Being Deaf Can Feel Isolating. Even More So During A Global Pandemic.

"I’ve been socially distancing since I was in elementary school."
Nuthawut Somsuk via Getty Images

I’ve struggled to make friends ever since I was diagnosed with profound hearing loss at the age of 5. I grew up in a hearing family and was mainstreamed in public schools. I could often be found reading at lunch or on the playground instead of interacting with other kids. Rather than being bullied, I was mostly just left alone by my peers who didn’t know how they could communicate with me, if at all.

“Oh, I’m an introvert,” I would say. Or, “My sisters are my best friends.” And, in retrospect, the saddest statement I made as a child: “I don’t need friends because I have books.” I would reassure myself and others in this way, but in my heart I knew I was missing out on something essential.

I distinctly remember coming home from the first day of school one year in my teens and going to sit behind the giant bush in our front yard until it got dark. My mom eventually came outside to find me crying my heart out. It just didn’t seem fair, to have to stick out like a sore thumb as the only deaf kid in school and simultaneously be that lonely.

That stab of loneliness followed me all the way through college and for years after graduation, although I managed to soften the edges with a couple of friendships, a serious boyfriend and my family. Then, after a breakup, the single luckiest event of my life occurred: I went on a random Tinder date and met Jesse. Not only did I meet the love of my life, but he came with a wonderful bonus: Jesse had two best friends — a married couple our age — who lived in his apartment complex, and the four of us did everything together. I gained not just a boyfriend, but a thriving, happy, meaningful social life.

I was still deaf, of course, but it no longer seemed to matter.

Three years later, we packed up Jesse’s drums, my books and our dog into Jesse’s car and drove across the country to live in Seattle. I wasn’t worried about our social life in Seattle. Jesse is the kind of person who always manages to effortlessly attract groups of friends. (I know, I kind of hate him, too.) However, I figured any friends we made in Seattle would be Jesse’s friends first and foremost, and mine by association.

I’m happy to admit I was wrong. Shortly after our move, I found myself being invited to weekly ”Bachelor” and wine nights with a group of girls. On one memorable night, three of us went out to dinner, followed by a very tipsy viewing of Greta Gerwig’s ”Little Women” (making sure ahead of time that there would be subtitles for me). If I wanted to grab coffee or go to the park or try a workout class, I had my choice of friends to invite.

Then, in early March, the coronavirus hit Seattle: slow and sneaky at first, infiltrating our conversations at work and at game night. We were told it would be like a bad flu. We weren’t worried.

Then, in the span of a week, Jesse and almost everyone else in our friend group were told to work from home for the foreseeable future, restaurants started to switch to takeout only before closing down completely, and we all adjusted to our new normal of social isolation within our small apartments.

I’ve got this, I told myself. I’ve been socially distancing since I was in elementary school. I was anxious at first about the logistics of trying to lip-read people from 6 feet away — let alone the impossibility of lip-reading someone wearing a face mask — but as Jesse and I come to the end of our fourth week of being quarantined inside our apartment, those fears haven’t materialized. If anything, I’ve been appreciating having all of my conversations with friends happen via a big group text because now I never miss a thing.

But then I ran into the video call dilemma. Desperate for some socialization, our whole group decided to do a Zoom happy hour. At first, it was a huge mood boost to see our friends’ faces again. Their voices, however, were barely audible as I watched everyone banter on the laptop screen. Zoom doesn’t provide any captioning for its video calls. It was sound without meaning; socializing without connection.

I excused myself and went to watch TV alone in the bedroom, annoyed to once again be the teen crying behind the bush but unable to help my feelings of frustration and sadness over being left out.

I realize how petty it seems to complain about something like the lack of captions on Zoom calls when the hospitals are short on face masks and ventilators, the economy is grinding to a halt, and people are losing jobs and loved ones. I am incredibly fortunate to still have my health, my work and the knowledge that my loved ones are — at least at the time of writing this — safe and sound.

My intention in writing this isn’t to complain, or even to simply share my unique experience of this surreal moment in time. Rather, I want to remind everyone to focus on the bonds that we can continue to make and nurture with others even when we are apart.

One 2013 report found that feelings of loneliness can increase the risk of death by up to 45%, and deaf people and seniors in particular are at risk. A Dutch study found that every decibel drop in people under 70 increases the odds of becoming severely lonely by 7%.

As a deaf person, I know just how awful it can be to feel isolated. I’ve had to struggle with it my entire life. But many, many people are suddenly experiencing the side effects of isolation for the first time.

Think for a moment about who might be struggling in isolation right now: your grandmother, your friend who lives alone, the single parent, the new mom who’s forced to be apart from family while acclimating to life with a newborn, your favorite teacher from elementary school whom you haven’t spoken to in a while, your cousin who had to go home early from college, your friend whom you suspect might be in an abusive relationship, your friend who suffers from depression and anxiety in the best of times.

Reach out to them. Whether it’s by text, email, FaceTime or even having a meal delivered, go out of your way to connect with them in a way that will make them feel less alone right now.

My story at least has a happy ending. I finally admitted that I couldn’t hear during our Zoom get-togethers, and alternatives were quickly suggested. Skype has captioned videos! And so does Google Meet! Still, I hesitated. Everyone used Zoom. People preferred Zoom. I couldn’t possibly ask them to switch for me.

“Kelly,” Jesse sighed in exasperation. “These people will do anything for you because they’re your friends. That’s what friendship is.”

So I said yes, please, let’s switch. And so we switched to Skype, and I could follow the whole hour-long group conversation. And now I have tomorrow’s happy hour with all of our friends to look forward to, and next week’s, and so on for as long as we need to stay home, and I can feel the lonely kid inside of me continue to heal.

What is it like to be deaf during a global pandemic and nationwide lockdown? Like many of you, I feel anxious and impatient and sometimes scared — but I don’t feel alone, thanks to my friends.

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