Somewhat Deaf and Completely Scared

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Doug Zeigler was born with a hearing defect. He tried all he could to hide it from everyone for one reason: FEAR.

I was born with nerve deafness in both ears. My left ear is much worse than my right, but neither are very good at picking up basic sounds. When I was a young boy, my mother would get mad at me because she thought I was just ignoring her. I’d be nestled in front of the TV and she’d ask me something from the kitchen. When I didn’t reply, she’d say it louder, which of course I didn’t hear. Exasperated, she’d come to the doorway of the living room and ask rather loudly why I didn’t respond, and I’d tell her that I didn’t hear her. Naturally she just assumed I was simply not paying attention like most kids, but that was not at all the case.

When I was around 5 years old, my mom took me for a hearing test. When it was discovered that I really couldn’t hear very well at all, my mom (who told me this years later) felt terrible that she didn’t believe it. I was told to be sure to sit at the front of every class lest I miss some important tidbit of information, and the school administration was informed of my hearing defect. I remember, even at that young of an age, being horrified by this. Nothing is worse as a kid making his or her way through elementary school than to be different than all the other kids. So I did what most kids who have an issue do at that age: I acted as if I didn’t have a problem.

My schooling went on and I kept pretending that I was perfectly normal. I was in an “advanced” class, I was mildly gifted athletically which helped with social acceptance, and I was easy to get along with. By the time I reached middle school, I had already developed the ability to read lips as people talked to me, which was essential to me hiding my hearing problem. Despite my occasional “What?” or “Pardon me?” to fill in the conversational gaps, no one knew I could barely hear. My assimilation as a “normal” kid was complete.

♦◊♦

College came and went without anyone knowing about my problem—still by design on my part. I wanted so badly to be like everyone else, I was scrambling to make myself into what everyone else was, even though I wasn’t. I was still that young kid too scared to let anyone know I was different and needed help.

I continued through my adult life as I always had, but now I added a caveat to conversations in crowded places like the bars I would frequent. I’d simply throw out “It’s really loud!” or “Sorry, but I don’t hear very well in crowds” to those I was talking to. It was as close to an admission of my hearing problem as I would get before a very specific instance with my sons and my wife would be the catalyst for really getting help.

My wife and I were still dating, not even engaged yet. We were riding in the car with my sons in the back. They were being a bit unruly, so I asked in stern voice for them to calm down. After I said this, my oldest son started talking back under his breath, knowing I couldn’t hear it. What he didn’t realize was that Jill could hear them. After she let them know that talking back to their father was disrespectful and unacceptable, the boys were wide-eyed, knowing they could no longer get away with their low-talking shenanigans. But the proverbial cat was out of the bag now. She knew I needed help.

So, at the behest of my wife, I went for a hearing test to determine how much hearing loss I had…with her accompanying me. I’m not ashamed to say (now) that scared the shit out of me. In this weird panic, I was worried she’d see how bad it is was, and say “Screw this!” and leave me. I should have known better, because no one is a bigger fan of me than my Jillian. After the test was complete, I awaited my wife’s response. She was shocked at just how pronounced my hearing loss was, and was surprised that I was able to function as well as I could. My specific hearing loss affects me in crowds and at high frequencies. If there’s any amount of background noise, I can only hear about every third or fourth word; the rest is reading lips and guess work.

The next step is going to see a hearing aid specialist. My wife and mother-in-law are there with me. They both hear what my needs are. And here again, I regress back to my elementary years worrying about what everyone will think when they see me with hearing aids. Oddly, it’s not my family, friends and co-workers I worry about, it’s complete strangers.

Think about it: who do you normally see with hearing aids? Old people and people with disabilities. Or at least, that was my perception. I didn’t want people to pre-judge me. I wanted no pity; no one assuming that I needed special care. I simply desired to be like everyone else. It’s no different than someone who has glasses. They have a need to allow one of their senses to function better; so do I. But again, my brain was engulfed in the notion that people would assume I had issues beyond being able to hear well. I was completely wrong.

I have had not one person that I know that made that assumption. In actuality, I get curious questions about how it works and if it has helped me, to which I always respond with a resounding YES! I can hear my kids and all of the silly jokes they tell. I can hear my wife whisper something inappropriate amongst a group of people, which makes us giggle and smile. I can HEAR.

It’s not perfect. I still have some difficulty hearing in restaurants and other places with a lot of background noise. There are times when I have to ask Jillian what someone said in a movie, TV show or have her clarify what someone else said. But it is decidedly better—to the point that people can tell when I don’t have my hearing aids in. And that is wonderful thing, really.

Hearing loss or deafness to whatever degree is an awful thing. It may not be as bad as other afflictions; but it can rob you of tender moments and potentially important information. What matters is that those you love understand and love you for who you are. If you have that, then you already do belong, and the rest of the world will eventually catch up.

Photo:Flickr/Doug van Kampen

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About Doug Zeigler

Doug is a husband, a father of four, a tech and video game geek. In his rare spare moments, he enjoys good books and even better beers, exploring new things, places and food with his wife and Kentucky basketball. He also possesses a vast knowledge of 80's music that he hopes will pay off big at some random trivia night.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing about this Doug. One of my challenges is sharing my weaknesses, or more accurately what I perceive to be weaknesses, with others. That includes sharing it with people who are very close to me, like my wife and the rest of my family. Of course, such openness with the right people often helps more than I ever assumed it would.

    • Doug Zeigler says:

      Right you are, Nate. Having loved ones to share your fears as well as your hopes can free you in ways you never thought possible. At least that’s been my experience. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this.

  2. Doug, thank you for this article. I have hearing loss similar to yours except that mine is middle frequency, and there are no useful hearing aids right now. It was very hard to start telling people about this, and a lot of them still want to “fix” me, but most are very understanding, and it’s a lot easier to function when people make the effort to look at you. I’m glad I’m not the only one who was hiding and scared.

    • Doug Zeigler says:

      JJ, I do feel like we are just scratching the surface of helping folks with all kinds of hearing difficulties. It can be really difficult and even embarrassing (which was part of my struggle) to explain to others that all you really need is to talk face to face most times.

      Thanks for sharing your side too.

  3. Your story closely parallels that of one of my closest friends; she too was born with nerve deafness, and has only about 30 percent normal hearing. She was fortunate to be diagnosed early (her mother found it odd that a two-year-old did not even flinch when a metal pan came crashing down on the kitchen floor right behind her!) but she still struggled because her family could not afford good hearing aids and the country she grew up in (Taiwan) lacked social or charitable programs that might have provided them. That, combined with trying to learn to talk with a severe hearing impairment, caused her to have a profound speech impediment as well, and she was the target of bullying and taunts as a child. By the time her parents immigrated to the US when she was in junior high school, like you, she had learned to cope and hide her problem by lip-reading as much as possible. Despite continued bullying due to her speech, she became an outstanding student and got a full-ride scholarship to college. But she soon found herself struggling academically due to her inability to hear in large lecture halls, and having social issues as well. She was on the verge of dropping out when a perceptive professor picked up on her problems and told her about a state program (vocational rehabilitation) that would help her get the hearing aids she needed. She too had a hard time acknowledging that she needed help–she was raised to never ask for help–but it made a huge difference. She went on to get a master’s degree in counseling and now works exclusively with the deaf and hearing-impaired population and is highly respected by the deaf community where we live. She is even working on a PhD! She is a huge inspiration to me. She still has some struggles and problems, but where she once considered her hearing impairment a curse to be hidden at all costs, she now considers it just part of who she is, and it led her to find her calling. Sounds like you’ve found your place as well. Great piece!

    • Doug Zeigler says:

      That is truly an inspirational story, KatyD! Thanks for sharing that. It took me 40+ years, but I’ve finally accepted it as part of who I am too. Good for her that she figured that out much sooner than I did.

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