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 prejudge 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.
This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.