For many of us, the ability to hear the sounds around us is an integral part of our lives. Unfortunately, our modern, increasingly noisy world has seen a rapidly rising incidence of hearing loss across all age groups. The Hearing Health Foundation cites the following statistics:
• The number of Americans with hearing loss doubled between the years of 2000 and 2015—around 50 million Americans now suffer from hearing loss
• Globally the increase is around 44% for the same period—around 360 million people worldwide now suffer from hearing loss
• Hearing loss is the 2nd most prevalent health issue in the world
• 16% of teens report noise induced hearing loss
The statistics are clear: hearing loss is the silent epidemic. The question is how do you deal with hearing loss when it becomes a personal reality? We take our hearing for granted but the loss of our hearing can be a traumatic experience. This is true whether it is the result of a gradual process or sudden damage.
In her well-known book, “On Death and Dying”, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the stages we pass on our journey through grief to acceptance in the face of death. However, it is helpful to recognize that we pass through these same stages of grieving when faced with the loss of a large part of ourselves: our ability to hear. There is no standard time frame for moving through these stages, as everyone is different. But it is important to recognize these stages and accept the process: it’s part of being human.
One of the problems, particularly with gradual hearing loss is that we may not even notice our hearing deficit at first. This can make the denial stage more protracted. You may be aware that you are not able to understand the announcers on TV so easily anymore but you blame the way young people speak today. Or perhaps, you find conversation in groups more difficult and tiring and put it down to the people not being your type or to your stressful work situation. And then there is your continued refusal to have your hearing tested. These may be signs of denial.
The next stage in the process is anger. Your anger may be directed at fate, the universe, your employer who didn’t provide adequate ear protection or even your parents for the faulty genes they passed onto you. Maybe you have simply noticed your irritable response to a family member who keeps asking you to repeat yourself? In any case, it is important to recognize your feelings during this stage and to deal with them effectively.
We are social beings and when hearing loss interferes with our ability to interact with our families and friends it can lead to withdrawal and feelings of isolation for all parties concerned.
It is imperative that all members of the family deal with their anger and frustration. Don’t let the silent epidemic become a silent prison. Talk to a friend or seek the help of a counsellor.
As we begin to realize that we do have a problem, we look for a way of escape. We tell ourselves, if I change my diet, if I start wearing hearing protection at work, if I no longer listen to music through earpieces, if I look hard enough I will find a solution to this problem and it will go away. We give ourselves hope that our hearing will be restored. This is an important stage to go through but as with the other stages, do not get stuck here. Yes, do the research and explore your options for a cure but you do need to accept the possibility of the damage being permanent.
You may experience profound feelings of sorrow over your inability to hear the birds or the gentle babbling of a stream. If your hearing loss brings the added affliction of tinnitus, you may even feel sorrow at not being able to experience silence anymore. You need to recognize that your feelings of grief are normal. Depression, anxiety and the tendency to withdraw are normal responses but you should not prolong these states. You need to try and maintain communication with family and friends or talk to your health professional, otherwise you could find yourself in a vicious cycle of depression, anger, blame, and isolation.
If you are able to effectively deal with your emotions including anger, it will help you progress more quickly through this stage of depression.
When you come to terms with your loss you are in a position to evaluate clearly and rationally your next steps. You will be better able to decide on the right hearing aid for you or review other treatment options with a clear head and heart. When you reach the place of acceptance you are more likely to use your hearing aid rather than leave it at home.
The five stages that Kubler-Ross described above can help you process what is happening to you. You may also find the following reflection helpful, particularly if your anger and your desire to blame someone are taking a toll on your relationships.
Take a piece of paper and divide it into three columns. Title the columns:
1. Things I could have influenced
2. Things I couldn’t have controlled or predicted
3. Things that may have affected my hearing that I am unaware of
Find a quiet place where you will be undisturbed and look back at the origins of your hearing loss. Fill in the columns accordingly. In column one you might list the ototoxic medicines you took or the fact that you didn’t wear ear protection at work. However, you may also see that you were not fully in control of those events either: you may not have been aware of the dangers at the time.
You may not know the answers; especially for the third column but doing this reflection may help you to realize that you cannot necessarily blame any one person (particularly yourself) and lighten your load of grief and anger.
Marlee Matlin, the lead actress in the film, Children of a Lesser God, said, “The handicap of deafness is not in the ear; it is in the mind” . Your hearing loss may not be your fault but the way you respond is your responsibility. There are many things you can do to adapt to your hearing loss. We will explore more aspects of this process in a later article.
You are not alone with this problem. Come and visit us at https://www.houseofhearing.ca/ and we can help you explore your options.
I would like to acknowledge the work of Debbie Clason, staff writer for Healthy Hearing who reminded me of the importance of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ ground-breaking work.