I’m not usually at a loss for words but one comment that often leaves me floundering goes something like this. “Vera, I know YOU are deaf but you haven’t met my uncle John. He can hear when he wants to, believe me”. People, often the loveliest people, say it to me surprisingly often. Just the other day I was chatting to someone in the village, my hearing gets mentioned and then out it pops…….
I have never, in all my forty years of gradually worsening hearing loss, pretended not to hear something when I did. Why would I do that? It’s painful when you constantly misunderstand things, don’t get the joke, don’t hear the instruction or miss the chatter. I’m so delighted when I DO hear things that the last thing I’d want to do is pretend that I hadn’t.
I don’t believe that all these Uncle Johns, Auntie Janets and countless others whose stories I have been regaled with over the years do it either; so what’s going on? Why are we so misunderstood? The problem, I think, is that hearing loss is a disability that is hard to comprehend unless you have experienced it. It is tricky to imagine, even for the most sympathetic hearing person, partly because they can’t see the obstacles in the way of the person trying to hear.
It must be baffling. Unlike some other disabilities, obstacles to hearing for a person with hearing loss aren’t usually visible. People can see (literally) that a flight of stairs is a barrier to someone using a wheelchair, or that an unexpected obstacle on the pavement might be a problem for someone with very poor vision. They can’t see the effect all manner of things have on the ability of someone with hearing loss to hear. Examples? Well, where to stop really. People not looking at us consistently (or at all). Too many other people talking. Dishwasher, washing machine, kettle, spin dryer (insert any other piece of domestic equipment) going in the background. Road noise in the car. Muzak in restaurants. Coffee machines in cafes. Walking on a gravel path or near a busy road. Insert your own obstacles here…….
No wonder hearing people get confused by us. Now we hear them, now we don’t.
Musing about this over the past few days, I’ve had another thought about the Uncle John scenario. Sometimes we zone out. We stop listening. Sometimes hearing loss is SO EXHAUSTING that we just can’t concentrate any more. The brain gives up. STOP it says, I need a rest. Many times I have been with a group of people chatting and there comes a point when I just switch off. Not because I’m trying to be rude, or because I’m disinterested in what they are saying but because exhaustion has set in. Off I go into a private reverie, in an attempt to get my hearing breath back.
But here’s the thing. If, in the middle of all that chatter, somebody says “archaeology” or “black Labradors” I might very well perk up and re-join the conversation, because I’m very interested in archaeology and dogs, and the words somehow get a special priority in my brain. And that I think is what sometimes leads to the stories about Uncle John’s selective hearing. Poor John is sat there, exhausted from trying to hear, zoned out, in a dream world, when somebody says “Manchester United are going to sign Ronaldo” and his ears prick up immediately. Now there’s a conversation worth overcoming your tiredness for. It’s not that John can “hear when he wants to”, it’s that hearing is SO DAMNED DIFFICULT that you sometimes have to reserve your energies for things you really want to talk about. You can see why that might be maddening for John’s family but this time the obstacle they can’t see is the obstacle of exhaustion. Perhaps we should have a little flag we could stick in the air when we are too tired for any but the most crucial conversations.
So here’s the question. What do I say the next time somebody tells me about their husband and his selective hearing? (Yes, sometimes it is about their own spouse. Imagine that……if your own partner thought you were deliberately choosing not to hear them?!?) The best I can come up with is “Sometimes people think I do that. I never pretend not to hear when I have, but sometimes I get too exhausted to try.”
Better responses? Answers on a postcard please, or rather, leave a comment below.