‘You need to tie your hair up.’ I ran home in tears. My hair was my shield. Without it, I felt lost and defenseless.’: Woman with hearing loss becomes advocate, ‘I no longer want to hide’

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“It wasn’t until I was 4 years old anyone realized there was an issue with my hearing.  My parents hadn’t noticed any problems. It was only following a heavy cold that left my ears severely blocked my nursery suggested I had a hearing test.  The results showed I had moderate hearing loss, and resulted in me getting two hearing aids. This was all new to me. I had never seen anyone else wearing hearing aids. My friends didn’t wear them, nor did anyone in my family. I hated wearing them, as it made me feel very different from everyone else. I even deliberately chose brown hearing aids to match my hair. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want my hearing aids to be invisible to everyone.’ To ensure this, I made sure my hair was always covering my ears as I didn’t want anyone to notice. This became the perfect disguise.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

I had a Teacher of the Deaf who came into my school monthly to provide support for myself and my teachers. I was asked if I wanted a radio aid, also known as an FM system. This device consisted of a microphone that was worn around my teacher’s neck and a ‘shoe’ that attached to my hearing aids.  It transmitted the teacher’s voice straight to my hearing aid. At the time, I had no idea what I had agreed to, but I soon ended up hating the FM system. The microphone the teacher wore was obvious, and there was no way I could stop its visibility. I wanted to blend in and not be identified as being different, and I hated the FM system for not allowing me to do this.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

I still remember being approached by the Head Teacher at the morning assembly while I was sitting with the rest of my class and asked if I was happy for her to talk about my FM system in front of the whole school. My mind went blank, and I started to panic. I didn’t want the school to know I was different from them. I guess she could see how uncomfortable I was. Though she said she would not use my name, I sat there, gripped with fear, scared everyone would find out ‘the student’ who couldn’t hear and had to use an FM system to understand was me. That experience was the first time I remember becoming completely overwhelmed by my predicament, and I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. I didn’t want to be there.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

Moving to junior school presented new challenges in the form of teachers and rules. One rule, in particular, affected me greatly: every girl whose hair was below their shoulders had to have it tied up. I knew that was not an option for me. Tying my hair up would expose my hearing aids, and that was unimaginable to me. I made the decision to cut my hair so it was above my shoulders so I wouldn’t be asked to tie it up. This worked well, until one day my teacher said, ‘Lauren, you need to tie your hair up.’ In her opinion, it was touching my shoulders. The sound of the words filled me with panic. I made the excuse as to why that wasn’t possible for me and ran home that night in tears. It’s difficult to explain how something so seemingly trivial can have such a big impact on a child, but my hair was my shield and without it, I felt lost and defenseless.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

The wind was another foe of mine and often caused me anxiety. I went to great lengths to prevent my hair from moving and thus exposing my aids.  I would try to never face into the wind, and casually play with my hair to hold it down, anything rather than show off my hearing aids.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

Wherever possible, I didn’t use the FM system and it remained unused in its box.  This changed when my teacher of the deaf began insisting I started to use the FM system more regularly. She made the teachers aware I was responsible for making sure the system was used. For most people, this would seem to be an easy task, but for me, it created overwhelming fear. I didn’t want to have to go in front of the class with this specialist equipment. I thought it was so visible around the teacher’s neck, and I couldn’t separate myself from the device. In my mind, I believed I was becoming the center of everyone’s attention for all the wrong reasons.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

I started to arrive early to school so I could leave the equipment on the teachers’ desk instead of having to hand it to them in front of everyone. The whole issue started to completely overwhelm me. My mind was constantly taken up with worries of when the teacher would next single me out, checking if the FM system was functioning correctly. My mind would be completely fixed on the thought of everyone looking at me, and knowing I was different. When this did happen, my chest would tighten up, and I would break out in a sweat.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

This anxiety-induced chest pain became such a constant feeling that my mom took me to the doctor, and I was diagnosed as suffering from panic attacks. My mmm would constantly tell me, ‘Your hearing aids aren’t a big deal and one day, you’ll see that.’ However, the problem was they were a big deal to me. I just wanted my feeling to be considered and listen to. I was very fortunate in that I was never bullied at school, but the desire to blend in and not be identified as being different cannot be underestimated.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

When the time came to choose a secondary school, I looked at all the local options. The trouble was they didn’t have specialist hearing units. I did, eventually, find a school that had what they called a ‘hearing impaired’ unit. Straight away, I knew I wanted to go there so I would no longer be the only deaf student in the class.  I wanted a completely fresh start where I could feel comfortable in a school environment. However, as the school wasn’t in my catchment area, I needed a statement from my old school, but they refused as they didn’t believe I would benefit from going to that school. I was heartbroken, but my mom knew how much it meant to me and how the new school would benefit my mental health. She appealed their decision and eventually won my case. I felt nothing but happiness when I found out. I finally felt like I was going somewhere where I could learn to accept myself, and have people around me who would understand my difficulties and anxieties.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

Right from the first day, for the first time ever, I went with my hair tied up.  I felt empowered, with no shame or stigma. I loved it and I grew in confidence. This time, I could wear my hair down by choice and, when asked, I was happy to tie it up. I had more say about my equipment, I was no longer the only student who used the FM system. Everything had finally started looking up, and I was no longer experiencing panic attacks, and my anxiety levels fell.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

Despite my newfound confidence at school my hearing started to noticeably deteriorate from the age of 12.  My audiology appointments went from once a year to every quarter. I would dread the hearing tests as every time I’d be informed that my hearing had got worse. In my heart, I knew this was the case. On more and more occasions, I was mishearing or failing to hear what was being said. It became a very worrying time. For the next 3 years, it continued to deteriorate, and I had an MRI scan to try and find the cause of my hearing loss. But still, there was no explanation, and no fix, to resolve the situation.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

I was referred to a specialist and I remember breaking into tears when he told me, ‘It could be 5 years before you lose all your hearing, and you should consider the possibility of cochlear implants in the future.’  This made me fearful as to how I would be able to communicate and mix with other people in my life. Thankfully, after three years my hearing stabilized, and it has remained at the same level for the last 2 years. The first time I was told my hearing had been classified as ‘severe to profound,’ my heart drop to my stomach as I realized the truth to how poor my hearing had become.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

I finished secondary school and started college. My confidence has grown massively in all aspects, although I still found it hard to get over the initial fear of telling people about my hearing loss. I made sure my teachers were aware of my deafness but still didn’t raise the issue with my classmates. Despite settling in well, I felt there was a weight on me. It was as if I was carrying a secret, one that had been with me all my life.  Although I didn’t care if people found out or knew I wore hearing aids, it just wasn’t something I had ever voluntarily disclosed. After nights of wondering what to do, I decided I no longer wanted to feel I was hiding my deafness.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

I came to a big decision to post a picture of myself with my hearing aids in full view on my Instagram. Moments after this was done, I was sat there thinking, ‘Why have I done this when I’ve spent the last 12 years doing the exact opposite?’ I was taken back by the positive responses I received. People were saying they had no idea, asking questions, and giving me positive feedback. I really appreciated this overwhelmingly supportive response, and it made me realize I had done the right thing.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

My second year of college was my hardest, due to the deterioration of my hearing. I was struggling to hear in all situations, and it was adding extra stress, which caused my panic attacks to return, although this time it wasn’t due to having unwanted attention. Now it was from feeling isolated, like I was the only one in the room, even though it was full. The problem was the more I thought about the fact I couldn’t hear what was being said in the discussion, the more I zoned out and couldn’t follow anything being said. All that was racing through my head was, ‘I need to get out of here as I can’t cope with this.’ It left me dreading going to college and made it incredibly hard keeping up with the work.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

I knew I needed to advocate for myself. I sent an email to my teachers, politely asking them to be more aware of the difficulties someone with hearing loss faces in a classroom environment. I asked them to make sure they faced me, rather than the computer, when speaking so I could lipread, make sure that key information is written down so I could refer to it later on, and ensure to use my name if they wanted to get my attention. When nothing was done, I asked student support to help me change things. They set up meetings with my teachers so the issue would be taken seriously, but one teacher didn’t attend, as she believed ‘she knew everything about deaf awareness, as she had minor hearing loss in one ear.’

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

This made me very frustrated— how could she claim to know all about it, when the basic things I had raised still weren’t being met? She would regularly stand behind me and shout my name, and when I would turn around confused, she would laugh and say, ‘I never know how loud I need to be.’ Another teacher became defensive with student support who came in to help me, and she made me feel like I was causing a problem for raising the issue. Whilst I really didn’t enjoy this time at college, I knew I was doing the right thing by continuing. I became more confident and stronger with my deaf identity. It was at this point I made the decision to help others, offering support to those that have been in similar positions and to hopefully prevent some of the incidents I have experienced.

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

I have now started university studying British Sign Language and Deaf Studies. Though I struggle in group situations where there are a lot of people talking at the same time or in loud environments where there’s a lot of background noise, I’ve learned it’s not my fault if I can’t hear or contribute as much as I’d like to. Having people around me who are understanding and patient helps enormously. A quote I remind myself of when I get frustrated not being able to hear is, ‘The first step towards change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.’

There is nothing I can do to change my deafness, therefore I must embrace and work with it. I can now leave the house with my hair tied up without giving it a second thought. I have grown stronger and more confident, even opting for solid black ear molds (inspired by Bianca Taylor in Creed II). Through social media, I have reached others and can share my experiences with them. No matter what, you can’t let deafness stop doing what you want to do or achieve. I know how difficult it can be, and how it’s easy to lose confidence. But just remember; the problems aren’t of your making. If others can learn to be a little more considerate, life for those with hearing loss can be improved. My goal is to be the person I once wished I had.”

Courtesy of Lauren Armstrong

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lauren Armstrong from Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube  for our best videos.

Read more stories like this:

‘I don’t belong here.’ I had a hard time accepting myself. People were always trying to ‘fix’ me.’: Woman finds acceptance in Deaf community, ‘We have so much to offer’

‘Put the device away!’ a lady was yelling at me. ‘I’m deaf, this is a closed caption device for the movie.’: Woman diagnosed with ‘profound hearing loss,’ credits her daughter for giving her ‘strength’ 

‘Did you HEAR that, Amanda? Are you getting all of this? You need to listen.’ I was constantly taken out of the classroom.’: Deaf woman turned dental hygienist urges ‘fight for what you stand for’ 

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