My teenage sister Hannah was opening her heart to me, and I was listening carefully and nervously. We barely knew each other. My husband cleared the plates from dinner and left us to it. Hannah said: "It's so good to be able to talk to you about all this! We could never talk like this before, could we?"
I had had similar exchanges with relatives and friends over the past six months. "It's like having a new daughter," my dad laughed, after our first "normal" phone call in 10 years. I felt unsettled and weirdly guilty: I was finding this explosion of human intimacy rather disturbing.
I lost my hearing the whole time my sister was growing up. As I went progressively deaf from my teens onwards, Ispent more time with the deaf side of my family: on my mum's side, progressive hearing loss is hereditary and we communicate with speech and British Sign Language. Not being able to understand or bond with my youngest, hearing sister was just one of many isolating facets that I simply accepted. By the time I became deaf, I had cut right down on sharing personal intimacy with almost everyone.
My boyfriend Tom learned to sign early on, around the same time I started wearing hearing aids consistently, 10 years ago. By the time we got married five years later, I was profoundly deaf and his voice was unrecognisable. He communicated so well, intimacy was not a problem. When it came to friends, he helped a bit but there was onlyso much he could do without me becoming overly dependent.
Then suddenly, after 20 years of going deaf, my situation was reversed. At 39, I"went hearing": I had cochlear implant surgery. Once my Advanced Bionics implant was switched on, my hearing rehabilitation was astonishingly speedy. It was incredibly moving to be able to hear Tom's voice sound the way I remembered it.
Such a successful outcome was by no means guaranteed. Some types of deafness cannot be helped by an implant. This is how it works. An electronic device bypasses the damaged part of the inner ear; I wear an external processor behind my ear and a little magnetised headpiece. The implant delivers sound to my hearing nerve via an array of electrodes. The world sounds how I remember it, but when I take the headpiece off at night, I remain almost totally deaf.
So the world is suddenly a warmer, friendlier place. All my paranoid feelings of social exclusion were, I now feel, completely true. I was missing so much information, all the time. Strangers spontaneously chat to each other, even in big cities – mainly they gripe about the weather, or the queue, but it's a start. When I was deaf, aman came up to me on a tube station platform and asked something I didn't understand. I said, "I'm deaf, I have to lip-read you" and he turned away abruptly and spoke to someone else.
In my social life, when I was going deaf, Iinitially liked to butterfly and bluff. I became more extrovert as a performer, yet more avoidant of social intimacy. Through most of my 20s, Ipretended my hearing wasn't getting worse, and eventually the years of denial plunged me into adepressed, doomy fug. I told one friend I couldn't remember how to "do" my personality any more.
I finally gave up going to dinner parties with hearing friends after one get-together where Icouldn't understand a thing. I got a lump in my throat, and lip-reading when upset is nigh on impossible. You need calm focus. Being deaf in acrowd of hearing people is not like being abroad and not understanding the language; I could never truly learn this distorted babble language, and I could never come home.
I didn't get organised about my hearing loss orwear hearing aids until I was 31. I improved mysign language and employed interpreters at work. My career would have hit awall without Access to Work. Following recent changes to this scheme, which helps deaf and disabled people in work, a parliamentary select committee is conducting an inquiry.
Using an interpreter is an oddly intimate relationship, looking at one face all day, often astranger's. It sometimes unnerved colleagues. I can see how my looking away from a speaker at my interpreter might seem a bit passive-aggressive or rude, but these professionals allowed me to be more a part of the world. In away, I trusted interpreters more than other hearing people. Trusting others involves more risk of being hurt by communication failures.
As a deaf person, I became cautious, less spontaneous, and learned how to enjoy my own company more. I also acquired deaf friends. At first I was nervous about telling some of them about my implant. I needn't have worried; so many of us now have implants that it's become less divisive.
My in-laws were always lovely, but on the way to family gatherings I had often asked Tom: "How long will we have to stay?" I felt guilty for my lack of enthusiasm because they were all so nice. My brother-in-law and his fiancee had even done abasic sign language course. And yet in the chaotic crossfire conversation, I'd have to zone out to avoid becoming exhausted from lip-reading.
After my implant switch-on, Iwas able to bond properly with my hearing in-laws. And yet rehabilitation is also bittersweet. Everyone could bring me up to speed with what had been happening in their lives for – well, their entire lives.
After a dinner party I was clearing up in the kitchen and another guest came in and said: "It is a miracle that you can join in the conversation now. I knew you could never follow us all before and I would have felt bad saying it then. But Ican tell you now – it was very sad."
That night was the first time we'd got beyond the small talk. I suddenly knew so much more about her. The unspoken knowledge that I was once a bored-looking lump of sad vibe at the table could now be said out loud with no offence, and none taken. I was back in the hearing gang.
But I'm still not one of them. I'm only just back from the deaf wars. I haven't decommissioned my defensive weapons. If someone says: "It's so good to be able to finally speak," I agree, and in that same moment, the hurt of everything I missed knocks me sideways. I liken it to coming out of prison after a long stretch and finding everyone has moved on. I'm still angry. They couldn't be bothered to include you before, so why should you bother listening now? What gives them the right to enjoy the benefits of your new hearing?
If I am resentful about my treatment in the past, I have to remind myself I also played abig part in being a stranger to people. For example, in my deaf days, people would ask me: "How are you?" and I'd reply at length, they'd listen politely and then I wouldn't return the favour, or else not be able to hear a reply. And now, I am not sure how much I'm allowed to talk. I'm not sure how much other people are allowed to talk. They talk a lot. Are you allowed to stop them? Sometimes I listen so much that I don't talk at all and I can feel myself disappearing.
When it gets a bit too much, I can zone out by using a device that transmits audio from my iPod to my implant without headphones. I'm like my own wireless hi-fi. Tom spotted me doing this. He used to do things we could enjoy together, so he didn't live a life that excluded me. Now I was shutting myself off again. I promised not to do it any more.
My equipment allows me to zoom in on speech in certain noisy environments – but what use is this if I don't know how to respond to the new intimates in my life? It is well known that hearing loss causes people to become withdrawn. I did suspect over the years that people seemed to confuse my self-protectiveness for what they call "cool". But of course most people who get called cool are just afraid to show their feelings.
Writing this reminds me of a conversation relayed to me (after the fact) by a friend, about 18years ago.
Friend A: Why do you like Sophie?
Friend B: Because, well, she's an enigma.
Friend A: She's not an enigma! She's deaf!
I was still hard of hearing then. But on reflection, maybe there was a grain of truth in those remarks.
My heart is still deaf, and my allegiance is with the deaf community. After years of guardedness, my access to others and their easy intimacy unmasks me, and I don't always like it. Leaving my private world behind gives me what I call identity vertigo. I have to engage more, take more responsibility, and I'm out of practice. But now I've regained spontaneity in my life, I'll do as the hearing do and make it up as I go along.