“Colie?” “Colie?” “Colie, can you hear me?”
The words, ‘Colie, can you hear me,’ were heard a lot when I was a young child. But not by me. Around age 2 or 3 my parents started noticing that I wasn’t responding when they would speak to me. I’m sure they suspected that I was hitting terrible twos and was just being stubborn and nonresponsive. But after this happened consistently they knew it was more than that. As it turns out, I was 30% deaf. I could hear noise but it was muffled; I couldn’t tell if someone was talking to me from across a room. In fact, it was discovered by my parents that I could really only hold a conversation with someone if I was looking directly at them. Lip reading was a skill that got me through daily life at a very young age.
In my experience, many reactions to finding out I was partially deaf as a child include pity and mild sadness for a little girl who was missing out on a crucial sense and surely endured frustrations. But I write to tell you that my own reaction to my inability to fully hear was just the opposite.
It’s true that I had struggles at times. It was very frustrating to play with a group of friends because, being so young, they didn’t know how or care to adjust to my inability to hear well. Playing with friends for me at this time in my life usually just meant a few hours of confusion. I remember one instance being at my aunt and uncle’s house, playing in the basement with my twin cousins and two of our best friends. When the five of us got together, things always got rowdy. I remember running and jumping around as some part of a game and then all of the sudden seeing my 4 best friends sitting down and laughing and talking together. I wondered how long they had been sitting like that together. I had no recollection of anyone telling me that we had switched activities. I was completely in my own world. As I looked at them and began to walk towards them I could see their mouths and bodies moving in visible conversation and laughter, but as I got closer I could only hear a faint sound.
These moments were frustrating because I felt confused and left out. I could never keep up and I was never quite sure why. I didn’t have enough understanding myself to know what I needed, much less enough understanding to explain to my closest friends that I needed their help and understanding.
I cannot recall ever being blatantly bullied because of my inability, but then again it may have happened without my knowledge. However, my mother recalls instances of people neglecting to accommodate me. When I was young my parents put me in every sport and activity imaginable, one of which was gymnastics. At the beginning of the class my mom explained my situation to the teacher. She told the teacher of my inability to hear but as long I could see her at all times I would be okay. She politely asked if she could accommodate me by always ensuring that I could see her face to rely on my lip-reading skills so as not to fall behind or get lost in anything; something that my mom didn’t think was too much to ask for. The teacher promptly brushed my mom off and took little or no notice of what she had been told and asked. Of course, being young and deaf, I did not recognize it at the time. But my mom has relayed to me over the years how seemingly rude that teacher was. Upon observing my gymnastics practice sessions, my mom would often find me completely engrossed in my own world with little, if any, understanding of what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing. Other observations revealed a teacher who made no measureable effort to keep me involved and help me understand.
I could easily harbor anger toward this teacher for not catering to my extra needs and it would have been very simple for my parents to become offended and approach that teacher with hostility. But perhaps that woman just didn’t know how to handle the situation. Maybe she was young and still had some maturing to do. Even still maybe she was overwhelmed by a class full of 4-year-olds and didn’t have the capacity to try and understand a deaf one. The approach that my parents took to this situation was a great one that has taught me a valuable lesson. They just left it alone. Recognizing that I was okay they opted out of confronting the teacher with their frustrations. They didn’t want to victimize me or make the situation worse by offending someone else. So they simply let it go and instead of an earful, they gave the teacher the understanding that they had asked her for in the beginning. They showed me by example that we can only control ourselves and our own efforts. I didn’t know it yet, but I was learning at a very young age how not to be a victim of a situation. Their approach, I believe, is what led me to eventually having the ability to see my disability as a blessing
As an adult looking back on all my childhood memories, with a fully formed understanding of my personality and needs, I’ve come to appreciate that quiet time in my life.
I am a severely introverted person. Now, for those of you who think you know what introverted means and assume that I must hate people, double check your definition. Being an introvert doesn’t mean that I don’t like people or that I don’t enjoy socializing. As a matter of fact I love people and I love spending time with and getting to know people. Being introverted simply means that my alone time is critical for my mental health. Solitary moments are what keep me recharged and healthy so I can be radiant and sociable when people are around. So as a child, before I learned about and fully understood my need for peaceful alone time, it was easy for me to become overwhelmed by people. Especially little people, or in other words, my friends.
I look back through memories of my later childhood sometimes, after my hearing was fully restored, and I can see glimpses of extreme exhaustion and frustration that are all centered around feeling pressure to be with my friends at times that I just needed a break. I remember one specific instance when I was particularly rude and mouthy to my poor, innocent mother. Naturally, she grounded me. Years later when I asked her why that was one of the only times I’d ever been grounded, she informed me that grounding was a punishment that backfired terribly for me. It harshly lacked an effect on me. She told me that the second she grounded me that day, a visible wave of relief washed over me. I contently walked to my room and thoroughly enjoyed the moments that I had to myself. It wasn’t a punishment at all, it was a reward. I had been mentally and physically drained by too much social activity and not allowing me to play with friends was exactly what I needed to recharge.
When memories like this come to mind I’m starkly reminded of the frustration I often felt but didn’t understand. That’s when I reflect back to the time when I couldn’t hear well. Although there were different frustrations during that time as well, I’ve come to see that time in my life as mostly a time of peace. As a partially deaf little girl I could have alone time almost whenever I wanted. Because I could read lips I wasn’t rendered helpless and could carry on a conversation when I felt so inclined. But if I didn’t want to, if I just needed my peace and quiet, I didn’t have to. I could simply look away and virtually be in my own little world. And that was more than okay.
Instead of being sad that I was sometimes left out, or angry that some people neglected to accommodate me, I look back at those moments of complete quiet and stillness with fondness and peace in my heart. I don’t see it as a disability at all. Instead I see it as exactly what I needed as a confused and sometimes contentious child. Too much noise and activity was extremely exhausting for me, so having the ability not to hear it was actually helpful to my overall mental health. Even though I’m an adult now who is fully capable of recognizing when I need to take a break, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have moments when I miss the stillness that deafness brought with it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to have my hearing. I love having the ability to enjoy the sound of a river, or my little sister giggle when I say something dumb. I love the humming of my dad’s dremel tool as he works late to get orders done. I love the sound of my mom choreographing her next class, and the sound of shoes screeching on the floor in a basketball game. I love hearing my nieces and nephews sing to me loudly and off-key over the phone every year for my birthday. I love hearing the girls I coach cheer and laugh together during practice. I love the sound of my ringtone when one of my four best friends calls me to catch up and the sound of their voices on the other end; the voices I couldn’t hear in that basement twenty years ago. I love sound.
But that brief amount of time when those sounds didn’t exist in my world, when the phrase most frequently directed my way was “Colie, can you hear me?”, that time when the world was quiet, was truly a blessing and gift that I needed very much. And it remains so as a time that I can reflect on and remember with gratitude, peace, and comfort.
If you’d like to share your life story, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, kisses on the peace sign fingers and love…