Gael Hannan: That's what friends are for

By Gael Hannan

“True friendship comes when the silence between two people is comfortable.” 

This quote by David Tyson is such a lovely thought – said no person with hearing loss, ever.

When there’s a longish silence between me and my friends, it’s because someone has asked me something and are waiting for an answer. Then I go, “Wait, what? Did you ask me something?”

I hate when this happens, because it shows my friends that A) I haven’t been listening or B) I’ve been trying to follow but am having trouble and/or C) I’ve been bluffing because of B). And whenever this happens, another tiny bit of my pride breaks off, like an iceberg off a glacier.

I know I shouldn’t feel embarrassed but sometimes I just do. These are my friends, some of them for decades. And they became my friends for all the normal reasons – we have fun, we like the same things – that have nothing to do with hearing loss. But they stayed my friends because they were comfortable with it, becoming used to it and everything that came with it, such as my occasional bluffing. Blank looks. Frequent requests for repeats. My irritated looks when I ask them to get their hands away from their mouth – or if they think my cochleas have regenerated overnight and now I can hear them from another room.

But the bimodal relationship, where one friend has hearing loss and the other has none, can be challenging. And the reason is, as Oscar Wilde wrote, “Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation.” And I have to agree with Oscar, because my life seems to be one long conversation. I love to talk, to converse, to interact. Almost every good conversation is a new creation, and my closest friends are people who feel the same way. Yet any conversation that involves hearing loss is carried out just a little differently, with a lot of stops and starts and repeats. 

I have met people who are impatient with being asked to repeat themselves and who never quite grasp that being asked to “speak up” is not a request to yell at me. These people and I don’t become friends because we irritate each other too much. But the people who are better than this, if they decide they like me enough to include me in their social circle, just have to be gently (or otherwise) instructed in the art of conversation with a person who has hearing loss.

Most of us have different circles of friends, some of which overlap. My oldest, core circle of friends are the Pooh and Piglet type: 
“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we Pooh?” asked Piglet. “Even longer,” Pooh answered. 

After I become involved in hearing loss issues, I called my best friend Shona. 

”Guess what? I’m disabled!” I was kind of tickled at this new self-identity. 

She laughed, “You’re one of the least disabled people I know.” 

“Listen, according to ‘them that knows,’ my degree of hearing loss is considered a disability. You should respect me more, or something.”  

“Like that’s going to happen. Get over it.” 

That ended my short career as a disabled person; your best friends won’t let you get too high on yourself. They know how to slap you down in a loving kind of way. But they’re also the ones who don’t mind being bothered by urgent whispers of “what did she say, huh, what, WHAT?”

Since hearing loss advocacy has become a driving force in my life, I have developed a new circle of friends – people with hearing loss, my people, my tribe. The connection between two people who share the same issue, can be immediate and even emotional. And since I’m apparently on a quote binge, consider this one by C.S. Lewis:
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

When people develop hearing loss, at whatever age, it’s natural to feel a sense of isolation because communication has become difficult with the “hearing” world. I discovered one of the cures for this sense that nobody understands what you’re going through when I went to my first meeting of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association. As I wrote in my book, The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss: “When I finally met other people with hearing loss, the lights went on, fireworks exploded, and angels danced. It was like falling in love – but with a group of people, with a new awareness, and with a new me.”

My hearing loss friends and I, by connecting, have reduced the impact of the disability on our lives. Together, we feel normal rather than imperfect and we like to pay it forward. And for my long time “hearing” friends, we accept that we all have some issue or another and we just gotta keep moving forward. 

That’s what friends are for.