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How I Use 'Harry Potter' to Explain My Hearing Loss

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It’s a daily struggle for me to help people understand what it’s like to live with and have hearing loss. I try to explain that it’s not as simple as missing sound, and that you can’t fix it by ramping up the volume on the phone or TV. I try to help them see that it’s not just the sound itself but the environment the sound happens in. At the end of the day, they often don’t really get it.

But perhaps I have one of the strangest solutions around. As a woman who grew up with fantastical world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, one of the best ways I’ve found to explain my hearing loss and what it’s like to live with it, is to compare it to the dementors we encounter in “The Prisoner of Azkaban.”

Curious? I’ll explain.

First off, let’s classify me: a hearing-impaired wizard with muggle friends, fourth-year Gryffindor (though some online quizzes have also placed me in Slytherin) who requires a special device to enhance my hearing (what muggles call hearing aids). No spell has yet been created to solve hearing loss at this time.

Now, for the dementors and how they are exactly the perfect metaphor for untreated hearing loss.

Muggles can’t see dementors, only magic folk can. Hearing loss is an invisible disability. Only those with it who know the signs to look for can pinpoint someone in a crowd with hearing loss. Otherwise it’s virtually undetectable. And because of this, it’s often harder for others to understand the magnitude of its impact on a persons’ life.

Dementors feed on peace and happiness. Hearing loss can do this as well. As hearing loss worsens, it affects your ability to hear and understand speech and sound in multiple environments. Chatting with friends after work at the local pub can become the equivalent of trying to hear with baby Mandrakes screaming – impossible. And as you miss joke after joke, can’t follow along at the movie theater and generally just feel “left out,” you can start to feel the dark cloud of social isolation descending. And just as a dementor can take all your joy and happy memories away, untreated hearing loss can replace smiles with tears and fond moments with bittersweet regrets.

Fighting a dementor is exhausting work! Hearing loss can make you tired by mid-day. Dementors require a powerful Patronus Charm fueled by an exceptionally emotional memory. Hearing loss requires your brain to work overtime as you spend energy lip-reading, being overly attentive and try to process and construct meaning from half-understood words and phrases. Your brain and your ears are no longer working together like before. Instead, just as Harry’s energy flagged as he fought more and more dementors, my energy drains faster and faster when I’m forced to make sense of invariably random sounds, words and phrases that are often not even what I think they are.

Dementors cannot be destroyed completely. Hearing loss will never go away. You can send dementors away with a Patronus Charm and remove the feelings of sadness and despair, but no magical spell or potion exists to return one’s hearing. Hearing loss is permanent, and as the ears are exposed to loud, damaging sounds, one’s hearing is hurt. Other factors beyond noise exposure also can contribute to this irreversible condition — age, associated health conditions, medication (ototoxicity), genetics, ear infections or physical damage to the ear, and more. While you can send dementors away and feel happy again, once you damage your hearing, even just a bit, you can’t go back.

Every person has a unique Patronus Charm to fight dementors. Every hearing loss is different, and is treated differently. Harry has a stag. Luna has a rabbit. Ron has a dog, and Hermione has an otter. Each of these Patronus figures are unique to one witch or wizard. Hearing loss is the same, akin to a fingerprint. Each is unique in the frequencies lost, the sounds that are hard, the treatments that work. No one hearing loss is the same. No one hearing loss can be treated the same. Each requires a hearing aid with personalized programming, fit for one person’s hearing loss, ears and lifestyle.

Maybe one day a doctor will invent a potion to remedy hearing loss, but until then, I’m going to keep using my incredible hearing aids (the muggle Patronus Charm for hearing loss) to combat hearing loss and thrive in life, all the while waiting for my letter from Hogwarts. Even though it’d be about 15 years late.

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Thinkstock photo by Elisabeth2010.

Originally published: April 20, 2017
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