Hearing Loss Won't Kill You, or Will It?
Please take your patients' hearing loss seriously.
Posted Mar 18, 2017
If you are a therapist and have a patient with hearing loss, please read this to get a sense of what your patient may be experiencing.
I lost much of my hearing gradually, over 30 years. And then, eight years ago, I lost almost all of the rest of it in a single day. Eventually I got a better hearing aid and a cochlear implant, but I never heard well again.
I was forced to leave a job I loved. Caring for my elderly parents was almost impossible because I couldn't hear them, I couldn't hear their health-care providers, and I couldn't call 911 in an emergency. I flew there often, mostly for crises, because the only way I could begin to function was in person, reading lips, asking for written notes. The stress was overwhelming.
My marriage was disintegrating because of the depression and anger my hearing loss caused. My young-adult children were unable to comprehend how their mother had turned so difficult. I quit my book club. I avoided going out with friends. On election night 2008, the night of Obama's election, I declined a friend's invitation to watch together and stayed home alone with a bottle of wine and a box of Kleenex. I drank myself to sleep before the winner was declared.
Most nights I slept no more than two hours at a time, often dissolving into crying jags in the middle of the night. I lost 15 pounds. I thought about ways I might kill myself, assuring myself I wouldn't actually do it. But I thought it about it too much.
Fortunately I found help. A psychotherapist provided medication and talked me through those dark months. When I developed vertigo, she worked with my ENT to help find the right drug combination to keep it under control.
Hearing loss is not a lifestyle problem, it's not just a normal part of aging. It is a deeply disruptive loss that changes everything about the way a person lives. Isolation and depression are common responses. It contributes to cognitive decline. Society dismisses it, and this makes it even harder to cope with.
I survived my hearing loss and became an advocate for education and accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing. I am a board member of the Hearing Loss Association of America. I wrote a memoir of my struggles with hearing loss, Shouting Won't Help, and included my email address so people could contact me. And they do. Sometimes the emails are heartbreaking.Yesterday morning I got one from someone I had never corresponded with.
The subject line was: "Rage, Anger, Depression, Abusing Alcohol." I responded, and as more email came in over the day, I realized the writer was in serious trouble. She was essentially alone in a distant state. She had a concealed-weapons permit. I was scared. After consulting with psychotherapist friends I urged her to contact a mental health professional immediately. I wish I had been able to provide a reference for her.
This person had been on medication for depression and anxiety. Her hearing loss was not new, although it was newly worse. Whoever prescribed the medication seems not to have recognized the severity of the impact of her loss, or not to have successfully dealt with it.
There's nothing more I can do for this person, but I urge therapists to take hearing loss seriously. Acknowledge the significance of the loss. Understand that hearing aids and cochlear implants don't always work very well. Try to understand what it's like to lose your means of communication with others. Try to imagine what it's like to doubt everything you think you hear. Imagine the embarrassment of repeatedly asking for clarification a third or fourth time. Many people just give up. They isolate themselves, they get depressed, they decline cognitively. Sometimes they even think about suicide. Sometimes, they even carry it out.
When I was writing my book, I included the experiences of many people who worked in jobs where hearing well is important. I interviewed psychotherapists, musicians, nurses. I wanted a teacher and finally found a high-school teacher who had been forced to leave his job because he could no longer hear his students. I heard he was depressed and drinking. Before I was able to interview him he was killed in a single-car accident. The cause was never discovered.
**** A version of this post appears on my weekly blog at katherinebouton.com, My books "Shouting Won't Help: Why I -- and 50 Million Other Americans -- Can't Hear You" and "Living Better With Hearing Loss" are available at Amazon.com