Gael Hannan - 'I'm Hearing As Hard As I Can'

Gael Hannen:

Thank you, Erin.  I always like to give a smile to the captioner before I start.  Kelly has captioned for me many times and she usually has to have a shot of chocolate before we start (laughter).  Or if it's in the evening, a shot of whiskey.  I think today it's chocolate.

So I'm really delighted to be here.  Hearing loss changes lives.  First of all I want to ask, can you all understand me?  Can you hear me at the back?  Can anyone not hear me?  (Laughter)  You know what?  You're the first audience that has ever laughed at that.  I think it's hilarious, but no one's ever laughed.  Okay, great crowd.  Hearing loss changes lives because ‑‑ I know it changes lives because if I didn't have hearing loss, I'd be married to a completely different guy, my son would look completely different, and I know this because at least one other fellow in my past wanted something permanent with me.  I'm just not sure I heard them correctly (laughter). So those romances fizzled, you know? 

Do you remember ‑‑ how many of you have hearing loss?  How many of you are here with someone who has hearing loss?  Some people are putting up both hands (laughter).  And how many of you are here because you have nothing else to do on a Tuesday afternoon in Victoria? 

So do you remember, those of you with hearing loss, that moment or the series of moments when you realized that you had hearing loss or that you were hard of hearing, as some of us call it?  Yeah.  Now, the acronym for hard of hearing is HOH.  Ladies and gentleman, I am a Ho (phon.)  (Laughter).  How life‑changing is that?  Hmm? 

So why did these romances fizzle?  It's because I ‑‑ well, do you know what bluffing is?  Bluffing is when you pretend that you understand what's being said and you haven't got a clue.  Eh?  Now, bluffing can be seriously life‑changing.  You know, we try and try to keep up, but because we can't understand or can't hear or haven't told we have hearing loss, we fall farther and farther behind, so we resort to a few tactics to make it look like we're understanding. 

One of them is the HOH nod.  (Laughter) The other one is the Mona Lisa smile.  I don't know if you can see me from the back, but I'm doing this little Mona Lisa smile.  And the other one is that ‑‑ well, we have little interjections that we use to help make people think we're understanding:  "Really!  Oh?  Hmm."  And what we also do is we copy other people.  If you're in a group situation, you're not following, but you see that other people are laughing, we laugh, too!  If they look serious, we look serious.  So we're always copying.  They stand up, we stand up.  We keep copying.

The other thing we need to know, those of us who have hearing loss, if we think that our family and friends don't realize that we have hearing loss or that we're not following, think again.  There's all sorts of things that we do that give it away to the people who know us really well.

One of them is our eyebrows go up.  Can you see that in the back?  The eyebrow raise.  Or this, what I call the upward jab of the chin, where we go ‑‑ these are things we do when we're trying to understand, or we put our neck closer and closer and closer.  Now, I call this the turtleneck.  So you're doing this.  I'm going to do it from a side view, so you get a better idea (laughter).  You may not realize that you're doing that, but you are. 

Now, I want to share two stories with you, true stories, a yes story and a no story, and this is how bluffing changed my life.  First of all the no story:

So a few years ago, in the Dark Ages, when I was in my 20s, when I was living in Vancouver, and I was going out with a nice fellow and I can't remember his name, so I'll just call him "This Nice Fellow".

So This Nice Fellow and I go out one evening, we'd been going out for a while, and we were going for a walk along the beach, English Bay.  Now, if you have hearing loss, you understand the problems in going for a walk along the beach at night.  First of all, it's dark and we can't read lips.  Secondly, we're walking in the same direction, which makes it difficult to read lips.  And thirdly, the waves are rolling in and waves are at the speech frequency.  So it was challenging. 

And This Nice Fellow said something and I'm not sure what he said, so it sounded like a yes‑or‑no answer, so I picked one (laughter), 50/50 I was going to get right, so I said, "No".  And by the look on the nice fellow's face, you could tell ‑‑ I could tell that it was the wrong answer. 

Now, the me now would have said, "Oh, I'm sorry, Nice Fellow, I didn't catch what you said.  Would you mind repeating yourself?"  But not me, not then.  I repeated, emphatically, "No!"  End of relationship.  Never saw that nice fellow again.  And to this day, I have no idea what he asked me, but I can guess.  He probably said something like, "I really like you, Gael.  Do you like me?"  "No."  (Laughter) "We've been going out for a while now, Gael, do you want to keep going out?"  "No".

Fast forward whole bunch of years and another nice fellow whose name I know, his name is Doug, and Doug and I were ‑‑ had been together a long time, we were actually living together, and one morning I woke up ‑‑ now, if you're like me, when you wake up in the morning, you haven't got your hearing‑aid in or your contact lenses, we're kind of vulnerable, so ‑‑ but I opened my eyes and he was on a pillow next to me, he was facing me and this is what I saw (demonstrating).  I'm not saying anything. 

So I said, probably very loudly, because I didn't have my hearing‑aids in, "Doug, I think I just saw your lips say, 'Let's get married.'  Did your lips just say, 'Let's get married,' Doug?"  And he went, so I said (mouthing with no vocal).

Well, I really love my husband.  If I hadn't been bluffing, I'd be married, maybe, to some nice fellow in Vancouver some years ago.  So, you know, think about bluffing.

How many of you have hearing‑aids?  Wow!  How many of you are here because you're thinking of getting hearing‑aids for the first time or getting new ones?  Wonderful!  And how many of you are here because you need them, but you don't want them, but somebody made you come?  (Laughter) One, two, three ‑‑ honest people.  You're not bluffing.

You know, I didn't start wearing a hearing‑aid until I was 21.  I was born with hearing loss that was diagnosed at two and the doctors would never let me try a hearing‑aid.  They say, "It won't help her."  My hearing loss was mild as a child, moderate as a teenager and simply profound now, but in their defence, in those days, the hearing‑aids were big, the size of a T.V. that you wore on your chest (laughter), and they felt it might hurt what hearing I had.

Anyway, at age 21 a new doctor said, "You should be wearing hearing‑aids," and again my life changed.  So I want to tell you about the day I got my first hearing‑aid, and I'm sure those of you who have hearing‑aids remember that first time, that first one.  And it was in Toronto and I went ‑‑ I was fitted, you know, the goop in the ear and all that sort of thing.  Then the day came.  The day came.  I was going to pick up my very first hearing‑aid.  And I went to the office and the hearing specialist's name was Miss Rowena Fothergill, and you never, ever forget a name like Miss Rowena, Fothergill, so I said, "I'm here, Miss Fothergill, I'm here to pick up my very first hearing‑aid."  And she smiled at me, opened a box, put it in my hand and I looked at it and said, "Damn, that's ugly!"

She put it in my ear and I said, "Whoa, is that loud!"  It was loud.  I hadn't been hearing like that, ever, so she said, and I swear to heaven she said this, "Go, Gael, go out there in the world and hear."  She might have been a minister, you know, in another ‑‑ part time, so I said, "Yes, Miss Fothergill," and I walked out ‑‑ I don't know if any of you know St. Claire Avenue in Toronto.  I'm seeing heads nod.  It is probably the winner of the noisiest street in Canada.  It's cars, buses, cars, all sorts of noise going on, and it was three blocks to my father's office, where they were all waiting because Gael was getting her first hearing‑aid, and I walked along St.  Claire Avenue like this (laughter).  I'm sure you know what people thought of me as I jerked and lurched toward my father's office.

So I wore that hearing‑aid for two days and it hurt my ear, it was loud ‑‑ didn't really hurt my ear, but it felt funny ‑‑ so I did what I'm sure many of you have done:  Put it in a drawer.  How many of you put your first hearing‑aid in a drawer for a while?  Very honest people here, just a few.

So I put it in the drawer and then a little while later, I could hear this sound as I passed the drawer, saying, "Let me out!  Let me out!"  So I did, I put it in again and I was determined to stick with it, and wow, within just a few days, it started to sound okay, felt good.  By a month it was really great and just by the time I thought ‑‑ I wasn't even aware that I had it in my ear, the dog ate it. (Laughter).  And despite what you've heard from other sources, most hearing‑aid‑swallowing dogs do not swallow it and pass it out intact at the other end (laughter).  Mine was a jumble of wires. 

Through the years, I wore a succession of hearing‑aids, different types.  I think out there with the hearing‑aid manufacturers, I think ‑‑ I believe that I have worn one of each of their products through the years.  At age 40, I started wearing two hearing‑aids, which again I should have done right from the beginning, and then, wow, things really got loud with two hearing‑aids.

Last year, I received a cochlear implant on the right side.  Do we have any cochlear implant users here?  Okay.  Just Leslie?  You and me, babe.  You know? 

But when I got involved ‑‑ at age 40, I was expecting a baby.  I'm slow, but better late than never.  And for the first time, I ‑‑ my hearing ‑‑ I was worried about my hearing loss because it was going to affect someone else.  Well, there was Doug, but this was a baby (laughter).  I mean what if I didn't ‑‑ what if I didn't hear him crying in the night?  What do I do about that?  And I quickly discovered, like most women, that when the baby cries in the night, the husband goes, "Baby's crying," and up you get (laughter).  What if I didn't hear my baby burp?  Would he blow up?  Who tells you these things? 

So for the first time, I reached out to other people with hearing loss and that was life‑changing.  I don't know if you've taken the opportunity to talk to other people today, because the things that you learn from other people with hearing loss is amazing.  Erin and other audiologists will tell you lots, but it's from the life experience of other people that you learn the little tricks of the trade.  And you'll be inspired by them the way I was.

So I learned that we need help to hear.  It's not like you can do exercises and your muscles will get better.  You just can't kind of strain and your hearing system gets better.  We need help.  And that help comes from technology, it comes from knowledge, it's what you're all doing here today, you're listening to talks on tinnitus and how hearing loss affects it.  You need that knowledge to live more successfully with your hearing loss. 

So I love my technology, I love my hearing‑aids and my cochlear implant.  Takes a bit of time to get used to them, yes, but that's part of success.  That's part of the process.  You do it.  Your brain adapts, your family adapts and bit by bit, things get better.

I love my technology.  I even have names for them.  I call this one Billy and this one Bob, short for William and Robert, and anyway, I talk to them and I tell them how I feel about them.  It's odd.  I'm not saying that you'll do that with your next hearing‑aid, but, you know, they're part of my life.  So I'm going to tell you this little piece that I wrote called "Ode to an Aid".  I love that title.  I worked hard on that.  So:

"You're lying beside me on the bedside table and before I go to sleep, I am looking at you for the first time in a long time and I'm thinking how much, to my surprise, I love you and why.  Well, it's not because of your looks!  One square inch of plastic and wires, your colour referred to, professionally, as "flesh tone", by people with no imagination as beige and by me sometimes as ugly.  Your shape is a cross between an extracted tooth and a kidney bean and your shiny surface reflects light except where I've forgotten to wipe the wax off it.

"You know, for a small creature, you sure have a lot of openings that suck sound in one end and lets it loose in my head.  But my favorite opening is that battery cage and when I open it and you grab a fresh battery and disappear back inside and you chime your delight, immediately changing from a lifeless lump of plastic to a life‑changing spark plug. 

"You know what they say about beauty:  It's what's inside that counts.  And I get that, too, about you, but I don't really want to see inside you, because I'd be disappointed not to see little tiny hearing elves make magic happen.

"I do love you, you know, and for all the times that I've cursed you, dropped you, stepped on you, I'm sorry.  I had expected more than you can deliver, yet, and I have not thanked you when you delivered more than I ever expected, giving me sounds that my memory had forgotten and new sounds that I never knew existed, like my baby breathing. 

"No, you're not pretty.  You cost money.  You take some work, but if I didn't have you, I would be isolated, cut off from my people.  So no, you're not pretty, you're beautiful, and I love you.  Goodnight."  (Applause)

So hearing loss, whether you realize it or not, touches every aspect of your life, even if it's a mild hearing loss, and the most important impact of hearing loss, and I'm sure you'll agree with me, is on relationships.  Relationships change a little bit when you have hearing loss. 

So communication is the glue that binds us together as people, and hearing loss can impact that, so what we have to do is learn, with our families, with our friends, some new ways of communicating, and you've learned this from your hearing professionals and from other people with hearing loss.

You know, my husband and I have been together for 30 years and even now, he sometimes breaks the rules of communication.  He will walk away from me while I'm talking and then that is always good for an argument. 

FROM THE AUDIENCE:  Yup.

GAEL HANNON:  So if he doesn't follow the rules of our communication and I don't manage to keep my temper in check, things are going to happen. 

So there are just a few basic rules and these are the basic ones of improved communication:

Get my attention.  If you start talking to me before I've tuned in, I tune in halfway through and I've missed part of the message.  Get my attention.  Don't say my name loudly, because I'll jump, because, you know, sometimes it's not how loud something is, it's just the clarity of speech.

Face me.  Always face me when you speak.  Some people don't need to read lips; many of us do, even with technology, so face me with you speak or don't speak at all.  Especially from another room.  (Laughter).

Oh, I know!  Don't you hate that?  People with hearing loss do not hear through walls or around corners, but let me tell you, people with hearing loss, aren't we guilty of the same thing sometimes?  I'll go, "Doug," and he'll go, "Yes," and I'll go, "Where are you?"  "Here."  (Laughter) "Where here?"  "In the bathroom."  "Which bathroom?"  It could go on like this.  Actually, I don't let it go on that far, but whoever starts the conversation goes to that person.  That's a basic rule.  You don't have to write it down, but you maybe should. 

And don't over‑emphasize your lips when speaking to me.  Sometimes I'll say, "Oh, pardon," so even my husband will repeat it (demonstrating).  No, we don't understand that.  We don't understand over‑emphasized lips and it makes you look really silly.  So no over‑emphasizing. 

And don't roll your eyes when I ask for repeats.  "I've already told you two times."  Well, try it for a third time.  Don't roll your eyes. 

There's lots of other communication.  You know, you want to have the lighting up and the noise down.  So we people with hearing loss, sometimes romantic ambience means something different for us.  The lights ‑‑ it's always bright in my house.  When we go out for dinner, you know, you might have one candle on the table, low lights, a little music playing.  I have all the candles the restaurant has in the back on my table and you know, by the way, that you have every right to ask for the music to be turned down when you go into a restaurant, because if you do, you'll hear other people going, "Oh, my gosh, I'm so glad they turned the music down!"

So even if you have a mild hearing loss, technology will help you.  Knowledge will help you.  There's a lot of companies out there that will help you with communication strategies, teach you speech reading, give you all sorts of wonderful things to work with your hearing‑aids and cochlear implants. 

Text interpretation:  Isn't this wonderful?  I've used captioning on T.V.  Some people say, "Well, it's so hard to get used to, it moves too fast."  You will get used to it.  You will get used to it.

We have ways to connect us to the television, to the phone, watching your iPad.  Whatever issue you have, there is an app for that.  There is a way to help you hear better and you just ask anyone out there and they will help you. 

Anyway, that is my short talk for today.  Thank you for letting me spend time with you, I really appreciate it.  Hearing loss is both my issue and my passion and I will talk about it 'til the cows come home.

So I think we'll just end there.  I'm going to be outside.  Do not feel you have to buy a book, by any means.  If you have any questions for me, we could ‑‑ let's take it outside, okay?  Thank you very much.  Have a happy hearing day.  (Applause)