By Temma Ehrenfeld
I was born with borderline hearing, enough to get by, and so I did. In junior high, my parents asked me for the first time if I wanted a hearing aid, after a school doctor recommended one. I don’t even recall the conversation. Apparently, I said I was fine and my parents didn’t push.
I knew I couldn’t hear things other people heard. I knew I couldn’t participate in group conversations at a table, when people were talking in different directions, from angles where I couldn’t see them or turn my head in time. I knew I couldn’t hear certain teachers unless I sat in the front row. I knew other kids made fun of me when I misunderstood them.
But I wasn’t even curious to know what it would be like to hear better. That sounds strange—except I’m not at all alone. People choose to live with bad hearing, including adults who used to hear well and know what they’re missing. We don’t buy hearing aids or we buy them and don’t wear them, even though we use our glasses. We blame the hearing aids, which aren’t ideal, but that’s nonetheless an excuse.
If you’re debating whether you should get a hearing aid—even though you know you don’t hear well—consider the price I paid. My father was paying thousands of dollars to send me to Yale, where I chose classes that I could get to quickly enough so I could be sure of a seat in the front row, or courses held in smaller classrooms. When I signed up for a music appreciation class, I had to drop out after the second week.
My first boss said, “You don’t hear well. Get a hearing aid.” I thought he was just being mean and ignored him. When I landed a coveted interview at Newsweek for a job as a reporter, I arrived hoping for the best. From past interviews, I knew that sometimes I could hear well enough and sometimes not at all. Many people mumble. I didn’t want to admit to Newsweek that I had bad hearing, since the job required listening.
In this case, I couldn’t hear a word, but I nodded, and was hired. We had phone headsets with adjustable volume. I didn’t go to the office meetings; this way I could ask someone to brief me on the meeting without revealing my bad hearing. If I had to do an interview in person, I made sure I was sitting next to my subject and would ask questions whenever I wasn’t sure I’d heard. I became very good at making my questions interesting. I also recorded everything.
I was 33 when my boyfriend talked me into getting my hearing tested and at least trying out an aid. Walking into the street in New York, the city sounded thunderous, as if the volume on a TV were turned full blast. I took the hearing aid off and didn’t wear it all afternoon.
But we went to a movie with a complicated plot—the kind of movie I usually couldn’t follow--and this time, I was able to guess the plot twists. Typically he explained movies to me afterwards; this time we had an animated discussion. I realized how much I’d missed.
Hearing aids are not a total solution. I wear mine. I still have trouble in group conversations and hear nothing when people talk to me from behind or at a distance. Most people don’t see my hearing aid, even though it’s outside my ear and my hair is short. I usually tell people right away that I have hearing loss. They forget. Often I am surprised when someone doesn’t like me, and if I think about it I can trace the problem to a moment when I couldn’t hear. Some people are easier to hear than others. They observe you responding to other people, and if you don’t respond to them, they think you’re ignoring them. They also resent you if you need them to stop mumbling or raise their voices.
Moving from a life in which I heard less than other people did—to hearing more, but still not normally--taught me a lesson that our culture tends to miss. In theory, we admire humility yet we rarely cultivate it. Why did it take decades for me to accept that I had to “fix” myself with a little device in each ear? I wanted to be myself. We have childishly set ideas about our “self,” —“who I am.” You can change. You can be more. It’s a lesson I learn over and over again, or suffer the damage if I choose stubbornness instead.