It hit me square in the face during lunch with a colleague.
I’d given up so much to my hearing disability. Backed away from projects, steered clear of complex meetings, claimed I was too busy to work with anyone new. “I’m sorry but I’m not taking on any additional work right now because of other obligations.” How many times had I said that? Dozens. The consultant who would never turn down work became one who rarely accepted any. The customer had to be familiar, trustworthy, vetted, if you will, to be able to accommodate my limitations. Hearing aids helped but not a lot. My issue was more complex than volume. My brain couldn’t piece together what my ears heard.
I convinced myself that the humbling that comes with a disability would be good for my personality. It was time, considering my age, to tone it down, be more measured, let others move to the front, that’s what I told myself. But I was hiding and then I was hiding the fact that I was hiding by professing to love my withdrawal from the fray. What I loved was being safe from the humiliation that came from not hearing an important discussion, not understanding a question directed to me, being completely off the mark in a comment because I’d misinterpreted what was being said. I was very open about my disability, joking about it, deciding it was my mission to educate others about hearing loss. But at the same time, I headed for the hills. I had to. It was a survival thing.
Get me out of here. Let me be where I can just listen to the sounds in my own head.
I argued with my husband the other day when he called me unsociable.
“What? I’m the chattiest person in the world!”
“Maybe you are now but for years you never wanted to go anywhere if there would be people you had to talk to.”
It was true. I’d only wanted to talk to him. I could, somehow, miraculously, always hear him. It helped that he’d ginned up a special sign language – just between the two of us. We had a great system. He was right. I was unsociable. I hated being with most other people. I can remember entire dinners with groups of people where I couldn’t understand a single word anyone said unless my husband, pretty loudly, repeated it for me. It was like I was visiting from a foreign country and didn’t know a word of English.
Today wasn’t the first time I realized that important things were going on in my professional world without me. I’d taken myself out of the game so how could I be surprised new players had shown up. But it doesn’t feel right anymore to be on a permanent bench or, worse, high in the bleachers.
Over a year ago, I got a cochlear implant. Basically, this means I have a completely artificial, electronic ear. The receiver ‘hears’ sounds, transmits the sounds to electrodes in my cochlea which then sends the signals on to my brain. After months of adjustment and fine tuning, it means that my hearing comprehension has gone from around 20% of spoken words to over 90%. Not everywhere, not with all voices. Deep male voices are a problem. Movies can be challenging. But the contrast with my pre-cochlear implant life is incredible.
Do I get to reclaim my old self? Who is my old self? More to the point, who is my new self? How do I stop thinking of myself as disabled? Do I just tap people on the shoulder and say, “Hey, it’s Jan, I can hear now.” Because you know if I do that, there’s going to be all kinds of expectations, people thinking I can do things.
It could change everything.