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> > > > This Hearing Thing - by Allan Sutherland from the words of Wendy Bryant

Wendy Bryant's story gives an account of what it was like growing up with a hearing impairment, from her early school years onwards.

Aspects of my childhood

I guess aspects of my childhood
were great and really nice.
I had my two brothers and
I was really close to my second brother,
my parents were both around,
we lived in nice houses.

I remember at the end
lots of memories of playing a lot
and riding our bikes round local streets
and somehow it’s always sunny
unless it was snowing
and we had lots of trips up to London
to see my family, extended family.
And to visit my Nan’s house.
And there was this contrast between Chelmsford
where I lived
which is sort of Essex market town really
and East London
where my family all came from, where it was all
much more busy and noisy and crowded.
Although, always enjoyed it.
Yeah, and lots of people
and family gatherings and stuff
so in that sense it was
what you would call
a happy childhood.

But I think
in terms of the hearing impairment,
it was more difficult.

Early memories

I was in places where people were talking
and I knew they were talking
but I’d no idea what they were saying.

When I was about three `
I can remember going to a nursery school
or something
in a church hall
and, I didn’t really like it anyway
because I didn’t like the hall or..
I didn’t like the colour of it
green or something.

And I didn’t know
what I was supposed to be doing.
And I couldn’t hear
what I was supposed to be doing.
And so I didn’t go there again.

I made such a fuss about that one
that my Mum chickened out.

Nursery school

I still remember
really not having any idea
what was going on,
just copying people, but I don’t,
never remember
anyone saying to me
‘Oh it’s because you can’t hear properly’.

I dunno, I don’t know whether
I even realised I was supposed
to know what was going on.
I’m so visually oriented and,
it was really easy to pick up
what was supposed to be happening,
you could always work it out.

It was only
when people pointed it out
or I was clearly not doing
what I should be doing,
getting into trouble for it,
that it became more difficult I guess.

Hell’s bells

So, um, I suppose,
you know the point
at which I sort of realised
that something wasn’t right
was definitely in the first school I went to. 

And I was terrified. (I don’t think
that was anything to do
with the hearing impairment).
It was very different to the nursery school,
there was a lot going on
a lot of talking and chattering
and I couldn’t really understand
what I was supposed to be doing.
I would sort of latch on to individual people
to try and act as a kind of guide.
There was one girl who said to me,
ëOh when the bell goes
you don’t have to go in’.
I could sort of hear the bell
and I can remember hearing the bell,
but I do remember being so worried about this.
And then thinking
well maybe the bell didn’t go
maybe we don’t have to go in
and really not being sure
about what I should do.

Because I’ve got a lot of tinnitus,
never being really able to trust
what I could hear anyway,
especially sounds like bells
and beeps and stuff like that,
it’s always been difficult to know
with my hearing
what I’m hearing
or is it tinnitus.

I got into awful trouble,
ëI’m surprised at you Wendy,
we thought you were a good girl’
kind of stuff.
And me thinking, ëwell
I’m still not sure that what I did
was actually wrong’.
But anyway.

Playing about

I got quite used to watching telly
and not really being able to hear it.
If I could hear it, it was a bonus,
but to me what people were saying
became quite irrelevant.

Don’t remember it being an issue
with friends playing,
because it was all so physical,
we were always jumping around and fighting.
I mean my brother and I had
very very involved games,
we’d play these sort of endless
games of little figures
and cowboys and Indians
and stuff like that.

And again you know
I really don’t remember it being an issue.
(Maybe he just spent his whole life
shouting at me.)
But I’ve still got images of myself
down the garden pottering around,
singing to myself,
really not at all worried about it.

It was only when I got to school
that it became an issue I guess.

Fitting In

I have an image of myself
being very dreamy actually,
very sort of not with it,
but being quite, it was quite okay to be like that
and sort of sitting there,
not listening to the stories,
never listening to the stories,
catching the odd word,
making up my own stories,
reading, reading, reading,
doing all the maths and stuff

and because I was you know
quite good at all that
I could get it all done quite quick
and then do other things as well,
so I guess they didn’t worry about me,
because I sat quietly
and I’d stopped getting myself into pickles with other children,
I had my best friend
and I played the recorder
and did dancing
and as long as I didn’t have to do anything
that was you know
involved specific instructions on my own,
(I think that was the point of
absolute terror for me that I would be,
you know, ‘Wendy do this!’,
because you know a big part was
whether I could actually hear or not
what was being said.)

But maybe the teachers knew,
maybe they figured it out,
I’ve absolutely no idea.

Disappointment

I do remember, probably every teacher
I ever had throughout school
at some point saying to me
‘I’m really surprised at you,
I thought you could do
better than this,
I’m really disappointed,
why did you get such a low grade?’

And I would never say
‘because I didn’t hear you’,
because I wouldn’t think that was the problem,
I still didn’t really,
even though I’d had these tests and things
the way my hearing came and went
I didn’t have the capacity
to work out
where it was all going wrong.

Hearing tests

They used these different tones
which I now know
from having hearing tests since,
different tones, you’re supposed to say
whether you can hear them or not.

I never know whether the tinnitus started then
or whether I’d already got tinnitus
that just happened to be
really inconveniently
the same as audiology test tones.
They couldn’t figure it out.
So there’s me saying
I could hear some things
and not others and then
you’d get this awful buzzing noise
and I couldn’t tell whether it was the test
or whether it was my tinnitus, you know.

So as far as I am concerned
audiology tests
are slightly limited in their validity.
If you’ve got tinnitus, well
they don’t really work very well.
I can remember sitting in this office
with big, big headphones on and being asked
if I could hear things.
Horrible.

Horrible experience,
I didn’t really know
whether I could hear them or not.
I had no idea.

Tonsils

I don’t know,
when I was seven, eight,
whether I had my tonsils out
because they thought that would
clear up my hearing or whether
that’s what I was told.
But I do remember
in hospital for a week, you know
having this painful operation
made absolutely no difference
whatsoever to my hearing.

But this horrible, horrible anxiety
that my mother had
about leaving me and you know
the whole sort of big thing
about me going into hospital
and all that and you know I can only think
that must be what I was told,
‘Oh we’ll sort your hearing out’.

School Telly

We had to watch a lot of telly.
(They’d probably got new tellies in the school
or something you know.)
We did spend an awful lot of time
watching telly and of course
I could never hear it.

So, I’d watch you know
and just hope that some words came on,
written words on the screen
that would tell me
what the hell was going on
because I’d no idea.

And that teacher
was a bit difficult in some ways,
she was a bit kind of scathing,
so it wasn’t good to not know
what was going on
and I’d sit there through a programme
thinking well I wonder
what the hell that was all about.

And the best film I can remember
watching in junior school
was one about how to behave at funerals.
It was blooming obvious what it was
and what we were supposed to be...
I still don’t know why we had to watch it.
I have this vivid image of black cars
and people dressed in black
and all looking sad
and you know that whole sad thing.
Didn’t need the dialogue to know what that was about.

Secondary

I was in this classroom
where I didn’t know anybody
with this horrible teacher,
she was vile, she was such a vile woman.
She was, she was just totally,
she never missed anything,
so all my kind of dreamy stuff
didn’t stand a chance.

I had her for five years
as a teacher and I have to say
every hour I spent with her
I was in a state of terror
at what point she was going to ask me a question
I couldn’t guarantee to hear.

And I kind of started off really badly,
because we ran out of chalk in the classroom,
and she said to me right Wendy Hall,
will you go and get some more chalk,
it’s in the wuhwuhwuhwuh.
I went outside in the corridor
and just stood there and thought okay,
somewhere around here
there’s going to be some chalk.

And I just stood there
and thought I’m not going back in
because I’m so scared of this woman,
because she’s just so horrible
and I’m not, I can’t run away,
so I’ll just stand here.

And fortunately someone came along
and said, what’re you doing here?
You know and I said I’m looking for the chalk.
She said It’s just there!
And it was on, there was a flight of stairs,
and it was on one of the stairs
by the banister, you know probably
slightly above my eye level,
I don’t know where people keep their chalk, you know.

Sunday school

Actually, Sunday School,
I remember him saying
‘If you keep your mouth open
the flies will fly in’.
And I was sort of looking, ‘you what?’
‘If you keep your mouth open,
like you do Wendy’,
(because a lot of the time
I had a blocked up nose
with all these colds). Flies?
What is he talking about?
And you know again,
that sort of little dialogue in my head
always Have I heard him right?
What is he saying?
Why is he talking about
flies going in my mouth?
Is he a weird man or what?
Obviously never having heard,
there’s some saying or something isn’t there,
you keep your mouth open
and the flies will come.

Secondary

I was in this classroom
where I didn’t know anybody
with this horrible teacher,
she was vile, she was such a vile woman.
She was, she was just totally,
she never missed anything,
so all my kind of dreamy stuff
didn’t stand a chance.

I had her for five years
as a teacher and I have to say
every hour I spent with her
I was in a state of terror
at what point she was going to ask me a question
I couldn’t guarantee to hear.

And I kind of started off really badly,
because we ran out of chalk in the classroom,
and she said to me right Wendy Hall,
will you go and get some more chalk,
it’s in the wuhwuhwuhwuh.
I went outside in the corridor
and just stood there and thought okay,
somewhere around here
there’s going to be some chalk.

And I just stood there
and thought I’m not going back in
because I’m so scared of this woman,
because she’s just so horrible
and I’m not, I can’t run away,
so I’ll just stand here.

And fortunately someone came along
and said, what’re you doing here?
You know and I said I’m looking for the chalk.
She said It’s just there!
And it was on, there was a flight of stairs,
and it was on one of the stairs
by the banister, you know probably
slightly above my eye level,
I don’t know where people keep their chalk, you know.

Sunday school

Actually, Sunday School,
I remember him saying
‘If you keep your mouth open
the flies will fly in’.
And I was sort of looking, ‘you what?’
‘If you keep your mouth open,
like you do Wendy’,
(because a lot of the time
I had a blocked up nose
with all these colds). Flies?
What is he talking about?
And you know again,
that sort of little dialogue in my head
always Have I heard him right?
What is he saying?
Why is he talking about
flies going in my mouth?
Is he a weird man or what?
Obviously never having heard,
there’s some saying or something isn’t there,
you keep your mouth open
and the flies will come.

I remember people saying

I found that,
providing you didn’t ask people
more than once
it was okay
so always ask people
who were going to tell you
they could hear that was alright.

And the only big, real, real big problem
was dictation, and especially French.
(I did French and German,
didn’t have Latin dictation,
I loved Latin because there wasn’t any of that
but French and German
I always got dictation.)
I mean they could have been saying anything..
With English dictation as well,
I could usually make that up,
I got quite good at making French up.
The teacher saying,
I really don’t understand this,
you’re an A grade student
but you’re failing dictation
and I’d just sort of look at her and think,
well why d’you think?

What’s the point in dictation?
I just could not see the point
of some woman spouting off a load of French
and you’re supposed to write it down.
Well why do that?

What’s in a name

I found friends, I made friends. 
In the second year at school
I had a nickname which was
Bendy Wendy What Dumb
and I think part of it was,
the Bendy Wendy was the rhyming
but also I was jumping about
and not particularly good at sitting still for a long time. 

And the What was very much
about What?’ 
I was always saying What? 
I couldn’t hear you.  What?’ 

Dumb because
I didn’t know what was going on
half the time I guess,
I don’t know.

That particular person
kind of coined that nickname,
she was a sort of, she was okay,
she was alright but at times
I thought I’m not sure I like
being called Bendy Wendy What Dumb. 
But never mind, we all have a name. 

And I actually made a better friend later
who called me Smudge,
because of the shape of my nose,
being a bit squashed,
and that felt a better nickname really.

The Good, the Bad and the Family

My father took great pride
in being well, healthy and it was all,
we were a perfect family.
Family comes first.
And you know
it’s taken me a long while to realise
that that’s not a value everyone shares.

My Nan was a hospital cleaner
and loved hospital things,
loved all that kind of illness
and things being wrong with people.
So there was all that kind of other side,
it was okay to have something wrong with you
and you didn’t have to be this perfect specimen.

But I know when I started to wonder
about why I couldn’t hear,
(which I don’t know I’ve done
in any really clear way at all)
I certainly became aware
of these different impairments
like my auntie’s deaf in one ear
and my Mum is blind in one eye
and all that sort of stuff.

But there was never any issue,
okay my Mum used to fall over a lot
because she didn’t have the depth judgement
from being blind in one eye,
so she’d trip over things.
But that’s what Mum did, she fell over.

It did vary hugely.

It did vary hugely.
Sometimes I could hear absolutely fine,
soon as I got a cold
it was back to the strange world
of not being able to hear things.

Orthodontics

I do anything new,
any new experience where
(that still is true to this day)
where I don’t know the setting,
I don’t know what the voices,
what the voices are gonna sound like,
is always a challenge.

You know the whole kind of thing
about being stuck in a bed
and people coming along and muttering at you,
and not really knowing
what was going on and what’s happening
and feeling horrible.

Careers advice

I was quite interested in people.
I didn’t like helping people,
I just liked finding out more about people.
I was quite intrigued by
you know I’m not that bothered about,
I never have been all that bothered
about helping people to be quite honest.
I think it has got a limited usefulness.
But I do like finding out
what makes life interesting for people
so occupational therapy came up as an option.
I looked at the course
and saw they did anatomy
and thought great!
It’ll really help my life drawing.

OT training

I suppose I came out of school
aware that I couldn’t hear as well and,
and I, I believe that my hearing stuff had,
was kind of, one factor to do with
wanting to be an occupational therapist,
because of emphasis on doing
rather than sitting around talking.

Making friends was interesting
cause I’d start all over again.
But I have absolutely no recollection
of hearing being an issue.

The OT course was so structured. I mean
we would do making splints
and doing woodwork
and printing, anatomy,
stuff with the bones and you know.
It was great.
And went straight off to do a placement.
Within two weeks I was in
a big psychiatric hospital
in a work rehab unit
doing printing with schizophrencs.
And, yeah it was really interesting
and I loved all this focus on doing things
like talk to people about what you’re doing
but not have the focus on the talking.

There were aspects of it that were wonderful
and then there were aspects that were excruciating
like the psychotherapy stuff.

Group work

They had these awful groups
where you sit round in a circle
and people would mumble
about what they were feeling and um
I just couldn’t understand
I couldn’t hear what they were saying half the time
but I couldn’t see what the point of it was,
I really really couldn’t.

I remember sitting there
thinking it’s not doing anything for me,
I’m not engaging with it,
um you know being told,
particularly by some psychoanalytic
or psychodynamic people
that it was a defence,
that my inability to hear
was a refusal to listen,
all this kind of crap,
you know you’ve only got a problem
because you don’t wanna hear.

Nobody, I never,
this whole thing about telling your story,
that was never really a thing in those days,
it was all about catharsis
and you know, debriefing,
it just didn’t make any sense to me,
I’d get all upset,
tell this terribly upsetting story
and then all sort of oh
wuhwuhwuh
defensive this or whatever,
mumble mumble
and I’d think well what’s going on here.

Well sometimes quite clearly
I don’t want to hear,
but that’s not why I don’t hear.

Relaxation

As therapists we had to learn
how to do relaxation. You lie on the floor
in a darkened room and somebody
mumbles relaxing words
and of course I hadn’t a clue
and you’re supposed to shut your eyes,
so all my visual cues,
I couldn’t see what I was supposed to do.
So I’m lying there on the floor
thinking okay, I have
no idea what’s going on here
and this is supposed to be relaxing,
getting more and more worried,
so I used to sneak one eye open
to see what other people were doing.

And in the end the only way I got round that
was to get hold of, you know, a book,
find a book with the instructions in,
find out what they’re saying,
so that I could memorise them
so I’d know for next time.
Um but that, that horrifies me that,
although I still see students doing it now
they just do not think about the fact that
people might not be able to hear.

And even worse, the visualisation techniques
where you can’t second guess where they’re going
to take you past a running stream,
along the beach, up the mountain...
And then this, you know, horror of horrors,
you’re supposed to paint a painting
based on this bizarre journey
you’ve just been on in your visualisation
and then me not knowing where the fuck I’ve been,
what’s been going on
and sitting there thinking what am I supposed to paint?
And there’s me who loves painting
and thinking what was all that about.

The Voice of Experience

It seems to me so important
to think about people’s experiences
and it’s only recently I’ve been thinking
it must be part of this hearing thing.

Because my experience is different,
I don’t assume everybody has my experience
and I don’t assume that they necessarily understand mine
and therefore in order to understand their experience I
need to find out, just ask
in the same way I guess
I wish the people doing relaxation exercises had said
‘Is there anyone in here who has trouble hearing?
Because if so, make sure,
come and sit next to me’
or you know ‘here’s the words’ so,
you know there’s so many ways of getting round it
but they didn’t even think about it,
that’s just very sad really.

Of course when I do my relaxation groups
I’d make sure everyone could hear
and Speak Loud and Clearly.