pain

Living With High Frequency Hearing Loss

Photo by Marcin / Losesprit

Photo by Marcin / Losesprit

I can’t hear birdcalls, or the telephone buzzer on the landline. I can’t hear the highest note on piano concerts that are as familiar as the smell of childhood, or the shrill scream in horror movies that can make the hair on your arms stand on end. And truth be told, I don’t miss it.

I was always an overachiever. A snippy know-it-all who had answers ready before people finished asking their questions.

An ear infection I contracted in summer before sixth grade, triggered by the chlorine in the swimming pool left my ears sensitive and not in the best condition. Then it healed, but came back that winter – and again the summer after that.

Eventually, my eardrum had ruptured and re-healed half a dozen times, enough to permanently affect my hearing.

“I beg your pardon, can you please repeat what you said?”
“Oh my God, are you Deaf??”
“I’m sorry I didn’t catch that.”
“What the hell, you must be like, deaf or something. So annoying!”

These are question I now deal with, every single day. Whether it’s in class, surrounded by my friends, or in the queue for a ticket to the latest movie at the neighborhood multiplex, I’ve heard versions of this line over and over and over again every day since I was twelve. I’m nineteen now, but I’ve had high frequency hearing loss since sixth grade.

I don’t miss the sounds that once mattered to me, because I know that this is something I cannot control. I’ve made my peace with it. I do, however, miss the way life used to be, back when I didn’t feel left behind.

I miss out on bits of conversation when I’m out with friends, and then I can’t follow the rest of it – I used to ask them to repeat but they get tired or reiterating. I understand that. There’s only so many times you can repeat yourself before you roll your eyes and say ‘forget it.’

I miss writing at the speed of sound to keep up with lectures on Victorian Literature, and not having to peep into the badly transcribed notes of the people sitting around me. I miss being able to watch movies without frantically looking for subtitles, while my family and friends shoot out anxious glances in my direction that say ‘did you get what (the character) said?’

Because it’s a pattern I cannot break. When I mishear something, I get self-conscious. Then the awkwardness persists to a degree when I’m too scared of mishearing it again, even when I’ve probably heard it right. So I ask them to say it again, and again, and again.

There have been a lot of positives though. I can lip read brilliantly, which is my favorite thing to do when people are gossiping in low voices across the room. As long as I’m paying attention and can see their faces, I can make out what they’re saying. Sometimes, I walk past them and quietly repeat a particularly interesting line from the aforementioned conversation, just to watch their eyes widen and cheeks flush as I smile my sweetest smile.

On first dates, my eyes never leave their face. I’m extremely attentive, which automatically wins me brownie points (and if I’m lucky), a real brownie too.

On the whole, I think I’ve fared pretty well. I can laugh at myself when I’m mocked for being unable to hear things right in the first go. My tenth grade class had a running joke based on my ability to apparently tune everyone out when I was focusing on something else.

They even made a game out of it, which involved people taking it in turns to call me, betting on the fact that I wouldn’t hear them. Sometimes, I didn’t respond intentionally, so I’d hear them giggle and whisper ‘I told you so’ to each other. It gave me a fierce sort of pleasure, this ability to be in control of what hurt me.

Other times when people ask me if I am deaf, I half smile and apologize, and tell them that I do have a slight problem. That shuts them up and immediately gives them a disgusting mix of guilty and sympathy, which I hate – I avoid this all costs.

The best approach I have is to be upfront about it. At a meeting for an internship, or when I’m talking to someone new, I volunteer the information on my own. I may even make it funny in a casual setting – “My name is Tanvi, I love cats and the color green, and I have high frequency hearing loss so you may have to repeat your own introduction a few times!”

I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t hurt when my father yells at me for being unable to hear what he had to say after ten minutes of patiently calling out to me. I won’t pretend it doesn’t kill me when my best friends tell each other, “never-mind she can’t hear you anyway”, if we’re short on time during a decision making break on trips, and I’m slowing them down. I can’t pretend I don’t cry in the privacy of my room sometimes, when someone assumes I’m disabled, handicapped, or not equipped for a task, just because I’m slightly hard of hearing.

My problem, like all human suffering, waxes and wanes according to the season. (I’m not even being poetic, the humidity literally impacts my hearing.) The one thing that remains constant is the reality of it. I am slightly hard of hearing. It doesn’t get in the way of regular interactions for the most part, so I’m lucky, but it gets on everyone’s nerves at times, including my own. It could have been endearing – and indeed it was when I was a cute twelve-year-old saying “I beg your pardon” in a grown up voice – but it isn’t any more. I’ve accepted that someday it might get worse. I might even have to wear a hearing aid, but so what?

On bad days, when I find myself excluded from conversations, missing out on details I can’t hear, lagging in class because I couldn’t lip read and write notes at the same time – and feel alone and miserable, and misunderstood because of something that truly isn’t my fault, I think of moments of clarity from the past.

And I realize that the people who know my heart don’t and won’t need affirmations through words. Sometimes when they say, “I love you,” I may respond with “yeah, it’s three o clock.”

But they won’t call me out on that. They will smile and let it slide, knowing that I love them too.

Tanvi Deshmukh is a nineteen year old woman from Pune, India, with an affinity for words and books, cats and coffee,Nepalese food and hippie music, and the colour green (along with Oxford commas). Currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in English, she loves poetry, volunteers at an NGO and plays the keyboard in her free time. Along with devouring books of all kinds, unless of course, she’s in the middle of heated discussions on feminism, patriarchy, gay rights, or what to name the neighbour’s new dog.

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