My family was not supportive of him. My mother would whisper to my sister and me behind his back, saying, “Don’t worry, he can’t hear us.” Her attitude taught me that hearing loss was shameful and that my father should not expect any help from the family in dealing with it. I look back on this behavior with regret.
So when I started having trouble hearing as an adult, I was appalled and ashamed. I hid it the best I could, following in my father’s footsteps.I remember my mother’s horror when I finally broke down and got hearing aids. “Do you really need to wear them?” she asked. Unfortunately, I did. I shouldn't have been surprised by her lack of support since she treated my father’s hearing loss the same way, but her attitude reinforced my need to hide. This went on for many years.
Until I had children. Since my loss was genetic I worried that I may have passed it onto them, just as my father had done to me. I could feel my children’s eyes on me, watching me. Every action, every word, every emotion was observed and assimilated into their view of the world. It was up to me to set an example of understanding and compassion. I refused to continue the cycle of contempt and shame.
I would not allow my children to see me denying my hearing loss or feeling embarrassed by it. I asked for quiet tables at restaurants or for someone to face me when they spoke or to repeat something I didn’t hear. Every day I beat back the stigma of hearing loss in hopes of creating a better world for them, should they develop hearing issues later in life.
It wasn’t easy at first, but almost every time I revealed my hearing loss, someone would tell me about his or her personal struggles with hearing loss or that a close friend or family member had issues with hearing. I realized I was not alone and that I could make a difference for people like me.
I became a hearing health advocate, volunteering on the boards of two leading hearing loss organizations: Hearing Loss Association of America and Hearing Health Foundation. I also started to share my hearing loss story publicly, through writing and speaking.
And I changed my family dynamic. My hearing loss is not an unmentionable, but a regular topic of discussion, just like what's for dinner. My children and I talk about how they can help me hear my best. I'm confident they will be better prepared to cope with the ups and downs of hearing loss should they experience it themselves.
I’m not sure why my father felt the need to hide his hearing loss. Was he afraid we wouldn't love him if he were not perfect? Acknowledging my weaknesses helps my children see that nobody’s life is perfect. We all have struggles, but if we work together with respect and love, we can overcome almost any challenge.
I stopped hiding my hearing loss for my children. I thank them for helping me become a stronger, braver, more loving person, and for forcing me to embrace myself as I am.