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Hearing Is Believing

Sandy Naiman
Network, Fall 2006

In December 2005, I had to be fitted with hearing aids – not the nifty little ones that fit invisibly inside your ears, but two big, behind-the-ear hearing aids – that’s how serious my hearing loss was.

I decided that if I had to wear hearing aids, I’d wear mine as fashion accessories, like eyeglasses, with pride. A local artist designs hearing aid covers. Bananas, her best sellers, appealed to me, and I bought a pair as soon as I ordered my hearing aids in two different colours – red for the right ear and blue for the left. Like hot and cold water taps. Part of the reason was purely practical. They’d be easier to tell apart.

There was, however, another reason, and it had nothing to do with my ears, but more to do with what’s between them.

For one thing, with the bananas on my hearing aids, I could wear both my invisible disabilities at the same time.

For years, as my hearing was failing, unbeknownst to me, I was receding into a world of social isolation, unable to participate in dinner party conversations. During the last year or two, I couldn’t watch television without constantly disturbing my husband with requests to repeat phrases that I couldn’t discern. Hearing loss affects all members of one’s social circle – family, friends and co-workers.

In 1999, I was banished from the Toronto Sun newsroom because I was considered to be disruptive. I have a loud voice and it carries. My mental illness was thought to be the culprit.

It is well known at the Sun, and everywhere else – I have never made it a secret – that I have lived with a mental illness for many years. I’m out. When I was hired there in 1977, the powers-that-be knew I had bipolar disorder (manic-depression back then). I am a vibrant and engaging interviewer – a hypomanic personality – and my office antics were increasingly disturbing and distracting my colleagues.

It was made abundantly clear to me that working at home was the solution. It was the best accommodation for me and my mental illness – which seemed to define me. It was how I perceived myself and how others perceived me. I had no reason to think otherwise.

For a while, the arrangement worked quite well, but gradually, I began to feel increasingly isolated working at home. While this arrangement seemed like an enlightened solution, at the same time, I also felt that my mental illness had taken me away from a place I’d always considered my second home and away from the people I considered my second family. Technology kept me connected but it cannot replace a sense of belonging.

I always put a positive spin on it to myself and to others. I rationalized: ‘Aren’t I lucky not to have to commute to work, fight traffic, deal with office gossip.’ But as much as I joked about being ‘banished from the newsroom for being disruptive,’ deep down it hurt. I felt, in a way, that I had been disinherited.

On those odd occasions when I did ‘visit’ the newsroom, my colleagues, surprised to see me, assumed I was a part-timer or freelance. But mostly they forgot about me.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Yet I was quite sane. Mentally healthy. There was a strange disconnect between how I was doing and how I was perceived to be doing. While I was working with my editors – usually the only people with whom I spoke in person on the phone – as far as the full-time staff was concerned, I was simply a disembodied byline in the paper. Invisible. And over the years, as people came and went, the reason for my ‘not’ being in the newsroom was forgotten.

I was just not there. Though, curiously, from a mental health perspective, I was perfectly sane – ‘all there.’

Working at home, where my time was flexible, I was able to fit in more of my mental health advocacy, public speaking all over Canada and in the U.S.

And all the while, I was losing my hearing. When you live alone, you have no way of knowing it. People always assumed that when I raised my voice in excitement, the excitement was the mania that had hospitalized me 20 times since I was misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia in the early 1960s. (My diagnosis was changed five times.)

I am a histrionic personality and always have been. I’m passionate. That’s who I am. For more than 21 years, I had worked quite successfully in close proximity to my colleagues in the Toronto Sun newsroom. No one, to my knowledge, ever complained about my exuberance, my vibrancy, or my loud speaking voice. But back then, my hearing was fine.

I now realize the root of the disruption I was causing more than five years ago was my hearing loss, not my mood disorder that has always been well controlled with medication and therapy. I have been in therapy for 46 years and with my current psychiatrist for more than 15 years.

As I was losing my hearing, I was inadvertently pumping up the volume of my speech. That’s what happens. You cannot hear others or yourself.

One well-meaning colleague once suggested I take one of my ‘pills’ when I got excited about something and raised my voice. She assumed my excitement was hypomania, when in fact it was just exuberance. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

People always seemed to tell me to ‘calm down.’ That’s because my mental illness is so much a part of who I am and how I am perceived. But what they were really saying was, turn down the volume.

I knew the difference.

One night, years ago, I stayed in the newsroom all night writing. Flying high as kite. When I’m manic, I never think anything is wrong with my mind, but rather, that everyone else is crazy. I’m delusional.

I was convinced I was the publisher of the Sun, so I was putting all my notes about reorganizing the editorial department into my computer. You know. Firings, hirings, promotions.

I was playing the keyboard of my computer like a piano. When my editor came into the newsroom the next morning and found me there, she called my psychiatrist and a cab. We went downstairs to the lobby in the elevator. But I wouldn’t let anyone into that elevator because ‘it was my elevator. I was the publisher.’

While I was waiting for a cab, a young man walked into the building. I started talking to him. He was applying for a job.

I told him I’d hire him as my assistant, on the spot. Because I was the publisher, after all. I noticed he had no front teeth. For some reason, I had $200 cash in my pocket. I handed him the money and said, ‘Look, before you start working for me, you’ve got to get your teeth fixed.’ As I was getting into the cab, I remember yelling at him, ‘Get your teeth fixed.’

Needless to say, I never saw him, his teeth or that $200 again.

My last manic episode was in 1988, when my medication was changed and in addition to Lithium, I started taking an anticonvulsant called Carbamazepine often used in the treatment of epilepsy. Since then, I have never had another major manic episode.

My hearing loss was having a profound effect on my mental health advocacy, through which I first began sensing that I was losing my hearing.

I found that I could easily address an audience and be heard without a microphone if one was not available. The inevitable ‘question and answer’ period, however, the section of my presentations I have always most enjoyed, became increasingly problematic because I couldn’t hear the questions. As my hearing loss increased, I insisted microphones be set up in the auditoria so questions were amplified, but this presented a problem.

Many people who wish to ask questions are uncomfortable walking up to a microphone and becoming more visible to an audience of strangers.

Stigma is so entrenched that even an empathetic group of people either directly or indirectly affected by mental illnesses may feel threatening to someone with a question about ‘their’ mental illness. Even if a microphone was passed to them, they wouldn’t stand up because they didn’t want the spotlight shone on them. I was unconsciously depending on lip reading in order to converse, but I couldn’t lip read if all I heard was a voice from the crowd and I couldn’t see a face. I was learning through my hearing loss how deep and affecting the stigma of mental illnesses is.

On the other hand, I had an enormous advantage entering the world of hearing loss, which, I discovered, is also deeply stigmatized and linked inextricably to an image best summed up in the insensitive, erroneous and archaic phrase ‘deaf and dumb.’

Compared to the long, rich, sad and storied history of stigma and mental illnesses, however, having a hearing loss presented almost no problem to me. I have always felt quite comfortable having a mental illness. I considered it like any other illness because of the enlightened attitude of my family and principally my mother who always instilled in me a sense of the ‘normalcy’ of having a mental illness. She always said it was just like any other chronic illness.

I never felt ashamed because she was never ashamed, and most of all, she always believed in me, even when the psychiatrists, early on, told her there was no hope for me.

In April 2006, I was asked to return to the newsroom. Since then, a number of different editors have told me ‘how happy they are to have me back,’ and how I ‘brighten up the newsroom.’

I’m still the same person. Exuberant. Passionate. I still take my medication for my mental illness. I still see my psychiatrist on a regular basis. But with my hearing aids, I can once again work at my home away from home.

Sandy Naiman is a reporter with the Toronto Sun and a stigma-buster.

» Return to Network, Fall 2006 – Contents