Part One of Dr. Michael Harvey's talk on hearing loss, No Longer Who I was But Yet Not Who I Will Be discussed how individuals who develop hearing loss or deafness later in life must let go of their prior identity and create a new one. He compares this transition to the "Hero's Journey", a term coined by historian Joseph Campbell. In today's post Dr. Harvey provides tools for the individual to help them with this transformation.
The Hero's Journey
In most cultures, there is a common myth storyline: A hero grows up in comfort and security, but at some point must leave or is forced from it and becomes lost in foreign terrain. There is danger at every turn. The hero becomes consumed with loneliness, fear, depression, anger and despair; until the hero is transformed and safely returns home. Although everyone and everything in the environment are the same, the hero has adopted a new identity, has attained wisdom. Joseph Campbell, a scholar of mythology, referred to this theme as The hero’s journey.
You’re on a hero’s journey when you are no longer who you were, but not yet who you will be. By definition, it implies uncertainty, anxiety and fear. There’s a story about a Jungian analyst who led a group of women into an underground cavern where they were told to sit still for hours without light or discussion. Upon returning to the "light," nobody reported enjoying the experience of darkness, but everybody said they benefited from it. The group coined the term "endarkenment" (a “close cousin of enlightenment) to describe the archetypal wisdom that comes with going into the darkness and coming back again.
The good news about heros’ journeys is you don’t necessarily need to physically go anywhere – you don’t need real caves or real bears.
What seems quite clear is that any journey requires navigational tools, like a compass, to make sure you don’t get lost.
Finding vital threads of continuity. A 60 year old man, who had lost his hearing, once told me, “Although I’ve had many challenges in my life, becoming deaf was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before! My wife loves to socialize but it’s impossible for me to function in social settings. What do I do? How does one “adjust”?
I asked him whether there was anything he had learned from those other challenges in the first six decades of his life that could help him. After a few moments, he recalled when he first learned to ski. “It was absolutely terrifying,” he said. “Just looking down that huge mountain! At first I just stood there and was going to chicken out,” he said. “But all my friends were watching. So I took a deep breath, prayed, and focused only on the immediate, shorter path; then I went down that mountain very slowly, trail marker by trail marker.”
I wondered aloud to him whether, like he did before, it would be a good idea to break up the task of attending parties as a deaf person into “shorter sprints.” I read to him a quotation from Mary Catherine Bateson, a cultural anthropologist:
“Much of coping with discontinuity has to do with discovering threads of continuity. You cannot adjust to change unless you can recognize some analogy between your old situation and your new situation. … If you can recognize a problem that you’ve solved before, in however a different guise, you have a much greater chance of solving that problem in a new situation.”
Later that week, this man metaphorically began skiing down to the first trail marker; he showed up at a party exactly when it was called for (when there were only a few people) and left when he felt uncomfortable. He had found a “vital thread of continuity” between how he had once overcome the challenge of skiing, a previous seemingly impossible situation, and how he could now, ONCE AGAIN, overcome a new situation – this time, adjusting to hearing loss.
Another tool: Know that parts of the journey must be done alone, but other parts must be done with someone else.
"About 30 years ago, when I had just turned 21, I was driving around with a bunch of friends on a beautiful summer day. We were stopped at an intersection when a drunk driver hit us head-on. The next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital, having been in a coma for several days. I found out later that all my friends in the car had been killed instantly. I very clearly remember, as if it were yesterday, lying there watching peoples' mouths move but being unable to hear their words. My hearing was completely gone!”
"I had to take a year’s leave of absence from college to recuperate. I was living at home with my parents, going to physical rehab as well as a host of doctors. I remember when it first really hit me that I was deaf and that I was going to be deaf forever. It was the middle of the night, about a year after I left the hospital. A terrible nightmare about suffocating in a plastic bag had just woken me up. My heart was pounding and my whole body was covered with sweat. Without any hesitation, I immediately went straight to my parents' room, like I was a little girl again.
"For a minute I stopped in my tracks and stood there noticing how soundly they were sleeping and how very peaceful they looked. But there was no question in my mind that they would want me to disturb all of that. So I shook them out of their sound, peaceful sleep and told them about my nightmare. We all knew what it meant.
"My mother held me; I felt her body spasm and we both began to cry. She began to stroke my hair. My dad was sitting up in bed with one hand on my mom's shoulder and the other one on mine. He was crying, too. I felt real close to both of them that night. None of us got any more sleep.
"We were quiet for a long time. My dad was the first one to break the silence. He said very gently and lovingly, 'You know, pumpkin (his pet-name for me), you'll get through this. You're going to have a full, happy and very successful life, but not without some pain. You never have to shut us out from any of that.'
Another tool: Know that one successfully adopts a new identity by realizing that this is impossible.
Although a map is useful to get us from point A to point B, the map does not portray the complexity of the terrain. When I first traveled cross country, I looked at a road map and noticed several broken lines — you know, solid highway lines, but with broken dashes. I wondered how I was going to travel on broken roads that stopped and started. My map didn’t describe the terrain. Similarly, the construct of adopting a new identity via a hero’s journey is useful as a guide, as a map; but, like any construct, it’s not an accurate portrayal of a very complicated process.
Let me tell you another story about a man who suddenly lost his hearing on Christmas morning several years ago; and since then, has relived that trauma every year on that fateful day. In his words, “Christmas was stolen from me!” He felt tortured by every joyous holiday reminder. The more he tried to “move on” and find happiness in his new deaf self, the more his old hearing self would intrude. He became more and more frustrated which led to despair.
What he agreed to do was the following. On the next Christmas day, he would continue his tradition of opening presents with his family, carving the turkey, etc. But he would also reserve at least 15 minutes to be by himself and feel sad, to grieve — to revisit his old hearing self. And an amazing, but not surprising, thing happened: after he allowed himself this ritual, he was able to enjoy the present with his new self with his loved ones.
So shifting identities is more complicated than it first appears. I do believe, as my client Jill, put it, that we humans have the capability of being reborn, transformed; to shift identities. But at a deeper level, perhaps we are continually in flux. Maybe we continually cycle back and forth between who we were and who we are.
Loss may not be such a bad thing.
The root of the word “decide” has to do with to kill an option: “cide” meaning to kill, as in homicide, and “de” meaning either/or. To choose or decide involves loss; it necessitates the loss of one option. Like the monkey, who cannot free himself from the tree because he holds onto the candy, we need to let go of whatever is holding us in place, causing us pain, our candy.
I think most of us are more comfortable hanging on to our “piece of candy,” whatever it may be, rather than taking the journey. Letting go, in Jill’s own words, was “comfortable only in retrospect, terrifying in the moment.” When I told Jill I was lecturing for you today, I asked her if there was anything she would like to say through me. A week ago, she sent me a letter with a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s a fitting closing to my talk.
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror, I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Thank you Dr. Harvey for sharing your knowledge and experience about people coping with hearing loss with People Hearing Better. Knowing that there are tools to help along the journey and that others have already walked this path is a comfort and inspiration to many in our community.