What It's Like to Live in the Gray Area Between Hearing and Deafness
Between the ages of birth to 6, we learn. We learn how to interact. We learn how to socialize. We learn how to speak up for ourselves, tell people to stop being mean or tell people we enjoy their friendship. Between the ages of birth to 6, we learn how to build a relationship, keep a relationship, find friends that build us up and make us feel like we are good enough.
What if I told you that I didn’t?
That I grew up in the gray area between the fully hearing and hard-of-hearing or deaf.
I spent the first six years of my life observing, watching from the sidelines. I wanted to play, I wanted to be part of the group, but I wasn’t sure how. I wanted to speak up, to have my voice be heard even though I was never sure what I was responding to.
My first six years were spent feeling like I was underwater. Those years were spent with my nose in a book because books don’t require a volume control.
In fact, I unknowingly taught myself how to adapt.
That would come in handy during those hearing tests. I managed to pass them because I had taught myself to read lips.
The doctors would stare at me, mouth uncovered and perfectly enunciate every syllable of those two-syllable words.
Baseball. Football. Basketball.
I passed the tests because I was able to read the doctors’ lips until the day one doctor decided to simply cover his mouth.
Without even realizing it, I had figured out how to survive.
Surviving at school meant being a follower. I had one friend I followed everywhere. I watched her closely, picking up clues and copying her moves in hopes of figuring out exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
And sometimes she’d ask, as any 5-year-old would, “Why are you following me?”
I couldn’t answer that question. I couldn’t explain that I was following to learn the ever-important rules of the childhood playground one jumbled word at a time.
My first six years are filled with snapshots. Moments from a happy childhood flash through my brain on a joyous yet quiet loop.
Hanging upside down on the monkey bars.
Eating a Thrifty’s ice cream cone on a hot summer day.
Vacations. Museums. Plays. Movies. Family dinners.
Then at 6, I got hearing aids and was put into the world. I didn’t have the word for it then, but it was overwhelming.
Cars honking. Sirens from a fire engine. People talking. Laughing. Suddenly, everything sounded less jumbled.
I could hear.
And that should be the end of the story, right?
You would think, but no.
Because I was still at the same school. Still with the same kids. I don’t remember anything ever being mentioned about the change, though my childhood best friend quickly decided that my hearing aids should be Barbie’s telephones and my father taught me to play “Jingle Bells” on my hearing aids, which remains one of my favorite childhood memories. In case you were wondering, my hearing aid song book has since grown to include several pop songs, including Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” and “Vacation” by the Go Go’s.
Anyway, while those I love the most and am closest to treated my hearing impairment as just something that made me special and unique, I still had to figure out how to adapt on my own; how to socialize, how to make friends, while everyone else who grew up solidly in the hearing world knew the rules. They knew everything that I did not. They had a six-year head start. I fell into this gray area. I don’t fit into the world of the hearing, but I don’t fit into the world of the deaf.
For the next 30-plus years, I’ve wandered, listened, steps behind everyone. I was never surrounded by any kids with hearing differences like mine. Elementary. Junior High. High school. College. Grad school. Every job I’ve had. I’ve only been surrounded by the fully hearing, I’ve never been friends with anyone who had a hearing impairment. I was always “the only one” and the one who had to simply get over it and figure it out.
Yet I still feel years behind everyone and I continue to make mistakes. These mistakes cost me group after group, job after job, and those social cues are always up for criticism from the masses: “Why are you doing this?” “Why do you act like this?” Or even worse, being called names or labeled.
People always assume they know why you act the way you do. You’re Bitter. Angry. Negative. Passive aggressive. Not paying attention. Playing the victim. Self-absorbed. Pathetic. Unstable. Problematic. Worthless. Incompetent. Desperate. Yet they never hit on truth.
Disabled. Impaired. It’s not an excuse, but rather an explanation.
It’s easier to shun than understand. It’s easier to cast aside, call names and place a label, immediately diminishing their worth. Diminishing my worth. Diminishing who I am as a person and ignoring any of the more positive labels, labels that even I often refuse to acknowledge.
Sensitive. Kind. Educated. Talented writer. Impeccable work ethic. Punctual. Funny. Friendly. Persistent. Fearless. Resilient.
Yet those other labels get lost in the negative as people decide it’s not the disability. It’s not the impairment. It’s that I have a defective personality. See, it’s easier to label someone as having a defective personality trait because people think then it can be “fixed.”
But a disability, an impairment, cannot be changed. It’s with me forever.
People will explain that they get me. Their grandparents are hearing-impaired or they also have bad hearing. It’s not the same. It’s being 5 years old and wondering why everyone spoke so softly and then got mad when you didn’t respond correctly. Where you were labeled by teachers as someone who didn’t listen, didn’t know how to share, had problems understanding directions or showed signs of cognitive delays instead of the truth: hearing-impaired.
It’s a world where in middle school, I was called “Mere-deaf” and thrown away in trash cans and the teachers brushed it off as if it was no big deal. Where I was accused of cheating by a teacher because I didn’t hear him say put the pencils down and another teacher who told me he had no clue how to teach hearing-impaired students. Where more often than not, I was told to simply get over it.
It’s a world where I’m often told I’m way too desperate and needy in my search to get hired. Especially at companies where I know I would do an incredible job, where I could show just how good I am if someone would just open the damn door.
In many ways, I’m still that 6-year-old trying to figure out ways to be included in a world where I don’t fully belong. Where I wonder if I’ll ever belong or if I’m even wanted.
Where I’m constantly asking questions and relying on others to let me know if I’m doing it right without ever trusting myself because after all, the last time I trusted myself, I ended up getting hearing aids. So I ask….
Am I too loud? Am I too soft? Do I sound different?
Do I sound hearing-impaired? Do I sound normal?
Should I learn to sign and try to fit into the deaf world I’ve never actually fit into?
Should I continue to try and fit in the world of comedy where I know I can make a difference despite my lack of professional experience?
Should I continue to try and work as a teacher? Maybe build my own a tutoring company?
Or will my personal and professional resume forever be put on file until something comes up that’s a good fit?
For the right guy, right job, right friends.
Until I get over it.
Until I fit.
Header image via Ruben Ramos/Getty Images