The Loneliness of Hearing Loss

Let’s be clear. I’m not deaf. It’s true I can’t function without hearing aids, but only when I want to talk with someone. And rarely do I want to talk with someone. Except of course my family, which is a problem because the time I’m most likely to go without hearing aids is at home.

While wearing hearing aids, I pick up most of what’s said to me, unless I’m competing with ambient noise—a crowded room, a windy day, riding in a car. Then I can’t hear anything, or less than half of anything. This is when I smile and nod.

Or I say “What?” and turn my right ear, my good ear (better ear) towards the speaker.

Or I veg-out and stare into the distance, making people think I’m stoned.

But usually, I smile and nod. This makes people think I’m stoned, too, because I smile and nod at all the wrong times. And eventually, someone asks me a question I can’t answer because I can’t hear the conversation.

The octave of a sound matters, too. Anything higher than a normal male voice often gets lost.  Last weekend, my family went for a hike along the Potomac River outside Washington, DC. We hiked and rock scrambled a couple of miles along the river bank, and then followed a mile-long bike path back to our car. Halfway back, Eli said “Hey Dad, why don’t you move when the bikers ring their bell.” My response: “Oh, are they ringing bells?”

My hearing is on a downward slide. I used to work at a YWCA. Before rebranding decades ago, this stood for Young Women’s Christian Association. Even though the organization’s mission no longer suggests teenage girls evangelizing, all of my coworkers and committee members were still women. Six years ago, I realized that I couldn’t follow the conversations going on around me. Every one spoke outside of my hearing range. I missed too many words to piece together the topic. This didn’t happen all at once, bit by bit I heard less, but I hit a tipping point. I suddenly became hearing impaired.

I’m proud of my family dynamic. My wife and I plus our two teenage kids genuinely like each other. Most weekends we do stuff together, which typically includes a car ride. There’s that hike we took in DC last weekend, about four hours of driving. And a shopping excursion the day before to Frederick, Maryland, fifty minutes away. A recent road trip to a pretty rail-trail for a family bike ride. Sometimes we just hop in the car and explore the rural countryside.

On these trips, we banter. (Banter: {verb} talk or exchange remarks in a good-humored teasing way). The conversation pops around the car. People toss out one-liners and burns and tell funny stories. I laugh along, but a lot of the time, I can’t hear what they’re saying. The car noise, their higher pitched voices, these don’t work for me. Surprise, you can only say “What?” so many times before your teenager gets annoyed.

For the past three years, my friendships have been in decline. Susan and I used to be fairly social. Every weekend, we got together with another couple, sometimes more. We’d share bottles of wine on a back porch or in a living room. Or we went out to dinner, ate, and drank wine. Sometimes we went to parties… lots of friends, lots of wine. Then I quit drinking, and we stopped hanging out with other couples. Susan still sees her friends, but get-togethers are more likely to be over tea or a walk rather than drinks.

I’ve pinned my reluctance to socialize on my abstinence from alcohol, but recently, I’m not sure that’s right. Possibly I avoid friendships because I can’t hear what my friends are saying. I feel alone in a crowded room because I’m not part of the conversation. Pretending to know what’s going on can be exhausting. My mind works in overdrive to connect the random words I pick up. Today, in a restaurant, my coworker started telling me a story. Over ten or fifteen seconds I thought I heard the words engineer, roof and garden. Luckily, I correctly guessed that she was talking about replacing our leaky roof with a garden terrace. So many times, I guess wrong, and the people I’m talking to wonder what the hell is wrong with me.

The other day, Susan suggested I research replacing my hearing aids. Technology has changed over the past four years, perhaps hearing aids have as well. Maybe I’m needlessly suffering alone. Maybe I can begin connecting with people again.

15 thoughts on “The Loneliness of Hearing Loss

  1. Mr. Cann, thank you for being so open and honest about this discussion. As a man in his early 20s, it would never occur to me how those who struggle with impaired hearing might feel. I think everyone would do well to practice patience and understanding. I hope you’re able to get more efficient hearing aids and that you don’t feel that disconnect from others. You always have outstanding things to say.
    Thank you, sir!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Karim. Growing up, I was loaded with disdain at my father when he couldn’t hear what I was saying. There’s nothing like suffering from a diability to give you empathy for others in the same boat. –Jeff

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  2. You have articulated what everyone with hearing loss experiences, even with hearing aids—hearing all ambient noises that muffle what you really want to hear. Become a lip reader; politely ask the person speaking to to speak up saying you do have a hearing problem. And, when on the phone let them know as well–easier to politely hang up. Keep writing.
    Regie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Regie, I know you’ve been dealing with this a lot longer than I have. Yes, reading lips, making people start over in a story, begging the person on the other end of the phone to speak up. I just sent you another hearing loss story I decided not to post to your sculptures account. I’m sure you can relate.

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  3. I’m hearing (unintended pun) more about hearing loss in my life. My dad, my husband’s dad, a co-worker, several bloggers I follow… in some ways it feels almost epidemic.
    Your description is apt. I worry about this. I love these people in my life and I hate that they can’t always hear me. I try to remember to enunciate, to face them when I speak and to pay attention to cues, like a head turned towards me with a good ear to help catch more. It’s not easy on either side.
    I think I can do more. I can call my dad when I’m not in my car, for example. It takes two to tango.
    I hope you do find better technology—and if you do, please share.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well it could have to do with listening to loud music which people probably did in increasing numbers in the sixties and seventies. I used to drive around listening to speed metal as loud as my stereo could handle. And then when my hearing started going bad, I just turned it up more. My father has horrible hearing so it might be congenital, but both of my brothers’ hearing is fine. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

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  4. Thank you, Jeff, for sharing about this. I, too, have a hearing loss. Left ear is worse than the right. Sound is muffled and reverberates horribly when there’s lots of noise, so I generally hate groups lately. Your post makes me feel less alone. I’m going through getting a second opinion at a specialty clinic, but fearful there is nothing to be done. And, so, as a psychologist, my main tool may no longer serve me sometime in the future – I just don’t know. Best, Angie

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    • I *hear* you. I’ve got a similar issue with my eyes. I have crazy bad double vision that was corrected once with surgery (which didn’t last) and currently with special prisms built into my lenses. It keeps getting worse and doctors keep saying “Hmm, we can’t add much more prism…” I haven’t asked what that means to me–I’m a little scared to. I worry about having an unfixable disability. I hope you can get your hearing corrected. Poor hearing has such an effect on other area of life.

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  5. I have a friend and coworker who is 90% deaf without her hearing aids. We joke a lot about turning them off when our other coworkers get too annoying (which is pretty much every day) but the reality is she can’t even sleep without them if she needs to wake up to an alarm for work. It can be very isolating. And unfortunately, people as a whole don’t have the patience to repeat themselves, or make sure they look at you when speaking, unless they have something similar or have someone close with similar issues. I’m already finding that I can’t stand noisy restaurants because I can’t always hear what’s being said at my own table over the background. It’s frustrating and I’ve already started avoiding such places. I definitely recommend new hearing aids, but that process itself is equally frustrating. And the fact it isn’t covered by insurance is maddening.

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    • Yeah, too expensive. It’s probably going to come down to a choice between sorely needed family room furniture or hearing better. There are times at work where I take my hearing aids out and bask in the muffled quietness. The other 99.8% of the time the whole deal kind of sucks. But I totally did it to myself with blasting punk music in my teeny little sedan.

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