What? I can’t hear you…

I’ve never really written about my hearing loss, perhaps because it’s so much a part of who I am that I struggle to separate myself from it. I was born with high-frequency hearing loss and I’ve never navigated a world without it, so I don’t have any other reality to compare it to. It’s hard to imagine what my life would be like without it because it permeates every aspect of my life, from my interactions with other people, to the way that I navigate the world, both in my home and outside.

I have a particular type of hearing loss that is, apparently, common among people whose birth parent had pre-eclampsia (high-blood pressure) during birth. I was born a blue baby, taken away from my mother as soon as I was born to be put into an oxygen incubator. I remained there for a few days, or perhaps a week, I can’t remember what my parents told me. No one knew what might be the side effects of my birth as a human-smurf and my parents were told to watch my development to see if I would be ‘normal’. As I grew into a toddler there seemed to be no major issues, and it wasn’t until I went to pre-school that anyone noticed that not everything was ‘as it should be’. My pre-school teacher had worked with deaf and hard of hearing children before and picked up on my hearing loss through my behaviour, which matched the behaviour she had seen in other children with hearing loss. I would fail to respond when my back was turned despite repeated calls for my attention, I would watch other children’s behaviour and actions before taking part group activities, and other children were aware of my hearing deficiency even before I was, telling the teacher that I couldn’t hear her and repeating instructions to me without being asked.

When my teacher drew my parents’ attention to this, they had my hearing tested and my audiology reports came back confirming my teacher’s suspicions. I remember having speech therapy classes for a long time, to teach me how to speak properly, for how could I voice sounds that I couldn’t hear? I remember my speech therapist fondly – she spoke with an accent that could be called “the Queens English”, and I accordingly developed quite a posh accent that became a source of much distress for me during my teenage years in Ireland, as no one would believe, on first meeting me, that I was Irish, as I didn’t have the accent.

I’ve had a series of hearing aids over the years, with varying results, none of which I have worn for very long. As anyone who has worn a hearing aid will tell you, they are itchy and somewhat uncomfortable to have in all day. When it’s windy, they squeak at a very high pitch that would normally be outside my hearing range, but unfortunately is very much within my hearing range when I’m wearing my hearing aid. After an unsuccessful attempt of wearing a hearing aid in both ears around the age of 7, I never requested a hearing aid for my right ear again. I remember complaining that sounds echoed and sounded muddled with a hearing aid in both ears. As an adult, an audiologist explained to me why this would have happened – apparently the high-frequency hearing loss in my right ear is too profound to be ‘fixable’ by modern technology. It’s not possible to amplify sounds that I simply do not pick up on at all. My hearing loss is related, not to issues with the structure of my ear, but to nerve damage from the oxygen deficiency I experienced when I was being born. The sounds that I don’t hear in my right ear are the sounds that are crucial for understanding speech. The sounds that we make in speech at the start and ends of words are high-frequency. Without being able to hear these sounds, speech becomes a muddle of vowels without the consonants present to make sense of the noise. Words like cat, bat, that, pat, hat, fat, sat all sounds the exact same coming through my right ear.

Now I’m living in Berlin, in a country where I’m only just beginning to learn the language (German), a few people have told me that I seem to be quite quick at picking it up. The irony is that my hearing loss prevents me from hearing many of the sounds that distinguish words in the German language, and learning languages, although easy for my musical brain, are extremely difficult for my ‘ears’. The reality is that navigating the world with my particular type of hearing loss (I cannot speak for other types) is much like navigating the world in a place where one is only beginning to learn the dominant language of discourse.

Have you ever had the experience where you’ve picked up enough basics to make it seem like you can speak the language without actually being able to understand much at all, and the other person begins jabbering away at you, assuming you understand everything they say? Well, that’s pretty much what it’s like for me on a daily basis, regardless of what language people are speaking. I’ve become an expert at reading people’s body language, tone of voice and facial expressions, for these are much easier for me to understand than speech itself. So when people speak to me in a language that I barely understand, I can bluff my way through a conversation by nodding at the right points, smiling with interest, and dropping in the few words that I do know: “Ja, danke” etc. It’s really not so different to listening to someone speak to me in English in a crowded environment with a lot of background noise, or where the person speaking has a particularly soft or high-pitched voice.

I’ve more or less given up on wearing my hearing aid, despite having got the latest high-tech version in the last 2 years. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s just that I’m so used to hearing the world my way that I don’t really enjoy hearing it the ‘normal’ way. Of course, this means that I often speak too loudly, miss parts of conversation, or make a lot of noise that are really loud to others, such as banging cupboards, closing doors, clacking my cutlery on my plate or bowl… the list goes on! All of these sounds resonate at low frequencies that I do hear, but they also resonate at much higher frequencies that I don’t hear, which sound much louder than the low frequencies do, so it sounds deafening to anyone with average hearing. Anyone who has lived with me will give testament to this!

On the whole, I like being able to zone out of the chaos of the world around me. Sometimes, though, I have a tendency to avoid situations that can be difficult without my hearing aid. Phone conversations are my worst nightmare, as I rely on visual cues that just aren’t present in a phone conversation, including lip-reading. Large group situations, loud parties/clubs, windy locations or spaces with lots of traffic noises (including sitting in a car) make it nearly impossible for me to distinguish speech. Wearing my hearing aid can help, but if someone is sitting to my right, I will spend most of the night nodding and smiling in much the same way that I do when someone speaks to me in a language that I’m attempting to pretend to understand. Honestly, only people who know me really well are able to tell when I’m pretending – my family, close friends, and sometimes partners. The longer you know me, the easier it is to notice the symptoms: blank look in the eyes, lack of active response to conversation, lots of vacant smiling. I’m usually quite an engaged person when partaking in conversation, and the more important a situation, the better I am at pretending, so much so that people have whole conversations with me that I do not follow, which can result in sometimes comical, other times embarrassing situations, in which they refer to the conversation which I then have to pretend to remember. The monkey with face in hands is the only emoji appropriate for this situation 🙈, yet it recurs ridiculously often!

You might ask: “why not be honest about your hearing?” My response is that I have experienced so much assumption that being partially deaf = being somewhat socially incapable/stupid/unemployable that I usually don’t tell people about my hearing loss until they know me much better, at which point I usually get the “oh, I never noticed/I never would have realised/ You’re just like a normal person response.” It becomes incredibly tiring to be told that my hearing loss doesn’t prevent me from being normal (why the obsession with normality??) so I just keep it to myself and get on with life in my own way. Normality is overrated.

I believe the queer outlook I have on life originates with my experience of life by being partially deaf. I just don’t see life through the same lens that others do. I don’t experience peer pressure in the same way that many other do. I exist in my own private world that protects me from much of the criticism that life might otherwise throw at me. I don’t allow anyone to tell me how to live my life. Maybe this comes from my hearing loss. Maybe this comes from my upbringing, which was unconventional in many ways, with a strong emphasis on individuality, feminism and self-belief. Maybe I would be exactly the way that I am without my hearing loss, but there’s no possible way of determining that. Nevertheless, I think that my experience of life through being partially deaf has changed me, affected my politics, my outlook, my empathy and my understanding of others. Being queer is being me, and being me is being partially deaf. For me, one does not exist without the other.

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