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Commentary: High school is even more awkward when you’re losing your hearing

When reporter Moira Warburton was fourteen years old, she was diagnosed with a condition that meant she needed hearing aids. Now, years later, she’s coming to terms with the fact that she’ll need them for the rest of her life.

High school sucked for me in all the usual awkward ways. I was growing hair in weird places, learning how to use a tampon, hormones raging. And to make things worse, I was losing my hearing. This is what a conversation sounds like for most people. Here’s what it sounds like for me: I have an eighty percent hearing loss in my left ear, and sixty percent in my right.

Yeah. I’m pretty close to deaf. The three little bones connecting my eardrum to my cochlea grew too close together, and can’t vibrate properly. Usually that happens to people in their fifties. I was barely in my teens.

I have otosclerosis. I had to look up what it’s called for this piece. I never remember, because I’ve always tried to pretend the condition doesn’t exist for me. I was fourteen when I was diagnosed. I was embarrassed by my existence to begin with at that age. Lots of kids get glasses, but hearing aids? I was so ashamed. They were like braces, but worse. At least other people had braces – no one had hearing aids. Mine were small and beige colored – they sat just inside my ear canal, and then curled around the back – but they were the bane of my existence. I remember sitting in class once, talking to the Cute Guy – you know the one. I was impressing myself at how casual I was being. We were sitting side by side. And then he saw them. I watched his face change, and I knew what he was thinking: “They’re for old people!” I’m still wishing a hole opened up beside me and swallowed me up.

It wasn’t all bad. Turning my hearing aids off, I found, had its benefits. I could concentrate in tests with instant silence. I avoided countless fights with my parents, by turning their voices into the teacher’s from Charlie Brown: “Wah-wah-wah-wah!”

But because I started from this place of shame, that’s what defined the hearing aids for me. When I was first diagnosed, the doctors told me there was a surgery I could get when I was older and finished growing. For the next four years I told myself and everyone who asked that this was only temporary. Finally, when I was nineteen, I had the surgery.

It didn’t work. My bones were too tightly fused together.

Now I’m twenty-five. All my formative years with the hearing aids were spent figuring out how to hide them. I’ve had these things in my ears for over a decade, and I’m only just accepting that they’ll be here for the rest of my life. I’m trying to find the words to explain to people what I need, when I need it. I’m learning to speak up. Telling people I need a different seat in a restaurant, away from the speakers. Explaining that I’m not being thoughtless, I just didn’t hear.

I wish I’d started this process earlier –  of being comfortable with who I am. I wish I could go back and tell fourteen-year-old me, just own it. You’ll find people cooler than the Cute Guy, who don’t care what’s in your ears. You’ll learn earlier than others to embrace things about yourself that you can’t change. You’ll end up working in radio of all things – after all these years of trying to avoid them, your ears will become your biggest asset. And eventually, you’ll get to a point where you introduce yourself with, “Hi, I’m Moira. Heads up, I’m not ignoring you. I just might not hear you.”

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