After I lost my hearing in one ear, I did well enough with the hearing in my other one. But as that ear started to go, in my late 40s, I floundered.
Hearing loss dominated my waking life. Every time someone said something to me that I couldn’t follow, every time I flinched at a loud noise, every time I couldn’t hear at the movies or the theater, every time I answered the phone and not only couldn’t tell who was calling but even whether the caller was male or female, I despaired.
Once I had a conversation on the phone with my son, thinking it was my husband. Another time my husband himself called and I took a wild stab that it was someone calling for him, and asked if he could call back later.
Even in a crisis, my hearing thrust its way forward. After my husband had cancer surgery, my focus was on hearing the surgeon to the extent that I missed most of what he said. When my mother had a medical crisis and the EMS arrived, the overwhelming issue was hearing their words, not what the words meant. A transportation glitch, such as a stalled subway or a grounded plane, isn’t about being delayed or trapped or claustrophobic. It’s that I can’t hear what’s being said -- not only announcements but even speculation from fellow passengers. I am often reduced to tears of frustration, and sometimes I panic, unable to ask for help -- because I can’t hear the answer or help myself.
Surprisingly, despite this handicap, I managed to work for 22 years in a highly competitive and stressful environment: the New York Times. My close colleagues knew I had trouble hearing, but not how much trouble I had. I was an editor, and I would arrange to work with writers in person as often as possible, or via e-mail. For many of those years I could still manage on the telephone. It wasn’t until my left ear bottomed out, with my right ear following closely behind, that I ran into true difficulty.
I’d recently moved from my longtime home base, the New York Times Magazine, to the daily culture desk. The culture editor knew about my hearing problems and thought we could work around them. It was a steep learning curve -- an unfamiliar computer system, a confusing and relentless series of daily deadlines, new colleagues, new writers, new sources. I often edited four or five or more stories a day for the next day’s paper, while assigning more to be written for future days. Even with normal hearing I’d have been overwhelmed. Half-deaf, I kept my head barely above water.
Several months into the job, I had the severest drop in my hearing since the original one, 30 years earlier. It was a devastating blow, professionally and psychologically. I was just getting into my stride in the new job, and now was forced to start over again with an enormous handicap. This time I had to tell people. Some tried to accommodate me; others seemed to simply forget.
I improvised. My work life was one long dance around the fact that I couldn’t hear a single thing. At a meeting I was leading, with eight or 10 people, I deftly (or so I thought) asked participants to send me a summary of their suggestions and I would incorporate them in my report. When someone called on the phone, I’d say, “I’m really swamped. Could you follow up with an e-mail?” Unless caller ID told me who the speaker was, I often couldn’t tell.
The Times building has an open plan, symbolizing transparency. It’s beautiful, but the acoustics are terrible. Sound drifts up through the central atrium, and voices carry across a vast sea of desks and cubicles. Every morning in our department we had a 15-minute meeting to set the agenda for the day. It was held just off the atrium.
No matter where I stood, the one person I really needed to hear was invariably on the other side of the room. People mumbled, or looked down at notes as they spoke. There were mustaches and beards, hands nervously fluttering in front of mouths. Lip reading was difficult. Generally I only found out what had been said when the daily schedule came about an hour or so later.
I left the paper in 2009 when a new boss came into my department. I delayed telling him about my hearing loss. I wanted him to get to know me, so that when I told him about the hearing loss it would be one of many qualities, perhaps even an incidental one, not the primary one. That was a mistake.
Eventually in an interview I initiated, sensing some distance on his part, he stunned me by saying that he didn’t think I was a “team player” and that he didn’t think things were working out for me in the department. So much for faking it. My advice to anyone in the workplace with hearing loss is to be open and upfront about it. If you aren’t, sooner or later it will backfire.
After I left the Times, I went back to reporting and writing, this time about hearing loss. I interviewed many scientists and researchers, always using a tape recorder. After each interview, I had only a vague sense of whether the interview had gone well or not.
I took no notes because I didn’t want to be distracted from listening as intently as possible, and often I had no idea what we had actually talked about. When the transcriber sent my interviews back, I read them with total fascination. They were full of interesting information, and it was clear that I was hearing well enough to ask appropriate follow-up questions and to have a real conversation. But listening that intently took enormous cognitive effort, and eclipsed my ability to remember any of it.
(Katherine Bouton is a former senior editor at the New York Times. This is the first of three excerpts from “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I -- and 50 Million Other Americans -- Can’t Hear You,” to be published Feb. 19 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The opinions expressed are her own. Read Part 1 and Part 3.)
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