Since I regained my hearing, non-signing hearing people have opened up to me, and there has been a lot of new bonding with people, some of whom I barely know. It is quite intense, the increase in human intimacy. And I have to admit, I’m fearful of it.
Previously I was only regularly intimate with a handful of people. This includes people who can sign, such as my deaf mum, deaf sister, and my hearing husband and friends who I persevered with, and who persevered with me.
Back in the days when I had real hearing, I’d could share and receive personal intimacy verbally. When I was deaf I was intimate by email with some friends, or else some people would sign.
When I talk about intimacy here, I don’t mean sex. I define intimacy as sharing deeply personal details, and being trusting. It’s something that involves social risk and vulnerability. Intimacy happens in an unplanned way, and can occur suddenly in a conversation that begins with quite mundane topics.
Hearing people can fear intimacy too. Maybe that’s why the scripted environments of global branded shops and services are so successful. The arse-clenching gamble and potential humiliation we fear in face to face social interaction and consumer activities is something that branded chains of shops, cafes, gyms are geared towards removing. You pays your money; you accept the downside of global, high street uniformity and soulless, formulaic, professionalised service as a fair trade for the warm and comfortable predictability that does not unsettle the wounded depths/ shallows of your soul/ego.
However, for me, the predictable comfort of branded chain formulas was in fact uncomfortable. The consumerist exchange dialogue was something I had to learn through a process of awkward repetition. The chain outlet patter differed from brand to brand, the “do you have a loyalty card”,” a nectar card”, “do you want a bag?” “Do you want milk?” “Do you want ice” “do you want a school token” “do you want a blah?” “blah blah?” and “Blah blah bla – “I said have a nice day!” Sometimes I’d just hedge my bets and say no. It wasn’t always the right answer.
If they had to repeat something like “have a nice day”, their face would betray they were repeating a really obvious and mundane, scripted comment.
So if intimacy was tricky, the consumer antidotes to the time consuming risks of intimacy were also a headache for me.
On the rare occasions a waiter or shop assistant would sign “thank you”, I’d either blank it before I realised what had happened, or else feel an urge to lunge over the counter and give them a hug.
In my social life, when I was going deaf, I initially liked to butterfly and bluff. Then when that became untenable I had to learn how to enjoy my own company. I also acquired excellent deaf friends and used internet social networks.
After my implant switch on, I regained most of my long lost hearing and learnt new things about old hearing friends. And about my family, some of whom I barely knew. I heard how some people in my family really sounded for the first time. Everyone was and is happy, including me.
But the increase and expansion – the explosion – of intimacy to include people I don’t know well (including family), feel unexpectedly disturbing. I like it, I know it’s good for me, but it is simultaneously unsettling.
I sometimes feel inadequate and unprepared. I sometimes want to cringe. What’s wrong with me?
I panic inwardly, this will all end in tears, it surely must. I’M A DEAF PERSON GET ME OUT OF HERE THE HEARING PEOPLE ARE COVERING MY FACE WITH PERSONAL DETAIL SPIDERS.
Some residual warning is triggered in me. I’m filled with a sense of dread. What’s the worst that could happen? My neural pathways must be hardwired to get out of conversations as soon as possible, to avoid lipreading fatigue maybe? It’s a redundant dread these days, because I don’t always have to lipread. I no longer get tired from following speech.
It feels like quite a responsibility to listen to all the personal details that people share as a matter of course, as a way of human bonding. I’m fearful I might make a mistake, or not listen with the right sort of facial expression. Because humans give so much away in their face and eyes.
So, it feels hard to let my guard down on such a regular and spontaneous basis. Or I forget to do it. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to talk. I’m not sure how much other people are allowed to talk. Are you allowed to stop them? Sometimes I don’t talk at all and I can feel myself disappearing, and so sometimes I jump in too much.
I’m surrounded by lovely people overjoyed to be able to make contact at last, now I’m returned to the hearing fold. But as I said, sometimes my neural pathways are on high alert, as though my brain’s old department for deaf and hearing world relations is desperately trying to justify its continued existence.
I went to an East German castle once, about six months after the Berlin Wall came down. The communist soldiers stood around over armed, under used, having a fag, cluttering up the pretty gardens.
Maybe some of my sense of dread is a left over default mode. If a police force or army isn’t needed, it tries to invent scary sounding threats to justify continued state funding. My metaphors are a bit jumbled here but it’s like I’ve got some left over defensiveness clattering around my psyche.
I’m like a neurotic rescue dog and my family and friends have some serious patting to do before I come out from under the armchair where I’m growling and chewing my special bone that is no one else’s but MINE and if they carry on patting me I will go a bit bitey and everyone will see how bad I am and the hospital will have to take my implant away and I will be deaf again.
There is also another, maybe sour and almost bitter thing going on – another unhelpful thought I have to bat off during some conversations.
If someone says “It’s so good to be able to finally speak” I agree, because it is. It feels good. But at the same time my internal defence force wants to step in and protect me – as if to say, “They couldn’t be bothered to talk to you properly before so why should you bother listening now?
I mean, they’ve just said that they gave up on you. That you made them feel sad, it was sad to be with you. What gives them the right to deserve to enjoy the benefits of your new hearing?”
But in a more positive light, the feeling is bittersweet I guess. Or a happy ending clouded with unnecessary dread, or some kind of imposter complex. Occasionally when I’m besieged with candid personal information I feel like a fraud. How can you trust me with all this stuff? I’m not one of you. I’m only just back from the Deaf Wars and I’m not what you think!
And then I remember that I also played a big part in being a stranger to people. For example, sometimes people would ask me “how are you?” and I’d reply at length, they’d listen politely and then I wouldn’t return the favour, or else not be able to hear a reply.
Is my fear of intimacy caused by my deafness? Or was it already there, and allowed to flourish unchecked when I went deaf? Did it become a useful tool that also served to alienate me from potential intimates? Did my fear of intimacy spread like a rash to all my relationships as I went into shutdown? I remember being open. I certainly share fewer details about myself than in my 20s. Maybe that’s part of being grown up and polite. I haven’t been switched on long enough to find out.
All through my 20s I told people my hearing wasn’t getting worse, even though everyone could see it was. The destruction wreaked by years of denial took their toll and I fell into a depressed fug one summer. The reality hit me. I told one friend I couldn’t remember how to do my personality anymore. Friends organised a 28th birthday party for me. Everyone came. They made a cake. They cared a lot. They were amazing. But I knew these days were numbered.
I didn’t get organised about my hearing loss until my 30s. But getting professional help was, ironically, an invasion of privacy. It is an oddly intimate relationship. Looking at one face all day, often a stranger’s. Some hearing colleagues very occasionally commented, that it put a wall up between me and them. When they talked, I was looking at my interpreters face or a laptop screen. “It feels weird to communicate with you through someone else”. I’d think, ‘that’s your best bet, so deal with it’. But I suppose, my averted eyes for many people, might appear an act of passive aggression, a rejection of intimacy and human bonding. Actually, it does feel a pretty safe place, watching an interpreter or a screen and using the time delay to make considered responses. But these highly trained professionals allowed me to be more part of the world, and closer to people, not less so – at least at work.
So I let total strangers into my strange career. Fortunately it was usually a positive experience, so long as I stuck to the rules of engagement – booking preferred interpreter enough in advance, sending out briefs, scripts, notes, employing co-worker interpreters for longer shifts, arranging enough rest breaks, informing colleagues on how to work with an interpreter and so on, so long as I did all that, my support workers enjoyed working with me. They often enjoyed it even when I didn’t! I had a real person, with me, all the time on most jobs. Can you imagine?
After a few newbie hiccups in 2005, I learnt how to work with interpreters, my sign language got better, I learnt the rules so I could make sure I wasn’t abusing my staff, not breaking their hands and minds – because terping is tiring and brain cell-destroying like lipreading. This was the new me. The organised me. Spontaneity was better if it was pre-arranged. I settled into my new shell. But the interpreters didn’t become very close friends. I wasn’t that type of deaf person. I wasn’t that type of person. I had boundaries.
So anyway – this fear of intimacy issue I’ve been noticing. I know this sort of fear can be due to childhood trauma. A therapist – if I’d ever been able to follow one – might have said something about my parents splitting up when I was six, that sort of thing. It is possible it was always there. and I was in denial about that too. Bloody hell. where does it end, you know?
Although losing hearing is widely known to result in people becoming withdrawn. It’s very important to point out that this is probably just me that became more fearful of intimacy at the same time as going deaf. Not all deaf people will be blundering around in the world with the emotionally repressed social skills of an Old Etonian. It’s just me okay? There are plenty of magnificently warm and generous deaf and Deaf people around who will warm the cockles of your heart.
And it’s important to note that I probably don’t usually come across to others as very intimacy phobic. I worry that some people confuse my self-protectiveness – or whatever – for what they call ‘cool’. I’ve been accused of being cool in the past. Well sod that. At the heart of every cool dude is an anxious individual too scared to love.
Writing this reminds me of a conversation a friend relayed to me (after the fact) about 18 years ago.
Friend A: Why do you like Sophie?
Friend B: Well because, well, essentially she’s an enigma.
Friend A: She’s not an enigma! She’s just deaf!
I was still hard of hearing back then. And I’m not sure if friend A definitely used the word ‘just’.
But anyhow, on reflection, maybe there was a grain of truth in these flattering remarks– although maybe not for the reasons Friend A meant.
Friend B also once told me, that in genetics, that it is difficult to tell the function of anything until it malfunctions. So if you want to understand an enigma, you must first see it malfunction – e.g. through a mutation.
My deafness is due to a genetic mutation. What does that mean for my understanding of my function? I’m not a gene, I’m a person, obviously; but why not try and Dawkins this up a bit?
Crudely speaking, did going deaf allow me to understand my function? Did my hearing loss cause me to malfunction and therefore understand my function?
As my hearing regains its function, what function does my deafness have?
Against nature, against genetics, I feel like the excision of my deafness – for argument’s sake let’s call the hearing loss the malfunction – although I didn’t consider it as such, deaf and proud and all that –I feel like that reversal of the “malfunction”, to make my auditory nerve re-function – this miracle Is allowing me to unravel the enigma that is myself.
And sometimes, not always, thanks to the easy access to intimacy with the hearing people in my life, it feels like the re-functioning of my hearing unmasks me. And I feel shame. It unmasks me to others. It unmasks me to myself.
But this is okay. It’s not a down side. It’s all A okay.