Speak up, speak out, break out

What’s holding you back?

Depression? Loneliness? Fear of failure?

My hearing loss and tinnitus are medical facts that I allowed to limit my life and my happiness for far too long.

Dealing with them has made me think about the other ways in which our lives can be limited.

Some of us get trapped in depression, which is also a medical fact — not a flight of fancy, not a whim. And which thankfully can be also be helped. I saw being deaf as a stigma, and too many people see depression in the same way and are ashamed to open up and talk about it, or seek help.

Some of us are socially isolated and lonely — maybe as a result of death, or divorce, or just through feeling out of step with our peers.

And sometimes we are so afraid to fail that we put limits on our creativity, by thinking that our painting, or writing, or music are not good enough to show the world.

So we keep things locked inside of us, we don’t dare let our voice be heard. We wear mental straitjackets that keep us confined and choked.

But it’s only by speaking up, speaking out, and breaking out, that we can find our freedom and enjoy life.

Don’t be ashamed; don’t be silent. You aren’t the only person feeling that way — locked out, always on the outside, or maybe locked in, and voiceless.

And you are worth so much more than that. Take a small step and start changing your life.

My small step was finally going for a hearing test. I’d had my hearing tested in my mid thirties, and some loss was found, but wearing one hearing aid made me feel unbalanced (more unbalanced than usual!) and I also found it hugely uncomfortable. Instead of persevering or talking to my audiologist, I gave up on it.

Well, fifteen years passed, I’m 50 years old now, and my hearing has become progressively worse. There’s a history of hearing loss on my mother’s side of the family, and this together with my…ahem…increasing maturity, meant that deafness was tightening its grip on me.

Hearing loss is very isolating. You don’t want to be the person who continually says, “Sorry? What was that? Can you say that again?” That may be okay (if annoying) when you are in a one to one situation with someone, but if you are in a group and can’t keep up with the conversation, you just keep quiet. You switch off. You let the conversation carry on around you and you don’t attempt to take part.

I think that deafness and depression have a lot in common.

Other people think you’re unfriendly, or stand-offish, or unintelligent. And this can really affect how you see yourself and even how you live your life — always on the periphery, never quite part of what’s going on. It can knock your confidence and self-esteem, limit the jobs you go for, and keep you from going out and socialising.

In short, these conditions are life-changing.

I bit the bullet and got my hearing tested several months back, and was told that I now have significant loss in both ears. The day I had my tiny, digital hearing aids fitted will never fade from my memory. I could hear the clock ticking, other people’s conversations as I walked past them, birds singing, and the kettle boiling in the next room. I also immediately turned the volume down on the television from 38 to about 22. Wow — my poor family!

I kept bursting into tears as I realised how different my life would be now — and also when I considered how much I’d missed out on over the last few years.

On the first day, I wore my hearing aids around my busy city for a few hours, marvelling at this new world. And then I went home, took them out, lay on the sofa and slept for two hours right in the middle of the afternoon. Complete sensory overload — it was overwhelming.

Even now, after wearing the aids for a few hours, I sometimes choose to take them out. At first it’s like being underwater — everything is muffled and unclear. Then after a few minutes that settles down into normality and my brain readjusts. Because sometimes I don’t actually want to hear what’s going on. When rowdy people get on our local train and are being obnoxious, I take my hearing aids out. When my husband is watching a documentary on television and I’m trying to read, I take my hearing aids out. It’s quite pleasant having the choice to zone out!

One of the biggest benefits I’ve had is the massive reduction in my tinnitus. Tinnitus was what drove me to get my hearing tested again, to be honest — the noises in my ears were constant, and getting louder. When I’m not wearing my hearing aids I have whistling in my ears, and I’ve discovered that if I shake my head quickly (don’t ask me how I found this out), the sounds merge and become like high pitched church organ music…The good news is that when I’m wearing my hearing aids, I’m not aware of my tinnitus at all. My brain is hearing quite enough external noise, and doesn’t feel the need to manufacture any for me, thank goodness.

The quality of my life has improved dramatically, and I’m frustrated with myself that I didn’t do something about this years ago.

I know that deafness can often be dealt with in a concrete way because it has a physical cause, while depression is that terrible, insidious, nebulous monster that stalks you and lies in wait. I know there are big differences. But there are also similarities.

Some of the people I love most in this world have suffered from anxiety and depression, and they suffered in silence for far too long because they were ashamed. They thought that admitting to depression was admitting a weakness.

I think the opposite is true; if you can get through day after day while suffering from depression or anxiety, you are one of the very bravest, most resilient of people.

And you have a 100% success rate in living with it so far.

They also thought that they were hopeless cases — that nobody would be able to help them. The best news is that a combination of medication, counselling, and using cognitive behavioural therapy has helped the people closest to me immeasurably. Hell, just talking about your problems with people who love you can help immeasurably. One person I know uses painting to feel better, another gets out into the woods and walks, a third writes about his feelings.

And for those people who find themselves lonely through social isolation, the hardest step of all is admitting to being lonely. They sometimes see loneliness as a stigma or a judgement too — what’s wrong with them, that out of a whole world full of people, they have ended up alone?

The answer, of course, is nothing. Nothing is wrong with them. Just bad luck and circumstances.

But that first step — just getting out of the house — can be so hard. Charities who help lonely and isolated people suggest joining a book club, a church group, a walking club, or volunteering for a local charity. How about trying hang gliding for the over 50s? It doesn’t matter what one chooses — any of these activities can help people to connect and feel a sense of community again.

Facing the issues in your life is really, really hard sometimes.

But the rewards are huge.

Don’t give up. Things can get better. Just try and take that first step.

Hold out your hand and someone will take it.

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Tess Wheeler

Tess Wheeler

Reader, teacher, writer, and beach walker. I’m happy at home in the North East of England but plotting more adventures in this second half.