Posted on Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hearing Loss: The Hero's Journey

Today Dr. Michael Harvey a psychologist who does workshops, presentations, and training for people coping with deafness or hearing loss is a guest blogger. He has allowed People Hearing Better to reprint parts of his keynote address given for the Association of Late-Deafened Adults (ALDA) in Orland, Florida. In the first part of this speech he discusses the difficulty of adapting to hearing loss and in the second part, appearing tomorrow, he provides tools that will help individuals in this experience which he compares to the mythical journey of the hero.

No Longer Who I Was But Not Yet Who I Will Be
Dr. Michael Harvey

I don’t know much about how to catch monkeys, but I heard the following story. You take a coconut and make a hole in it, just large enough that a monkey can squeeze its hand in. Next, you tie the coconut down, and put a piece of candy inside. The monkey smells the candy, puts its hand into the coconut, grabs the candy and finds that the hole is too small for its fist to get out. The last thing a monkey would consider is to let go of the candy. Often they only let go when they fall asleep or become unconscious because of exhaustion.

I told this story to Jill, a woman who had lost her hearing several years prior. She gave me a quizzical look and then asked me if I wanted a lifesaver.

I can imagine a monkey seminar entitled “How to avoid being caught by humans.” The advice: if holding on to the candy causes you to be trapped, for God’s sake let go of it! Ultimately the monkey's unwillingness to let go of its attachment to the candy is the cause of its suffering.

As humans, we may be attached to our partners; to our children, our friends, perhaps to an idea, a God; or to certain clothes, music, jewelry, etc. (The Peanuts character, Linus, as you may recall, had a strong attachment to his blanket). But most of all, we’re firmly attached to our own identity, our perception of who we are.

Even though Jill had been deaf for several years, she was firmly attached to her identity as a hearing person. Her childhood had been filled with competitive sports: soccer, basketball, skating, and even football, traditionally a boys sport at her school. Her mother taught her what would become an ingrained mantra: “There's nothing that you can't do if you put your mind to it.” In fact, one of Jill’s earliest memories was her mother reciting a bedtime story about a train that almost couldn't make it up the hill – that is, until it put its mind to it.

But now, no matter how much Jill tried, she couldn’t make her ears work. Hence, she beat herself up mercilessly. She described herself as “a square peg in a round hole” or with pejorative words, such as incomplete, defective, inadequate and broken. And she was barraged with shame.

“I know I’ve got to accept myself!” she sighed. Jill knew that, like a monkey who didn’t let go of the candy, she would suffer if she didn’t let go of her hearing identity and adopt a new, deaf identity.

From a distance it looks so easy!

Jill was impatient for change. As a busy executive in high-pressure sales, she had no time to “dilly dally,” as she put it. She requested that the transformation of her identity happen posthaste. She had nothing against grieving, she said, so long as it could be scheduled at a convenient time.

And sure enough, a couple of months after I had met her, she appeared at my office, not lost and in pain, but exuberant! She proudly displayed tickets she had bought for an off-Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God. She had joined NAD, ALDA and SHHH; had joined several deafness-related on-line chat rooms; subscribed to a half-dozen deafness publications; bought videotapes on sign language and deafness; was taking sign language classes twice weekly (one for ASL, one for PSE); was regularly attending Deaf community events; was writing an article on the “Deaf President Now” movement at Gallaudet; was advocating for Deaf rights; and had become an expert on the Americans with Disabilities Act. She pronounced herself “reborn” as a deaf person.

I didn’t know what it was, but something didn’t seem quite right. It seemed too easy, too hurried, too much like TV – you know, when everything miraculously turns out perfect by the end of the show. Managed health care’s dream come true!

Soon after that meeting, my wife and I vacationed at a lodge in Sedona, Arizona. It featured a huge, outdoor labyrinth which had been written up in some new age magazine. Essentially, it was several hundred pebbles placed on the ground, forming a series of concentric circles. It looked like a giant maze. What you do is start walking from the beginning of the labyrinth and follow the trail of pebbles, round and round in different directions, until eventually you reach the inner circle, the center. Now, you could easily cheat by taking a short-cut by walking over the pebbles. Frankly, I was tempted, as I was in a hurry, but my wife was dutifully following the path. So I followed the path, but made a bee-line to the end point at lightning speed, to be sure not to waste any time!

I thought of my meeting with Jill. Perhaps she, like me on the labyrinth, made a bee-line to a deaf identity at lightning speed?

The answer came soon enough. The next week, she was late for her appointment — very uncharacteristic for her. And she looked disheveled and pale. In answer to my looks of concern, Jill told me that she had been bed-ridden for over a week with a bad case of the flu. For the most part, she had been unable to even lift her head off the pillow. I asked her to describe her thoughts and feelings during this long week.

“I felt utterly terrified and helpless,” Jill said. “Old feelings came back in full force that I had when I first become deaf — like feeling defective, inadequate. If a burglar came, I wouldn’t be able to hear him! I kept replaying in my head all those doctor’s appointments and how afraid I was. And one night I dreamt that the door into the Deaf world was slammed shut and the door to the hearing world was left open only wide enough for me to peek in.

“I felt so lonely and sorry for myself. I don’t have enough words to explain that week. In limbo, in a void — that’s all. Like my life was put on pause.”

There is a Buddhist saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” Jill would never had wished herself sick, and would have been justifiably angry at anyone who said, “Congratulations, you have an opportunity because being sick in bed is your teacher!” But in fact, that week would be the first of several similar times when Jill would experience this limbo, this void for which she didn’t have enough words; a void that we now understand as the experience of feeling no longer who she was but not yet who she will be. It would constitute an important part of her growth, her journey.

If this limbo is such a great opportunity, we need more words to describe it. Instead, it has been defined by what it’s NOT: not hearing, not yet deaf; not a caterpillar, not yet a butterfly. We’re very clear what this in-between state isn’t. But what is it?

The Hero's Journey

Dr. Harvey has compared this transition to the mythical journey of the hero. Tomorrow's post will continue his talk in which he provides individuals some tools to help aid in coping with hearing loss and the quest of The Hero's Journey.

If you'd like to learn more, see your hearing health provider. If you need help finding a hearing health provider click HERE to be connected with the largest network of trusted hearing health professionals in the nation!

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