Hearing Loss Won’t Kill You, or Will It?

I published this post on my Psychology Today blog, which is aimed at psychotherapists. But I thought the readers of this blog might also find it interesting.

If you are a therapist and have a patient with hearing loss, please read this to get a sense of what your patient may be experiencing.images

I lost much of my hearing gradually, over 30 years. And then, eight years ago, I lost almost all of the rest of it in a single day. Eventually I got a better hearing aid and a cochlear implant, but I never heard well again.

I was forced to leave a job I loved. Caring for my elderly parents was almost impossible because I couldn’t hear them, I couldn’t hear their health-care providers, and I couldn’t call 911 in an emergency. I flew there often, mostly for crises, because the only way I could begin to function was in person, reading lips, asking for written notes. The stress was overwhelming.

My marriage was disintegrating because of the depression and anger my hearing loss caused. My young-adult children were unable to comprehend how their mother had turned so difficult. I quit my book club. I avoided going out with friends. On election night 2008, the night of Obama’s election, I declined a friend’s invitation to watch together and stayed home alone with a bottle of wine and a box of Kleenex. I drank myself to sleep before the winner was declared.

Most nights I slept no more than two hours at a time, often dissolving into crying jags in the middle of the night. I lost 15 pounds. I thought about ways I might kill myself, assuring myself I wouldn’t actually do it. But I thought it about it too much.

Fortunately I found help. A psychotherapist provided medication and talked me through those dark months. When I developed vertigo, she worked with my ENT to help find the right drug combination to keep it under control.

Hearing loss is not a lifestyle problem, it’s not just a normal part of aging. It is a deeply disruptive loss that changes everything about the way a person lives. Isolation and depression are common responses. It contributes to cognitive decline. Society dismisses it, and this makes it even harder to cope with.

I survived my hearing loss and became an advocate for education and accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing. I am a board member of the Hearing Loss Association of America. I wrote a memoir of my struggles with hearing loss, Shouting Won’t Help, and included my email address so people could contact me. And they do. Sometimes the emails are heartbreaking. Yesterday morning I got one from someone I had never corresponded with.

The subject line was: “Rage, Anger, Depression, Abusing Alcohol.” I responded, and as more email came in over the day, I realized the writer was in serious trouble. She was essentially alone in a distant state. After consulting with psychotherapist friends I urged her to contact a mental health professional immediately. I wish I had been able to provide a reference for her.

This person had been on medication for depression and anxiety. Her hearing loss was not new, although it was newly worse. Whoever prescribed the medication seems not to have recognized the severity of the impact of her loss, or not to have successfully dealt with it.

There’s nothing more I can do for this person, but I urge therapists to take hearing loss seriously. Acknowledge the significance of the loss. Understand that hearing aids and cochlear implants don’t always work very well. Try to understand what it’s like to lose your means of communication with others. Try to imagine what it’s like to doubt everything you think you hear. Imagine the embarrassment of repeatedly asking for clarification a third or fourth time. Many people just give up. They isolate themselves, they get depressed, they decline cognitively. Sometimes they even think about suicide. Sometimes, they even carry it out.

When I was writing my book, I included the experiences of many people who worked in jobs where hearing well is important. I interviewed psychotherapists, musicians, nurses. I wanted a teacher and finally found a high-school teacher who had been forced to leave his job because he could no longer hear his students. I heard he was depressed and drinking. Before I was able to interview him he was killed in a single-car accident. The cause was never discovered.

For more information about living with hearing loss, my books  “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You” and “Living Better With Hearing Loss” are available at Amazon.com.

25 thoughts on “Hearing Loss Won’t Kill You, or Will It?

  1. I’m speechless – your article really hit home. You are THE BEST when it comes to really understand what it is like. I had a tumor removed 30 hrs ago so was left with a dead ear so was single hearing pretty good until 3 yrs ago I developed SSHL and the nightmare started . Have of course a hearing aid in the only ear I have but discrimination is only about 24 per cent so I struggle in all situations . I qualify for the implant but they are up front and tell me if it doesn’t work I will be totally deaf and I’m still afraid to take that chance . So life goes on – my family is supportive and they try hard to make it easier on me but they forget . My husband of 55 yrs still has trouble remembering and talks to me from across the room Anyway – thanks for the article – helps to know you aren’t the only one

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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    • My heart goes out to you. A difficult decision. Have your doctors discussed implanting the long deaf ear? Read my post on “How old is too old for a c.i.”
      One surgeon, or maybe a couple said it was worth trying the deaf ear, that there might be enough cross-brain activity in the speech pathways to help.
      My ci was in my long dead left ear (30 years). It’s not great but it really helps the hearing in my severe to profound right ear. And it gives me a sense of the world around me.

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      • I asked Dr Brackman at the House Institute about it last year when I went for an evaluation and he said “No it couldn’t be done because they severed the nerve when they removed the tumor” I sure wish I could try it

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  2. Because we people with hearing loss speak our hearing loss is never recognized as a disability. When we lose our hearing it is blamed on something else. In my case they thought I was slow or just stupid. I grew up from age four with hearing loss and now that I am approaching 81 am so thankful that I can cope with my hearing loss thanks to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). CI’s are a breath of fresh air for those who do not hear well with hearing aids. It is a sad situation for seniors who isolate themselves because of their hearing loss. I have a friend who now plays the violin because a CI was inserted in his deaf ear. Thanks for your great articles.

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    • HLAA is a great resource and if you have a local chapter a source of companionship and comfort. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough chapters and many audiologists have never heard of HLAA. We have to keep getting the word out.

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  3. Katherine,
    This piece of writing is profound. As a psychotherapist and friend of those with hearing loss, I thank you for providing such an informed and moving account of what it is like to suffer from a loss of hearing. As I was
    reading the article, I was struck by how much you were describing my own late father: a man of 80 whose
    hearing aids did not function very well; an intellectual who had always relished lively and witty debate but
    had become isolated and irritable in social situations — depressed surely by his loss of social engagement, but unmedicated for it. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage, but I now am wondering whether the untreated stress of his daily interpersonal struggles hastened his death.

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  4. I generally cope OK..but recognize my limitations and it is not always easy.
    I am now a retired nurse…couldn’t really manage it any more and very little support in the workplace.
    I still try to keep a “lively” life.
    I have traveled a quite a bit before my HL and now after….I often have travel alone to get to a destination to meet a group. I have had good experiences even though I don’t hear very well.
    However to get to my point I was on a trip last fall..where the only other American on the trip was so condescending and actually made fun of me. It was a developing country. I saw her make fun of the poor there so I was more able to not personalize but it was still painful. I think a part of therapy would be learning to cope with the rudeness of others..that is sometimes intentional and mostly not.

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    • I totally agree with you. And what an obnoxious sounding person. But that kind of rudeness is hard to take and some people just give up and stay home, which as well know is not good. Good for you for keeping at it.

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  5. My audiologist shared your post on Facebook and it hit so close to home! I am heading over to Amazon to check out your book. My hearing started to decline in my early 20’s as I was finishing college. I didn’t have insurance so the cause is unknown. It was mild at first and I was able to graduate and get a job teaching 4th grade. I did a good job hiding and compensating for my loss while teaching.

    Pregnancy caused my hearing loss to decline to the point that I was unable to return to the classroom. To be at home with my children was a blessing but I was very isolated due to my loss and apprehensive about meeting new people due to my fears and loss. I am now 45 and have been able to establish a successful online business selling teaching resources. Since the business is internet based my hearing issues aren’t a huge obstacle. I am extremely grateful for this, but I am still very isolated socially and I know I have missed out on things with my children and it affects my relationships with my family. My family tries to be understanding, but they just don’t fully grasp how exhausting and stressful it is to live with a hearing loss.

    To add complications my loss is more rare, I have loss in the mid-range and better than normal hearing in the upper ranges. I also have a high sensitivity to noise so even though I wear hearing aids, they don’t help too much. I rely mostly on lip reading and body language. The phone is my enemy which complicates life often.

    Your post really spoke to me and I plan to share it with my family. I am also going to check out your book.

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    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I clearly touched a nerve with a lot of people with this post. The response has surprised even me. Do you have an HLAA chapter near you? We have a very supportive chapter in New York City, where I live. It makes a big difference to be with others with severe hearing loss once a month. I’m now president of the chapter and have gotten to know a lot of the members. Even though our meetings are structured (lectures, panel discussions) we all still feel like a community. We have hearing assistance in the form of CART captioning and a hearing loop. If you’re in the area please come. Our website is hearinglossnyc.org. HLAA national (hearingloss.org) is also a good organization for information and support.

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    • Hello Shelley,

      You may wish to explore obtaining a captioning phone, as it sounds like the current phone is an issue for your use. Look at captel.com. In many areas there are programs to supply the phone at reduced cost or free of charge and use is free.

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      • CaptionCall is also an excellent captioned phone. You need a doctor’s certificate verifying your need and it most states (or many) it will be installed free of charge. Same for CapTel

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      • I tried a captioning phone a couple years ago, I think it was the CapTel brand. It did not work well at all unless the person I was talking to was in a silent environment. If it was noisy, like an office, it picked up all the sounds and it was just a jumble of nonsense coming through. Also, it was painfully delayed so the person would ask a question and it would take forever for it to be captioned so I could respond. This led to a lot of “are you there?”. It was more frustrating than it was worth.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your most difficult experiences and your insights. I am indeed fortunate to have a local HLAA in my area providing me with support, information and resources to help manage the challenges of my hearing impairment. For those without a local chapter, I wholeheartedly advocate following the several excellent blogs, such as yours, which provide valuable information and encouragement. Scrolling through past entries as well as current posts has led me to topics of special concern and assistance. Thank you for your dedicating your talents and knowledge in support of others!

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    • HLAA is a great resource for support and education. To find a chapter near you, go the website hearingloss.org.
      Even if you don’t have a chapter, join HLAA (just $35 a year) and help support their effort to make life better for people with hearing loss.

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  7. I appreciate your information as I can relate to your challenges– I suffer from increasing hearing loss, too. I just want to say –and take this in the right vein–losing hearing, vertigo, depression, etc,…is not from God. It’s satan’s handiwork and there is a way out. I’ve witnessed the issues, work, and solution. It works! I am working on recovering my relationship with God and my hearing (See Deut 28…it spells it out). I have reduced my anger issue –which conventional methods never helped–through HIM and I wait expectantly that my obedience/repentance will restore my hearing. I’m made in God’s image and he did not make us deaf! I share this lovingly—take a look at beinhealth.com It’s true, scriptural, and changed hundreds of lives. Thx, George

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  8. I wasn’t able to get the article from your link. Could you resend it?
    There is a lot of research going on into gene therapy, stem cell therapy and maybe even a drug to prevent hearing loss. It’s a good idea for a post. I’ll write about what I know soon.

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