What I Wish I'd Known About 'Deaf Anxiety'

As a child with hearing loss I was taught to read lips, to enunciate my own speech, to carefully clean and store my hearing aids. Surrounded by a community of able-bodied people, I was also taught to blend in and pass as a hearing person.

The nod and smile, the awkward half-laugh — these are my go-to responses for when I don’t hear something. After 15 years of wearing hearing aids you would think I would be more comfortable saying, “I can’t hear you. Could you repeat that?” but at times I still find it challenging and awkward.

It is not that I am ashamed of my hearing loss or my hearing aids. These things are a part of who I am, and I am proud of my identity. I think the challenge comes from years of training myself to pretend. It comes from living in a world that is often slow to accommodate and reluctant to understand. I put a lot of pressure on myself to single-handedly compensate for all the challenges my disability presents, rather than asking the world around me to be accommodating; and it is exhausting.

Every task, every new situation requires a lot of thought. For example, walking into a new classroom on the first day of the semester, I am on high alert. Choosing the right seat is crucial — I have to think about positioning myself so that I can not only best hear my professor, but also be able to keep up with discussions that move around the room. I loathe seats arranged in rows because I can’t keep watch over the whole room without physically turning around. What if someone behind me tries to talk to me and I don’t hear them? What if they think I’m ignoring them? These are the worries that plague me.

In the moments where the classroom is filling up but still professor-less, some students lean back in their metal chairs, thumbs scrolling through Facebook feeds, bright screens illuminating bored faces. Others chat with friends, contributing to the rising background noise of indistinguishable sounds humming in my ears. These students are relaxed, carefree. Meanwhile I am always attentive, constantly scanning the room to ensure that my observation skills will catch what my ears won’t. I worry that if I miss something, people will take me for being rude or incompetent. If something is directed my way, I practically fall out of my seat to close the gap between myself and the speaker. I could ask them to be louder, but sometimes that doesn’t even occur to me. I alone feel the pressure to make it work. The weight of this responsibility feels tight in my chest and my nervous shoulders rise toward my ears; I shrink into myself.

There’s a term for these feelings and experiences. I recently learned it from an Ai-Media video posted by Deaf activist Artie Mack. The term is “Deaf Anxiety.” In his video Artie talks about many of the things I just described. When I first watched his video “Let’s Talk About Deaf Anxiety,” I felt like he could be speaking about my own experiences for me. Having something that I’ve dealt with my whole life but never seen vocalized before made me feel vulnerable and validated all at once.

It also made me wonder: Why this was my first time hearing the term Deaf Anxiety? I’ve spent a significant amount of time in the waiting rooms of audiology offices reading coffee table pamphlets about hearing loss, but I’d never once come across this type of anxiety. Yet, if Artie’s and my experiences are so similar, that must mean that there are more hard of hearing and D/deaf people out there who have experienced the same thing. So why isn’t anyone talking about it? Why is isn’t anyone doing anything about it?

After watching the video, my feelings of vulnerability dissolved into ones of curiosity. I pulled up a new tab and seconds later my Google search revealed to me that 11.5 percent of people with hearing loss report experiencing depression (Packer). If that number seems high to you, you’re right. It’s over twice as much as the percentage of the hearing population with depression — 5 percent. Again, staring at this statistic, I couldn’t help but wonder why this issue hadn’t been brought to my attention before.

Audiologist offices seem like a definite place to start addressing this disparity, but I want to be clear that I do not view hearing loss itself as the problem here. Creating a more accessible and understanding world could help alleviate some of the anxiety the hearing loss community experiences. I hope by sharing my own perspective I can contribute to the visibility Artie Mack first brought to this issue.

As a child, I was excessively private. My parents often teased me about being “strung too tight,” for always obsessing over perfection. I now wonder if some of these “personality quirks” were manifestations of D/deaf anxiety and depression. I can’t help but wish I would have known this term earlier. It would have provided relief to know I was not alone in my experiences, that my feelings were legitimate. I wish that as a child with hearing loss, when I was being taught to read lips and to clean my hearing aids, I also would have been taught to cope with mental health stresses.

Getty image by Sladic

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