Until I met Dave in 1998, I’d never really been around anyone with a hearing loss. As far as I know, nobody I went to school with was hard of hearing. All of my friends and family members had regular hearing, except my paternal grandmother (who died when I was around 12) and one of my cousins. So I grew up interacting with ‘hearing people’ and consequently depending on them to fill in the gaps if I missed something.
My hearing loss didn’t really affect my dating life. I usually didn’t even mention it until my hearing aid would inevitably squeal and give me away. I did the regular things people did on dates – went dancing, went to movies, to parties – and faked my way through. Lip reading got me through at parties and clubs, but oh what a lot of work it was! Movies were another issue, since back then they didn’t have open captioned movies. I would catch a few words here and there, lip read if I could, laugh when everybody else laughed. Sometimes I’d whisper and ask for something to be repeated, but I tried not to do that.
My biggest nightmare was being somewhere dark, where lip reading was difficult or impossible, and trying to carry on a conversation. Bonfires, late night trysts, dark clubs or rooms were all things I tried to avoid.
I got married for the first time at an early age, 20 (although I turned 21 a couple weeks after the wedding and I really felt old and worldly at the time…ha ha). My first husband had normal hearing and quickly learned that I had a deep hatred and avoidance of the telephone. He was very gregarious and loved talking on the phone, but the kind of calls I usually needed him to make were not fun for him (calls regarding insurance or other technical matters where I was the one who knew the details of the issue being discussed). Still, we fell into a pattern where he made the phone calls and I did anything that involved writing, including writing checks and paying bills.
Because he was really outgoing and loved being around people, he liked giving and attending parties. I hated parties, not only because I could never hear over the music and background noise of people talking…I’m also terrible at small talk, and can’t think of things to say to people I don’t know. I’m the person who will latch onto you at a party and stay by your side all night, while you try to get away from me and mingle with other people. I used to ask my ex to stay by me and not leave me alone at parties; he would promise but inevitably wander off and leave me stranded.
So anyway, you get used to having this person there who hears what you miss. When the kids were born, we had baby monitors that flashed lights if the kids made noise. They didn’t much help me at night when my hearing aids were off and my eyes were closed, but my ex would hear them crying and attend to them or wake me up. If we were both home and the kids were calling to me or getting into something and I didn’t hear them, he would alert me. He’d hear the doorbell or telephone ringing, tornado sirens going off, or if the car was making strange noises.
When we split up, the kids were pretty young – Paige was 2 and Eric was 6. One of the hardest parts of being a single mom for me was not hearing them at night. There were also a few mornings when they got up WAY before me and got into mischief as I blissfully slept away, hearing nothing.
I met Dave through an online hearing loss support group called the Say What Club. It wasn’t until I was alone and had nobody to depend on that I really had to face what a hardship my hearing loss was. Up until then, I kind of dismissed it as an annoyance much like having to wear glasses. But I depended more on help from others than I ever realized. This was the first time I was really on my own; before I got married, I lived at home with my parents. I prided myself on the things I was learning to do by myself, and figured that I really needed to address my hearing loss and learn to advocate for myself.
It wasn’t until 1997 that I discovered alarm clocks that would vibrate the bed, for instance. As I joined support groups and started talking to other people with varying degrees of hearing loss, I realized I shouldn’t be embarrassed to let people know up front that I had a hearing loss. It just made things so much easier!
Back then I did still have some hearing, so I wasn’t dealing with total deafness. I was hearing pretty well with my bi-CROS hearing aids, even though I was profoundly deaf in my right ear and had a moderate-to-severe loss in the right.
Once Dave and I realized that our online friendship might be more than just friendship, we decided to meet in person. This was my first time meeting another person with the same degree of hearing loss as me, who wore hearing aids. Dave lost his hearing as an adult so he doesn’t lip read as much as I do. I found myself assuming he could hear much better than he really could. As funny as it sounds, it took me a while to get used to having to repeat myself and put myself in his position. You’d think that would be second nature for me, since I deal with the same struggles he does, but I was just so used to being around people with normal hearing.
It took some time for me to remember to face Dave, to talk clearly and not toss a comment over my shoulder as I was walking away. Things I was used to doing in other dating situations, like going out to restaurants, movies or bars, were things he really had no interest in. I never had much interest in them either, but I used to go along for the sake of being part of the majority. As our relationship continued, we developed our own little ways of doing things. We order food from a restaurant and bring it home to eat, most times. If we do go out to eat, we try to be seated in a corner and I make an extra effort to talk louder because Dave has a harder time than I do in a restaurant. (I really depend on lip reading in those situations.)
Because I lip read better than he does, I try to take over in situations where we’re talking face to face to somebody. If he misses what they say, I’ll let him know. Usually I’m the person who talks to cashiers and clerks.
I made the mistake of taking him to a dance club in the early days of our relationship. NEVER AGAIN. He still brings it up, 11 years later, and tells me I owe him! I really didn’t comprehend his balance problems, even though he’d told me about them before. His vestibular nerves were damaged when he had leukemia, so he gets his balance from his eyes. It took him a long, long time to be able to walk without a cane, without bouncing off the walls (literally). If it’s dark, or there’s nothing for him to focus on and get a “horizon line”, he’ll wobble. I see it at night if he’s walking down the hallway and it’s dark – he’ll do a subtle veer into the wall. In movie theaters, he makes sure to hold the railing as we walk through the dark theater to our seats. We don’t take walks at night for the same reason.
But…I took him to a dance club! Wall to wall people, in a dark room with lights flickering on and off. I was meeting up with some people from work. Dave made his way to a wall by the dance floor and literally held on for dear life, while I danced. He told me later he couldn’t even tell if he was right-side up or not – everyone was moving up and down and there was nothing for him to focus on. It didn’t take long for me to realize he was genuinely uncomfortable and for us to beat a quick exit. He was awfully good-natured about it, and I only needed to make that mistake once to learn what he could and couldn’t handle.
There were many times I’d assume Dave would hear something, only to realize he was in the same boat I was. One thing we still laugh about was the first time he made coffee for me. He was adding milk and sugar and told me to say “when” when he’d poured in enough milk. I was standing next to him and said, “when”. He kept pouring. I said, “when”. He kept pouring. Finally I tugged his sleeve and yelped “When!!” He glanced up, surprised, and stopped pouring just as the cup was about to overflow. Then we both cracked up – he said, “I was wondering just how much milk you wanted…it seemed like an awful lot!”
He tends to wander around with his hearing aid off, especially first thing in the morning, so I’ve learned to glance at his ears before I start talking to him. He can still hear me, but I have to talk louder and be sure he can see me if his hearing aid isn’t in. I’m the opposite – the first thing I do when I wake up is put my CIs on! However, sometimes I’ll have them off (after a shower, for example, when my hair is still wet) and he’ll start talking to me and not realize I have no idea he’s even speaking.
Once I got used to communicating with someone who’s also hearing impaired, I realized how nice it was to be with someone who felt the same way I did about parties and loud social events. It’s great to know, for instance, that if we go to the movies, it will be an open captioned show. Closed captioning is always permanently on if we’re watching TV, and if a show isn’t captioned, we don’t watch it.
Every day we have little hearing misunderstandings and we both can laugh about them. Just today, I told Dave I was making an extensive packing list for our trip to Nashville later this week (for the HLAA convention). He looked confused and said, “Why?!” I said, “Um…so I don’t forget anything?” Then he said, “Wait…what did you say, again?” I told him and he laughed – he’d thought I said an “expensive” packing list!
Later on he was telling me how, when he was growing up, he lived for a while on a farm. People would buy their cattle, and I thought he was saying that “poor people would buy part of the cow”. I kept saying, “Really? I would think only rich people could afford to do that.” He looked confused and then started laughing, saying, “No! I said FOUR people would go in and buy the cow.” Four rich people, I assume. LOL
So I’ve had to learn tolerance and compassion for my own hearing impaired partner, which was more eye opening than I expected it to be. I can’t rely on Dave to hear everything for me and I have to step in and help him out in areas where my hearing is better than his. I have to be patient and repeat myself (as many times as necessary) until he understands what I’m saying, with no snapping or saying, “Just forget it, it’s not important!” And he does the exact same for me. There have been times he’s repeated himself so many times that he will finally start fingerspelling to help me understand him. We have our own sign language we resort to, with signs we both know and some fingerspelling thrown in, that we fall back on in noisy situations. We laugh together about the things we mishear.
To sum it all up, I think the most important aspect of being in a relationship (no matter what kind) with someone who has a hearing loss is patience. It’s not easily learned, but it’s so important. Dave never makes me feel like communicating with me is frustrating. And I hope I never do that to him.