From time to time, one of our daughters will suggest that we all do a personality quiz. You probably know the kind of thing. Rate on a scale from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’ statements like “I would rather go to a library than a party” (“Strongly agree!” we all cry. Or, rather, whisper). Aside from a shared obsession with libraries (getting our babies registered at the local library was top of the list for the first time I could totter into town after giving birth, ahead of stocking up on nappies), we are all more different than we are similar. But I’ve found many of the questions hard to answer, when my preference-driven answer is different from the one that takes account of my deaf reality. This has left me puzzling whether my ‘real’ self is the sociable one, masked by my deafness-dictated choices, or whether hanging back on the edge of a room, sticking to talking to one or two familiar and safe people, is not just my reality but is also really me. (“You overthink things”. Strongly agree.)
One of the quiz questions is a case in point. “At social events you rarely try to introduce yourself to new people and mostly talk to the ones you already know.” Well, how this played out at an event exploring the intersection between art and science illustrates my conflict in answering this question. It was a fairly small conference, and we were encouraged to mingle during the breaks. I had gone alone, and there were lots of people I’d like to have talked to. But as I hovered on the edge of the elegant-but-echoey hall where people were chatting over their coffees, I realised I hadn’t a chance of hearing anyone. So I took my drink outside and found a spot where I could lurk until it was time for the next presentation. Back to the quiz – tick ‘strongly agree’, collect 500 introvert points and crawl back under your rock.
Although this has been the reality for me for many, many years now, as my hearing has declined, I keep forgetting. My enthusiasm for social opportunities has remained relentlessly at odds with my capacity to engage. Not (as you’ll have gathered at the beginning) that I’ve ever been a party animal. After my first few, the attraction soon waned, and not for me was the club or the gig (partly because I’ve never been cool but also because I’ve been very protective of my hearing since first learning that it was losing it). But time spent with other people, either doing stuff and talking or sitting about and talking, has been a life-long delight. The thing I liked best about nursing, come to think of it, was the interaction with other people, an ever-changing stream of people, in all their glorious variety. (I hated the shifts, the boring bits, the miserable bits, the hard bits and the sensible shoes, but the people were great!).
But… deafness spoils all that; or it did for me (oh glorious past tense!). Not the will for it, but the reality of it. In place of small, easy exchanges comes the embarrassment of perhaps multiple repetitions of a comment about the weather, say, which you will know – if you’ve been on either side of that sort of exchange – can be excruciating. Either the speaker feels increasingly silly saying over and over what was trivial in the first place, or they can bear it no longer and say “it doesn’t matter”. But, of course, it does. You both slink away feeling rubbish. No wonder it’s tempting to wing it, pretend you’ve heard and hope you get away with it. That is destined to be exposed, at least some of the time, when “lovely!” turns out to be a Very Wrong response, or when you stay quiet, unaware that you’ve missed a cue to speak. And what about when you’re deep in conversation, about things that matter? When someone is telling you something important, maybe something they care about deeply; when is a good moment to say you haven’t heard…can’t hear? It’s all very difficult.*
So when a colleague suggests having a team lunch out, my initial enthusiasm is swiftly chased (and chastened) by the realisation that actually it will be hopeless for me, despite their best efforts, because I’m not going to hear much in a restaurant. But no longer! My cochlear implant (CI) is changing – has changed! – all this.
Conference time – how well would I be able to hear?
I’ve written in earlier blogs about the difference my CI has made to my ability to hear in restaurants, cafes, shops and so on, and how thankful I am for the changes. But what about a conference?
Last week I was in Manchester for a two-day work event of 100 plus people, organised by the small team of which I am a part. It was the first in three years and, newly equipped with my CI, I was curious to see how I got on. Pre-pandemic, we’ve held this type of event each spring and always keenly anticipate seeing many familiar faces along with some new ones. As part of the host team, I should be doing my bit, welcoming delegates, directing people to rooms and answering questions, as well as taking every opportunity to catch up with colleagues seen only once or twice a year. I love the idea of seeing people and of being part of the event team. But I have swiftly found that while the spirit is willing the ears are weak and I am useless, because I just can’t hear much of what anyone says. So instead of helping my colleagues, I’ve hidden. I’d usually start by having a go on reception, but after the first couple of failed encounters, where someone would say something to me and I’d immediately have to rope in a colleague because I couldn’t hear them, I’d accept defeat and hide – either literally or by circulating ahead of people all the time, smiling but scuttling off looking terribly busy. Willing But Useless. Would Manchester 2022 be different I wondered? Oh I did hope so.
Well, it absolutely was, and my lovely colleagues were both amused and pleased as I aced it on reception (ok I often couldn’t remember people’s names but we’re a team and I got the necessary intelligence from a team mate) and sprang into action whenever a message came through that there was a shortage of biscuits in room A or that stragglers needed chivvying into room B. Willing AND Useful. At last.
I am present, visible and engaged once again!
Conferences are innately social events, of course, and dinner is supposed to be a highlight. Seated at very large round tables, I couldn’t chat to the people opposite, but I don’t think I was any different from anyone else in that respect, and nor was I the only one who had to occasionally ask someone to repeat something. Occasionally! Essentially, it was easy. After dinner, when everyone started to move about, I lingered on the edge of the room with a couple of quiet colleagues, and slowly the realisation dawned that I didn’t need to stay on the edge. I could join any of those groups, any of those conversations. So I got stuck in, and when the suggestion was made that we move to the bar, I didn’t even think about making my excuses and leaving. We went to the bar, to carry on with a long overdue catch-up, and I didn’t think about being deaf because, wearing my fabulous, astonishing, miraculous CI, I wasn’t. How amazing is that?!
I’m also finding that I’m no longer exhausted at the end of each day, no doubt because hearing is not costing me anything like the same effort as before I had the CI. I’ve been pondering why I’m often wide awake late into the evening these days, and I think it must be that – I’m no longer drained by deafness.
My social world was shrinking, and I was acutely aware that I was surely going to become increasingly isolated as my deafness worsened. What a gift to be given the use of technology that has put this into reverse and allowed me to be my true self again. It will be interesting to take that personality test again, but I am more confident now about who I am and where deafness fits with that. I am looking forward to more conversations with strangers than I’ve had in years and, more importantly, to be able to listen more successfully to family, friends and colleagues and enjoy conversations wherever we happen to be. And I’m always going to love libraries.
*Of course, mistakes and poor decisions in conversation aren’t the preserve of the deaf but are shared by the socially awkward. Many years ago, an octogenarian walking his dog near our house stopped my teenage daughter and asked her “Is your mum a man?” Unsurprisingly bewildered by this, she couldn’t quite muster an answer before he provided clarification: “I mean, before she was married, was she a man?” Now in complete social panic, she replied – yes! Yes?! What possessed her?! Reporting this back to me, once I’d stopped laughing enough to muster some powers of speech, I told her he must have meant was I a Mann – my neighbour’s maiden name, displayed on her dad’s van which was often parked outside. There followed a long period in which he would stop her to tell her he’d been chatting to her grandpa (actually my neighbour’s father) and suchlike, until I stepped in and set the record straight. Now it was his turn to be baffled – “Why didn’t she tell me?!” Well, because she’d found it too awkward, though not half as awkward as not telling him turned out to be. Happily, we all still chat to him when we see him, and now call him Richard rather than “the ‘Is your mum a man?’ man”.