Facing up to hearing loss
A shocking moment forced Maggi Summerhill to face up to the reality of how severe her hearing loss had become.
It brought a sharp end to the guessing games that had been damaging family life and proved an opportunity for Maggi to find better ways to connect with her husband and sons.
Maggi Summerhill is married to Rob and is mum to Alex 13, and Christopher 11. She started losing her hearing at the age of 30 and 15 years later became profoundly deafened overnight; literally waking up one morning to find she had no hearing left at all.
Cue for change
It happened in a café near the university where I had been taking a writing course. I was drinking tea and eating cakes with a bunch of women and a tutor. We were talking about everything and anything. As always, I pretended I was following things by smiling and laughing in all the right places.
I thought I was doing quite well until I suddenly found myself smiling and laughing alone. Everyone else was frozen and staring at me, unanimous looks of disbelief on their faces. The last person to speak was sitting with her mouth open. It transpired that she had just told the group about a chance encounter that ended in her being raped.
It was a horrifying moment. It was also the point when I finally recognised that I was really deaf and pretending that I wasn’t was not the way forward. Of course there had been plenty of hints before this to suggest that blagging was not a good coping strategy. For instance, when my son told me that an older boy had tried to push him in front of a bus and I understood that he had tripped because his laces were undone. Or when, one morning, my husband told me he would take the boys to school and then rushed out without them. And so on.
Somehow those hints all seemed to get lost in the hustle and bustle of life. In the café, however, time stood still in a rather painful way. It was my cue for change.
The change didn’t happen overnight. You see, not only had I become a nodding smiling idiot, I had also developed all kinds of coping habits based on pretending to hear. I hated the pained look some people would give when I asked them to repeat themselves. I hated that more than making a fool of myself.
Probably the most self-defeating one, apart from nodding and smiling, was trying to predict what someone would say before I even started a conversation. Clever? No.
A classic situation would play out as follows: I’d ask Alex, my eldest son, how his day at school went. In theory, it should be easy. I mean the most likely replies I could expect would be: good – bad – boring – or fun. Right?
Wrong. In fact, Alex told me about something that happened in his history lesson, losing me completely at the first sentence. At the end of his reply he looked at me and immediately realised it had happened again – he had been tricked into talking to me and I hadn’t understood a word.
‘Pre-running’ had become such a habit of mine that my husband, Rob, had caught on. He started to get me to repeat back to him what he had said in an effort to save his breath and to avoid frustration, both for him and for me.
While my coping techniques were making things worse for the family, they were borne out of good intentions. Like any mother, I wanted to take all the pain. I didn’t want the effort to have to be theirs. I thought if I just tried harder (with lip-reading and paying attention when they spoke) I would be able to do better. But lip-reader is difficult and keeping alert in case someone said something was like being on a knife edge 24/7.
Rob and the kids had been used to a chatty, fun-loving, caring person, who listened and didn’t let them down. I was acutely aware that that person seemed to have disappeared. The loss was painful for us all.
Rob had become unable to have a conversation with me. His efforts to discuss things and to share information were prone to misunderstandings and upsets. The boys found me unreliable. I would make promises I wasn’t even aware of. I would say things that didn’t make sense. I would walk away from them when they were talking to me. And I would upset their friends by ‘ignoring’ them.
Like an old woman covering herself up with make-up to hide her wrinkles, I had covered up my deafness by pretending I could hear. The café crisis forced me to face up.
Recognising my deafness
Recognising that I had become profoundly deaf was painful but also a relief – like any life changing revelation I suppose. I decided to never again guess what my husband and sons said to me. And if I couldn’t understand them, they would have to write it down, finger-spell it, or use some other tactic to meet me half way.
I sat them all down and explained things. This proved the easy part. Actually getting them to finger-spell or write things down was another story. From the boys, there was a lot of stomping off and mouthing obscenities. Each time it happened I was torn by sympathy for their acute frustration and a parental desire to chastise their behaviour.
But after a while, my rule was accepted as law. Bit by bit, day-to-day things became handled with short notes and our own private sign-language combined with letters from a finger-spelling chart. Rob and I began chatting together just the way we had done when I could hear but we did it online.
Previously, I used to leave multiple A4 lists for my husband, noting on them things for him to do and people for him to ring. As part of my new resolve, I began to take these things on myself and I began to tell people I was deaf at the start of a conversation rather than later.
I started to feel human and connected again. Rob and the boys found that they could tell me something and know I had understood; although at times they still had to shoot me with a Nerf gun or throw an old sock at me to get my attention.
The recognition that I had become profoundly deaf had come almost a year after the reality. It was only when I began to feel less tired and drained that I realised how much my way of coping with daily life by pretending otherwise had depleted my energies.
It isn’t easy to be deaf in a hearing world, especially when your life has been built around being able to hear. There is a lot of loss involved – loss for your hearing and loss for the action you are missing and the closeness you feel with someone when you have a quiet conversation. Family and friends can feel the loss too.
We, my whole family and my friends were hoping that my hearing loss wouldn’t be forever, that some day, somehow, I would be able to hear again. It is okay to have hope. But you have to do more than just exist and wait, you have to live.
My day of hearing again came after three years of tests – physical and psychological – and because I had adopted a proactive outlook all that time ago, I was approved for a cochlear implant. But that’s another story.