke up my parent’s marriage and left him with few friends later in his life. Stigma and fear of embarrassment seemed to outweigh any desire he had for community or companionship. His hearing loss was an unmentionable and hung over our family life like a dark cloud.
So that moment in class when I laughed without hearing the punch line was like an explosion. I was terrified that it would leave me sad and alone. I wanted better.
60% of people with hearing loss are under retirement age
I went for a hearing test. Early signs of hearing loss were confirmed, but the audiologist said it was too soon to do anything about it. When my hearing loss worsened, I purchased my first pair of hearing aids. They helped a lot, but I worried about wearing them as my father’s shame carried over into my own experience.
Then I had two children of my own. I knew that I needed to set a better example. My hearing loss is genetic so I worried that I may have passed it onto them. We won’t know until they are adults. I hope my children do not develop hearing issues, but if they do, I wanted them to be prepared to handle the challenges of hearing loss with grace and optimism. I needed to embrace my hearing loss more fully.
I decided to do more research about hearing loss and discovered some alarming statistics. Many health problems are associated with hearing loss — things like heart disease and diabetes. There is also a much higher risk of dementia in people who do not treat their hearing loss. Twice as likely when hearing loss is mild and five times as likely for those with severe hearing loss. If setting a good example for my children was not enough of a reason to accept and treat my hearing loss (it was), the physical ramifications certainly were compelling as well.
I started slowly, meeting other people with hearing loss by volunteering on the Board of a leading hearing loss charity and attending monthly chapter meetings run by Hearing Loss Association of America. The more I met other people with the same issues, the less alone I felt. I learned useful tricks like asking people to face me when they talk and requesting corner tables in restaurants. I discovered open captioned performances at the theater, the joy of hearing loops, and self-advocacy.
I came to see that I was not alone in coping with hearing loss. In fact, there are almost 50 million other Americans with hearing loss and 360 million people worldwide, many who delay treating their hearing loss for fear of embarrassment.
Life has changed a lot since I stopped hiding my hearing loss. My family and friends have learned communication best practices and sometimes even repeat things for me that I might not have heard without my asking. My hearing loss is not a secret, it is just a regular part of me, like my yoga obsession and my terrible sense of direction. My life is nothing like my father’s and my children are learning that hearing loss is challenging, but with the proper attitude and tools, it will not destroy your life.
I tell my story of acceptance in hopes that it will inspire others to come out of their hearing loss closets. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. Nobody will care, and in fact, they probably already know. Plus being open about your hearing loss sure takes the pressure off having to hear everything perfectly all the time. And what a relief that is!
Shari Eberts is a hearing health advocate, writer, and avid Bikram yogi. She blogs at LivingWithHearingLoss.com and serves on the Board of Trustees of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story it will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari on her Blog, Facebook and Twitter.