So at age 18, my life kind of started over again.
With my version 2.0 nose, newfound confidence—and utter relief at leaving the horror of high school behind—I headed off to college. Four years later, I emerged with a freshly-printed Bachelor’s degree in hand. Fast-forward a few more years, and I am working full-time as a Web writer while I complete my Master’s degree.
One day (around age 28, I think) I woke up and noticed that my ears were ringing. Most of us experience ear-ringing after concerts or being in a loud club; it is a temporary reaction to noise that eventually resolves on its own. Yet, I awoke to ringing and I had not been to a concert, a club, or even a loud restaurant. I didn’t think much of it at the time, because I knew the ear-ringing that comes from exposure to loud noise eventually dissipates. I wasn’t sure why my ears were ringing, but I figured that at some point, they would stop.
At the time, it felt like it was an overnight thing, like, literally, go to bed and wake up different. After a few days of ringing, I became concerned. I thought, How long HAVE my ears been ringing? Have they been ringing for a while and I’m just now noticing? Or is this new? And when are they going to STOP?
From that day forward, they didn’t stop ringing. Ever.
I entered my 30s with another “new” aspect to my physicality: I had tinnitus, and it was not going away.
Sorry, what did you say?
Over the course of the next 10 years, my tinnitus, that ever-screeching creature in my head, got louder, while my hearing got progressively worse. I saw doctor after doctor, and not one offered an explanation that made sense to me, or that I was willing to accept. Not one doctor had the kind of bedside manner I expected as an informed and vivacious 30-something who was increasingly more terrified that she was losing her hearing. I took one humiliating hearing test after another and got no real answers. Your loss is mild-to-moderate, they said. Great, thanks. Now what?
I eventually finished my Master’s degree and my first marriage, and I found a new love: a wonderful man halfway across the world in Australia. My hearing was still an issue, but nothing major. Yet.
As most of you know, I went on to marry my Aussie, tried my hand at expat life in Sydney, and came back to the U.S.—all the while noticing my hearing loss declining. I could hear louder voices, music, noises just fine. They were often too loud. It was the volume of everyday life that I could no longer hear clearly. But my life was busy, and damn it, I WAS TOO YOUNG TO BE HARD OF HEARING! I still had no answers and asked people to repeat themselves with annoying regularity.
I spent a good six years reading lips to get by. People who mumbled, whispered, or talked with little lip movement were the kiss of death. Trying to speak to me from around the corner or behind me was futile; I just could not hear clearly without being able to read lips as well. Many times, when people asked me a question and I paused a second too long, my husband rescued me by repeating the question so I could actually hear it, or he’d just answer for me. He was like my hearing-ear dog, my interpreter, my savior. God bless him, he has always been so patient, even when it irritated the hell out of him. And it did, plenty.
In the last several years, I have not been able to watch TV without using closed captioning. As I struggled to hear in the bubble of hushed tones and voices that is Corporate America, I began missing more and more. With each missed statement, each sentiment repeated for only my benefit, my hearing felt like sand slipping through my fingers, my ego right along with it. I was trying desperately to keep it from slipping away, to safeguard what was left. I wondered if I should learn sign language, in case I go totally deaf.
Occasionally, after asking a stranger to repeat themselves, I’d divulge that I was “hearing-challenged.” But mostly, only my closest friends and family knew. Admitting it to strangers made me feel deficient. Damaged. Stupid. Because they often did nothing with the information I gave them, repeating phrases to me at the same level as they had before, which by the way, is no help for someone who is hearing impaired.
Over the course of the last decade, I was convinced I had a tumor in my head. That was it! Why weren’t those doctors ordering an MRI? Or I had Meniere’s disease…there had to be a good reason for the tinnitus and the hearing loss I began experiencing at age 30, because if there was a reason, then there was a solution. Surgery. Something. Something to shut this mind-numbing ringing off and give me my life back.
The doctors, of course, told me one thing, repeatedly: It’s hereditary (my dad, who is in his 70s, is hearing-challenged too). And, this: You might be helped by hearing aids.
Hearing aids? WTF? At 30, 35, or 41? Doesn’t hereditary hearing loss only happen to old people? I’m too young for hearing aids!
But it had gotten to the point that it was significantly affecting my life. So this year, as a last-ditch effort, I selected yet another new ENT to see for an exam and those dreading hearing tests. He is a younger doctor (virtually my age) with a gentle, unhurried demeanor. He was the first one who explained, very compassionately, that my hearing loss is now moderately severe: between 55 and 70 dB HL; that is is bi-lateral (in both ears); and that because it is in both ears, and I don’t have headaches or vision loss (or any of the many symptoms of tumors), it did not make sense to order an MRI…but that he would if I wanted it. Finally, a doctor who listened, first.
And with that, 11 years later, it also finally clicked: I AM HEARING IMPAIRED. This is not age-related hearing loss.
I finally had the answer that was there all along; I just never had the right doctor to put some context around all of it. I could get on board with this, and I did. For the first time in more than a decade, I felt relief. My hearing loss wasn’t from exposure to noise or a tumor, and I am not on the express train to my golden years. I am hearing impaired.
I’d never judge someone who is deaf, or be anything but understanding about it. Recognizing that I am hearing impaired was like giving myself permission to finally accept this thing I had tried so hard to ignore and push away, and instead, make peace with it. My level of impairment is nothing compared to the diseases and physical disabilities so many people struggle with, every day, every second of their lives. I know that. I still consider myself so very blessed, so fortunate. This is an issue that is surmountable.
Two weeks ago, another version of me was born, V 3.0, if you will. Armed—er—eared with two sleek, subtle, and life-changing behind-the-ear hearing aids (my bionic ears, as I like to call them), I walked out into a very, very loud world. It took me a couple days to get used to all the sounds I was hearing, and understand the three settings my hearing aids have, but like that day in 1989 when I emerged from Dr. Laird’s office, I once again felt like a new woman. I could be 100% confident again. I had gotten both the answer and the solution I was looking for.
I still can’t hear everything all the time, and my tinnitus will be with me forever, though the ringing is no longer my focus. Instead, I hear the squeak of a door I never knew had a squeak; I hear all the insects again, the birds, nature’s cacophony of glorious sound. I can hear the whisper of my beloved, those words meant only for me, spoken during the quiet acquiescence of the day.
I am me with a doctor-gifted nose; with 10 pounds more or 10 pounds less; with an impairment and hearing aids; with opinions spoken by the same voice I’ve known all along, but now hear much more acutely.
I’m me, in spite of all of it, and because of it. And I’m totally OK with it.
This post is part of my Journey to Self-Acceptance series. If you haven’t read The Moment I Realized I Wasn’t Pretty, start there. Thank you all for sharing this journey and your thoughts and experiences with me along the way.