How masking up made me face a reality.

It’s amazing how we all write our own narratives and sometimes figure things out later than everybody else. Sometimes friends, family and loved ones try to tell you something for years, and yet you go on unabated until reality hits you between the eyes and you can no longer ignore a truth. And this is in an age where the truth doesn’t feel like it counts for much anymore.

I’m a bit deaf. Actually, I’m really quite deaf. Or to use the more polite phrasing, I am officially very hard of hearing. When I can’t hear something (which is a lot of the time) I ask the person to repeat themselves and try and soften this by saying “sorry, it’s just that I’m a bit deaf.” I’ve seen copious memes that depict an individual smiling blankly after asking somebody to repeat themselves for the third time and STILL not hearing the answer.

Why do I feel that need to apologise? In honesty it’s probably a reflection on my own lack of patience when I have had to repeat myself for others. And that’s the guilt-inducing first recognition: true empathy for another’s disability only comes when it is thrust upon us, or where it is physically obvious. I respect those badges that say “I have a hidden disability” – I don’t own one, but I appreciate the people that wear them, giving me the heads up to not be impatient, and a kindly reminder that things might not always be as they seem.

I had perfect pitch as a child. As I write that sentence I am aware it makes me sound like a dick, but it is true. I could play music by ear, could always sing in tune and could mimic others’ voices, accents and impressions very well. I could hear the signal start up on the old analogue television upstairs in our house, when my sisters swore blind I was making it up. I wasn’t. I think my hearing was just very sensitive.

I have always loved music, and I adored my Walkman, and then my Minidisc player, then my iPod and yes, I probably played them all a bit too loud.

And then I lost my hearing. You know how you get that ringing in the ears after a night in the club or a loud bar? I used to get that, like everybody else. However, then I went to a gig in London in 2002 and the ringing in my ears afterwards was immense. I remember the gig being especially loud, but the ringing was so intense when I left the venue that I could barely hear my companion. I remember lying in bed and thinking “bloody hell, I hope this stops by the morning.”

It never did: it gradually got a bit quieter, but the ringing always remained. I remember being annoyed by it, but it didn’t stop there. The damage done led to a slow and gradual decline in my ability to hear. I never went to the doctor about it, which wasn’t very wise.

One night a couple of years later, I was sat in bed listening to Duran Duran (obsessed with the Eighties, even then) on my new iPod Mini and I pulled out the headphone jack, thinking that it must have been broken because there seemed to be chunks of the music production missing: particular layers of the track Planet Earth – which I knew inside out, but couldn’t hear. I started the track again, plugged in a different pair of headphones. The same thing happened again. And that was when I realised that it wasn’t the headphones or the earphones, or a weird remix of the track: I just couldn’t hear the higher pitches anymore. I could remember them and I knew where they had been, but that was all.

I was in denial, just hoping it would resolve itself. On a trip to Berlin in 2012, my pal repeated herself endlessly. I now understand it must have driven her absolutely nuts. My parents and siblings also told me to go and get it sorted out. I finally went for a hearing test in 2015, a mere 13 years after the gig that caused it.

Why didn’t I go sooner? It was part apathy and part denial. I’m incredibly self-reliant and hate asking others for help. I’m getting over that these days, but back then I just knew it wouldn’t be great news and I didn’t want to hear it, no pun intended. I finally made a New Year’s Resolution in 2015 to go and sort it out and I trundled off to Specsavers for a free hearing test. It was obvious very quickly, as I sat in the booth trying to hear things that I couldn’t, that the results would be bad.

I stepped out of the soundproof booth resigned to my fate and the woman running the test just looked at me aghast.

“How long has it been like this?” she asked.

“Umm, it’s been getting worse since 2002.” Saying that out loud made me realise how ridiculous this all was. She referred me to a doctor, who referred me to the hospital for a brain scan – because the hearing loss was so bad for someone my age – which thankfully came back all good. And then it was time to get some hearing aids.

As I waited for my appointment to come round, I reflected on how I’d managed to navigate all these years being this deaf. What I realised was that I had become an excellent lip reader. When I ran on a treadmill in the gym, they had big televisions suspended from the ceiling, often with BBC News playing with no subtitles (helpful!), and I realised I could watch it quite comfortably and could work out most of what was being said.

When I was in meetings, I strategically placed myself at the table where I could see everybody. I often repeated things back to people to clarify that I had heard them correctly. These were coping mechanisms that meant I had hidden my deafness for a long time, but deep down I knew that the only person I was really trying to hide it from was myself. I just could not imagine being a person walking around wearing hearing aids. I was stupidly embarrassed by even the thought of it and then felt guilty and ashamed for feeling that way when there were so many people out there with much more life changing disabilities than this.

The chap who helped tune my hearing aids was a peculiar fella, but very experienced and I am so glad he helped me. He was based at the old Bristol Infirmary, and we met three times trying them on and getting the right fit and pitch. He gave me great advice: build up slowly, a few hours here and there. When he switched them on for the first time it was immense. He scrunched up a piece of plastic wrap that was on the table before throwing it in the bin and it was really loud. I realised I hadn’t heard the sound of any carrier bag being scrunched for years. It might sound silly but it was emotional in a way: not the bloody carrier bag, but the realisation of how much I had missed in the interim years. How many conversations I had misheard or not heard at all, the jokes I hadn’t heard the punchlines of, and god knows what else.

Later that week I drove my then husband to work. It was an early spring day and warm. I had the windows down and as I sat at the traffic lights all I could hear was birdsong. Again, something I had not been able to hear for years. These highs of hearing again were wonderful, but it didn’t mean the journey was over or settled.

I wore my hearing aids gradually and realised there were now certain scenarios where they were an absolute blessing: any loud social situation in a pub, restaurant, beer festival, work. They were vital and made a massive difference. They helped correct my speech and stop what was becoming a slight slur in how I talked.

So why did I stop wearing them so frequently?

I blamed struggling to get into the habit of wearing them consistently on wanting to listen to music on my way into work and then also having to wear a radio headset at work which wasn’t hearing aid compatible. This was all true – but in hindsight I should have prioritised my hearing and sacked off the radio.

I think deep down I was still struggling with accepting my deafness as official. It took meeting my new partner and him gently challenging me around it – and me getting really upset about it many times – to start to accept that I just had a problem accepting help and accepting that something in my body just didn’t work anymore. Why was I more comfortable struggling than not? Why was I also comfortable asking my friends and loved ones to repeat themselves all day and night because I wouldn’t wear what we now all referred to as my “ears”?

It has been a journey but things came to a head this year. Good old 2020: this pandemic and mandatory mask wearing at work meant that my old reliable ability to lip read disappeared overnight. Plus, I couldn’t hear people as clearly because they were also talking through a mask. I went to find my hearing aids one night, after a few days of not wearing them again, and realised I didn’t know where they were. And I soon realised what I’d done. I’d kept them “safe” in a piece of tissue, in the pocket of my denim jacket, and then emptied those pockets straight into the bin when I’d got home.

I was really sad and ashamed with myself. This incident led to one final showdown of me throwing my toys out the pram and being upset, crying away my obsessive self-reliance and finally accepting a truth. I am deaf. In fact, I’m deaf as fuck and I need to bloody wear my hearing aids if I am to protect what’s left of my hearing for the rest of my life, and if I want to engage in conversation and laugh like normal people do.

The hospital, in the midst of lockdown, were still brilliant. They issued me a new set of hearing aids the next day and told me to be careful and not do it again. Since then, I have worn them a lot of the time, got used to it, and it is now just what I do.

This all said, and I’m sure others who wear hearing aids understand this too, there is something quite nice about pulling them out at the end of a day. The world is a very loud place, and for 13 years I had got used to it gradually tuning downwards into a slow and steady burr of low-pitched comfort noise.

My hearing aids awoke the whole world – with its pings and text messaging tones, its sirens, the crying of young ones, the bin day screech of the refuse van, the traffic, the echoed noise of a busy shopping mall, the clatter of a canteen. It was a lot to adjust to and, to be honest, I didn’t really like all of it. But, all said and done, I would rather be able to hear what my other half says, not miss the punchline of a joke amongst friends, await the knowing quip of my dad’s well-rehearsed family running jokes than miss any of that.

The pandemic has meant I’ve got more used to wearing my hearing aids consistently and I have finally made it a habit. I’ve accepted that I don’t listen to music on my way to work and that it isn’t the end of the world: there is always music playing in my house anyhow. I listen to the roads and the birds, the espresso machines in the cafés doing their job, the cars and the chatter of other people instead: something I hadn’t been able to hear for many, many years.

9 thoughts on “How masking up made me face a reality.

  1. Never realised it was a gig that did the damage! I’ve walked out of gigs before because they were so loud I was worried about the potential damage.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This makes me both sad and happy. Sad because I don’t think I realised how deaf you had become and also sad that it took so long to get you to understand that hearing aids would be a good thing! Happy because, as always, I knew you would get there eventually and I’m proud of how you have managed a very difficult life change XX


  3. Wow, well done Zoe for sharing your story and how you dealt with it. I love that your partner encouraged you to wear them more. I have a friend who lost a lot of hearing in one ear after getting a cold virus. She found it quite hard to accept too.
    I wear gas permeable lenses. My vision is +10 , so without the contacts, I can’t see a thing. Although, I’ve always been like that since a baby, so it’s not something I had to get used to.
    I’m absolutely sure you will have helped someone by sharing this. X


    1. Thanks so much for your comment Caroline, it means a lot! Your poor friend – wonder if that could be glue-ear, as I know several people who have had something similar but it’s a nightmare! X


  4. What a great read and so inspirational. Thank you for sharing. Even with good hearing it has been evident how much I rely on lip reading so even more appreciative of how hard it must be for you.

    Also nice to reflect back to our uni days and your love for music I will always remember. Was it HMV you worked if my memory serves me well?

    Thanks for the read and much love x


    1. Ahhh thanks so much Sarah! Yes, I had worked at both Virgin but then did spend time working for HMV in the years that followed university. Still a big music fan! Hope you are keeping safe and well! X


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