(Editor's note: this has been modified from the original version to correct an error.)
I wear hearing aids!
It's no secret, really. I started wearing them in December 2005 after my sister Elayne turned to me at a big, noisy social function and said, "You know, you really should look into wearing hearing aids. I'm having trouble communicating with you. Why don't you go and see Jerry?"
She was right. I had been in denial. I knew I had a problem with my hearing. I just didn't want to face it. Now, I decided to. Head on. Am I ever glad I did.
Jerry, Elayne's husband and my brother-in-law, happens to be the head of the ear, nose and throat department at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. So I bit the bullet and made an appointment with him for a hearing test, which I flunked. Big time.
Turns out I had 20% of my hearing in my right ear and 70% in my left. It was so uneven, Jerry sent me for an MRI. He thought I might have an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumour that can cause hearing loss.
But as it happens, my maternal grandmother had a similar kind of hearing loss. She died when I was a kid and Jerry never knew her. My hearing loss is hereditary. On both sides of my family. My late father wore little inside-the-ear hearing aids and his "kid" brother, my Uncle Laurie, has had two cochlear implants.
All this is really no secret. (Nothing in my life is a secret, it seems. No one would ever describe me as a woman of mystery, except my husband. Maybe. He often finds me difficult to understand.)
I've written about my hearing loss. My first story – headlined Hear! Hear! – appeared on pages 10-11 of the Summer/Fall 2007 issue of "The Sentinel," the Seneca Retirees Association magazine. It was reprinted from the Mount Sinai Hospital's Spring 2006 issue of "Your Health Report."
What's really important is that every time I walk into a new class (or I make a speech, for that matter), I trumpet my hearing loss. I announce to my new crop of mostly very young Seneca College students that they'll have to speak up for me to hear them clearly.
Here, we know all about "speaking up," don't we?
Red-Right. Blue-Left. The nautical approach to hearing aid wearing. It makes them easier to tell apart, too.
I wear my red and blue hearing aids like fashion accessories. Like you may wear eyeglasses. Today, they've become fashion accessories, whether your eyesight is fine or you need corrective lenses. Either way, eyeglasses are facial fashion and these days, there's nothing particularly bothersome about needing glasses.
Unless you take Dorothy Parker's "News Item" seriously:
"Men seldom make passes
at girls who wear glasses."
The bottom line is, whether their lenses are tinted or clear, it's all in the way you look in them and what you see or choose to see.
Furthermore, it's how you wear them. I sport vintage frames for my prescription glasses – for sun and shade, reading and distance – in wild colours or big black dramatic classic shapes and sizes. I always receive compliments. It's fun to turn a liability into an asset.
That's my philosophy. It's another version of my favourite hobby – turning lemons into lemonade.
I apply this maxim to almost everything. Especially my unique brand of madness and my hearing loss. I'm me. I celebrate my differentness. I enjoy who I am. You can, too.
Depends on how you look at it. Your point of view. Your lens on life.
By the way, I am not deaf. I have a hearing loss. There's a huge difference.
Madness. (Such a nice simple compact yet all-encompassing word. That's why I like it so much.) Difference. That's another way of looking at it.
Hearing loss could be viewed as difference. I don't like the word dis-ability. I've never felt dis-abled by either my mania, my hypomania or my hearing loss. I've always felt that "labels disable." So I've learned not to take the labels too seriously. I'm lucky that way, but I've worked hard at it. This fall, I enter my 50th year of psychotherapy. Dr. Bob remarked the other day that he doesn't know of any psychiatrist who's been practicing for 50 years.
Anyway, hearing loss and psychiatric disorders or madness have several things in common.
They're relatively invisible. They're most misunderstood and frightening to too many people – ignorance and fear go hand-in-hand with prejudice and discrimination. They're part of the human condition. Hearing loss is inevitable as we age. In our youth-obsessed culture, no wonder people deny needing them.
Consider some stats.
• 75% of people who could potentially be helped by some form of intervention do not receive it – be it recovery-oriented, peer-support, community mental health and what clinical social worker Ron Unger likes to call the "Life Model" or some form of biomedical approach, according to Queen's University epidemiologist Dr. Heather Stuart, who has consulted with the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
• 90% of people who could potentially be helped by some form of hearing aid either will not wear them, cannot afford them or are in denial about their hearing loss, according to Krista Riko, Director of Audiology, Speech Language Pathology and Hearing Aid Dispensary Services at Mt. Sinai.
I remember telling a friend about being fitted for hearing aids in the fall of 2005. "Oh really?" she said, sounding shocked. "I thought hearing aids were only for old people."
I quickly discovered that not only is noise-induced hearing loss affecting younger people these days because they crank up the volume of the music they listen to, but hearing loss has long been deleteriously stereotyped. Linked inextricably to an image best summed up in the insensitive, erroneous and archaic phrase "deaf and dumb."
Not unlike the phrase "mentally ill", an adjectival phrase I never use. I hate it. It colours a whole person and we are all so complex. So multi-faceted. We may have challenges, difficulties – who doesn't? But, we are all human beings first. People first. Individuals first. And the way we use language colours the way we perceive the world. That's why I try to be so careful.
I know so many people my age wearing hearing aids and desperately trying to hide them. Most musicians and DJs have serious hearing loss. Famous people, too.
I don't hide mine. What's the point?
Hearing aids are just that - aids. If you don't let people know you have a hearing loss, they won't take the time to slow down or speak up. I tell people that. Even though I'm a brilliant lip reader, when someone takes the time to accommodate my hearing loss a little, it beats my saying something inane or insane-sounding because I haven't been able to aurally process it correctly. It's terribly isolating when your hearing loss shuts out conversation.
It's often embarrassing, although nothing embarrasses me anymore. I just make a joke of it. I whip out my trusty little Widex remote control and adjust the volume controls of my hearing aids and the mode in which they process sound.
"I'm a bionic woman," I quip. Dazzling people with my smile. Humour is a great way to diffuse embarrassment. Most people grow curious and start asking questions. Opening their minds as a dialogue begins. Then I have an opportunity to do a little on-the-spot advocacy. One person at a time. That's how social change happens.
That's what we're doing here. You and I. Social change. Together.
Thanks for listening. Let me know your thoughts and feelings about all this. I'm curious. In the comments, please. That way we can all join the conversation. No one will be left out.
Have a lovely meantime and a sensational weekend.