Hearing loss: Listening to you

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Mr. FurleyListening to you, I get the music.
Gazing at you, I get the heat.
Following you, I climb the mountain.
I get excitement at your feet. – The Who, 1969

An old friend flew to Boulder a few months ago for a visit. We hadn’t seen each other in a year and we looked forward to spending some time together. Part of the visit included a road trip to Taos and that’s when previous tensions in our relationship began to rear their ugly heads.

We have a storied history of petty arguments and fallings-out. I didn’t hear something he said about some plans once we got to our destination, this caused an issue, and he lashed out the next day: “Sometimes you just don’t listen, Josh!” I blew up, we argued, I told him off, and we eventually went our separate ways. We’ve since patched things up.

So how can this be? A friend, former roommate, and bandmate of 20 years, a person with whom I’ve had several conversations about my hearing impairment, doesn’t seem to get it? And as it turns out, his mother was blinded as a young girl and overcame enormous obstacles to lead a fulfilling life. He should get it. It’s something I’m used to and accept. I have an invisible disability. All I ask is that when I try to explain the condition, people will listen. Just as I have been listening – intently – for decades.

Growing up hearing impaired turns you into a liar. Not a deceitful, opportunistic, loathsome person, but an unintentional fibber. The brain functions on overdrive when it misses auditory cues. Like a search engine, but at a much slower pace, the brain searches for what it might have missed; whether it’s a teacher teaching, dialogue in a movie, or someone sitting across the table in a restaurant trying to engage with you. A person with hearing loss will typically undergo a knee-jerk reaction and cover the impairment by pretending to fully hear what was said. Many times they will also fill in the blanks with a random number of words he/she thought they missed. These are reactions that are sometimes uncontrollable and will eventually backfire. There can be a series of misunderstandings, backtracking, and just plain miscommunication (or, missed communication) that would feel right at home on an episode of Three’s Company. Someone like me can eventually reverse these behaviors by being more open and transparent about the hearing loss and trusting the acceptance and understanding of others.

How do you explain specific brain activity caused by hearing loss and missed auditory cues to someone who hasn’t experienced it? That’s the challenge with most impairments and disabilities, I suppose. Unfortunately, the concept of impaired communication with your fellow human can be downright exhausting. My intelligence doesn’t make up for the fact that even in the best possible environmental circumstances for me hearing someone else, the brain still needs to search-optimize the content I’m thinking before it spews out of my mouth. Not only does hearing loss cause this entanglement of “what-was-that?” and “excuse-me?,” but it also forces a breakdown in searching the language and formulating the sentences and statements before they’re actually used verbally. If it takes a while for me to explain something in person, the above scenario is generally the case.

The positive, motivating, and joyous thing about experiencing all of these things is that it has made me an amazing listener. It’s exhausting at times, with my hearing loss, but I consider myself to be an affable, courteous, and thoughtful person. I suppose these are some personality traits that arise out of really listening to others. As a kid, the act of listening was made with a conscious effort out of necessity and it’s reaped its rewards as time has progressed. I’m a nice adult who’s passionate about the well-being of our planet, animals, and cares about others. Did all of that come out of just being an intent listener? Maybe.

The most important thing you can do is listen. We’re surrounded by people drowning in their smartphones, but they also have internal battles. I was sometimes perceived as an aloof and shy kid, but that wasn’t accurate — I just didn’t hear things and chose to isolate myself because struggling to keep up — to listen — was tiring. I wanted nothing more than to be able to engage with others on a “normal” level. Then I experienced what it’s like to listen. To really listen to someone’s stories, their passions, their pain. It’s bonding. It’s exhausting. It’s amazing. It’s worth it. Especially if you hear all of it.

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