Observations: My Own Silent World

Published on: April 14, 2011


Mitch Traphagen  I live in a world of relative silence. I can’t hear whispers, whistles, beeps or bells. Despite having a hearing impairment since I was a child, I am only now coming to grips with it and for the first time in my life, it is starting to bother me. For reasons that don’t necessarily include my ego, I have largely denied my impairment. But now I feel it is time to come to terms with it. I simply can’t pretend otherwise any longer.

I rarely take telephone calls. Unless I know the number, I generally don’t answer when people call me because I know it would likely be pointless. When I am forced to take a call, I dash and dodge with the best of them. My time-tested excuse for not being able to hear is to blame it on “being in a bad cell area.” I feel the need to do that because people generally don’t understand hearing disorders and I’ve long-since learned the world has a “three-strikes and you’re out” rule when it comes to repeating themselves.

The truth is, if you try to talk to me I probably won’t hear you well enough to understand what you are saying—certainly not on the first try, anyway. Smiling people frequently approach me throughout South Hillsborough and thanks to lip reading and the nature of such random encounters, I invariably understand the question, “Are you Mitch?” “Yes”, I say with a smile of my own. The smile is sincere because I am happy that people enjoy reading The Observer News. But from there, it usually goes downhill for me. People will go on to say things that I frequently can’t hear and, thus, don’t understand. After years of this, I feel as though I have typically correct responses ready, all based on their tone of voice and facial expressions. But I’m also certain that I’ve responded incorrectly, giving an inappropriate response to a question or statement that I didn’t hear. I’m sorry about that. I truly am. I wish I could hear you, but sometimes I simply can’t.

And on the subject of apologizing, that, too, is a frequent part of my day. A typical example is an exchange with a cashier in a store. I rarely hear the amount of anything I purchase, but I always try to check for it on the screen before turning over my credit card. Almost invariably, the cashier will say something that I can’t hear. My response is always, “I’m sorry, my hearing isn’t very good and I didn’t hear that.”

Their response, in turn, is almost always the same: “Oh, that’s OK.” And then they will go on to say more stuff that I can’t understand.

I’m not really apologizing for having a hearing disorder, I apologized for not hearing them. In doing so, I had hoped they would either shout it out, write it out, or somehow indicate that what they said didn’t involve my life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, or my credit card. But that is my responsibility, not theirs. I need to say that. I haven’t been honest enough with myself to do so.

I know there are many hearing-impaired people out there nodding at that last paragraph. They understand all too well the, “Oh, that’s OK”. A hearing disorder isn’t for the narcissists among us. In other words, turn down that iPod and don’t rush to get your own hearing disorder expecting a lot of sympathy — you just won’t get it.

Helen Keller once said that blindness cuts people off from things, but deafness cuts people off from people. Make no mistake, I would much rather lose my hearing than my sight but hearing loss is a difficult impairment for the world to accept.

Except for repeatedly saying “Excuse me?” or giving an inappropriate response to a question or statement, there is no real indication of an impairment at all — particularly if I’m not wearing my hearing aids. No one can see a hearing impairment, therefore it simply doesn’t exist.

But it does and it certainly does possess the horrible potential of cutting people off from people. Hearing loss has repeatedly been linked to depression, and particularly among older people, it creates isolation. Recent studies have even linked hearing disorders to dementia (sorry, Michelle, but I don’t think I’m there yet). A hearing disorder is not in the formula for living a longer and happier life.

But the good news is it doesn’t have to be horrific or fatal. For people who have gradually lost their hearing due to age, hearing aids can work wonders. Modern hearing aids are tiny, digital miracles that do far more than simply amplify the sounds of the world, today’s hearing aids are capable of filling in the pieces that you are missing — they can enhance specific frequencies to help with specific needs.

I got hearing aids six years ago. Unfortunately, in my case, I think I waited too long. I can tell the hearing aids are doing their job in filling in my lost frequencies but I think it’s been so long since I’ve heard certain sounds that I simply can no longer understand them. Children’s voices are all but impossible and whispers are long gone. Unless I know your voice extremely well and can read your lips in a place without much background noise, chances are I won’t understand what you say to me on the first pass. I will ask you to repeat it — possibly again and again until you finally give up. If that happens, I won’t think less of you. I will understand.

This article isn’t written to complain, rather it is to apologize to you, and to the very nice woman and her husband in the Sun City Center Library on Monday, and to the very nice women in the boat this weekend at the marina. I’ve been wrong to use time-tested responses to things I haven’t understood. At a minimum, I should make it clear that I simply can’t hear. I’m apologizing because what you say to me is important. I want to hear it; I wish I could hear it; but if it involves something more than a few clearly enunciated words, I generally can’t. I’m sorry for pretending otherwise.

There are days in which events have required that I try my best to hear every word. On those days, I go home exhausted from the effort. Going to a drive-through window at a fast food restaurant is impossible for me — the voice coming through the tinny-sounding little speaker might as well be speaking Swahili. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it — I do and am sometimes so surprised at the results that it has become an entertaining challenge. But the truth is there is no glamour in not being able to hear and the only advantage I can think of is that I rarely am disturbed by noisy neighbors. People can pretty much party on — if I don’t see it, I generally don’t hear it. And annoying electronic gizmos? Ha! I’ve never heard one.

Actually, I’m wrong about that. There is another advantage. In my struggle to understand, I believe that I make an increased effort to see and feel what you are saying. Since I frequently can’t hear the words, I listen for the tone. Since I can’t understand the sentences, I look for the story in your face and in your eyes. If I can’t hear what you are saying, I sincerely try to at least feel what you are saying. I think more often than not, that has been successful. And sometimes it’s painful — because sometimes there is sadness behind the smiles and not every story has a happy ending.

Now that I’ve admitted my wrongs and limitations, I hope you feel free to shout at me anywhere, anytime. For that, you’ll certainly earn a smile. But if you don’t want to shout, I’ll still look for your words in your face and eyes. What you say is important and even if I can’t hear it, I want to understand it. I hope that’s OK with you.