I finally got hearing aids at age 26, after a lifetime of feeling stigmatized
My kindergarten teacher was the one who informed my parents that I may need hearing aids. When my parents got my ears tested, the hearing specialist confirmed that I was born with moderate hearing loss. In India, in 1993, my parents feared that having hearing aids would automatically label me a “disabled” child and put me at a disadvantage from the get-go; admission to any high-quality school would have been impossible, jeopardizing my future. My pediatrician advised my parents to let me adapt and conform to the world, like I had already started doing since no one recognized the problem until I was 5. He also said the stigma of wearing hearing aids and being labeled “disabled” could have a far worse psychological impact on me. He worried that I’d become dependent on hearing aids at an early age and discussed that maybe feeding me green, leafy vegetables like spinach might even magically solve the problem in a few years…
I grew up in a joint family — 10 cousins and 10 adults all living under the same roof. But unlike my cousins, who lived on the 1st and 2nd floors of our 3-story home in West Delhi, my siblings and I were being raised by a college-educated mother. My mom, who was one of only seven women at her engineering college in the early 1980s, fought for her rights to higher education. She also grew up in a joint family in South Delhi with several cousin sisters who didn’t go to college because they didn’t have the conviction, competitive spirit, or perhaps the unconditional support from elders like my mom. My Nani (maternal grandmother), who didn’t get the opportunity to finish schooling, lived vicariously through my mom’s pursuit of education and actively encouraged and supported it. Once, during my mom’s 3rd year at college, my Nani helped my mom sneak out of the house in the middle of the night so she wouldn’t be introduced to a potential husband the next day for an arranged marriage, which may have halted her education.
So, naturally my mom was raising her kids with a heavy focus on education too. But due to my hearing loss, I was not the avid student my mom hoped I would be. And there was an inherent difference in how my mom and my tayijis (aunts) were raising their kids — my mom enrolled us in swimming, dance, music, and art classes throughout our childhood, unlike my cousins whose parents didn’t prioritize extracurriculars. She would give us an apple and chocolate milk as an evening snack, while my cousins would be having Maggi noodles and Pepsi milkshakes. My mom, unlike my tayijis, stayed informed of her kids’ academic calendar and helped us study and prepare for exams. My siblings and I would read a book and be in bed by 10pm, while my cousins downstairs were just starting their dinner. As a child, I observed these differences and would resent not having as much “fun” as my cousins seemed to be having. Without hearing aids, I needed to study harder to understand the same concepts. If I got anything below an A on a weekly test, I was surely going to get beat up; even though my cousin on the floor below us who got a C never even got spanked. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful that my mom was a strict parent and it’s all credit to her that my siblings and I are successful professionals with jobs at top companies like Google, BCG, and Apple. She instilled the values of hard work, discipline, and financial independence in us that we continue to leverage in our lives today. But as a child, living different experiences than my cousins in such close proximity made me feel like I didn’t belong or fit in with my peers. And I wanted to fit in. My basic human need for belonging was not being fulfilled despite living in a home of 20 family members. And hiding my hard of hearing diagnosis made it even harder to feel like I belonged.
However, like my pediatrician predicted, I learned to adapt around my Hard of Hearing (HoH) disability. My mom helped me adapt too — When my 2nd grade teacher noticed that I wasn’t attentive in class, my mom told her to seat me at the front of the class instead. And thereafter, every year my mom would tell my teachers during PTA to make me sit in the front of the class. And every year, I would roll my eyes, acquiesce; secretly grateful I’d be able to hear the teacher better. In 4th grade, a friend wrote in my slam book: “One thing I find annoying about you: “sometimes you’re behra (deaf).” It stung, but when I showed it to my mom, she told me to dismiss it and pay no heed to the comment. It was like the issue wasn’t even real and I had to pretend I possessed 100% hearing. I wanted to own my life story and come clean, but didn’t have the courage because I feared feeling like I didn’t belong in another social setting outside of the home. Instead, I would laugh it off when friends (or my siblings or colleagues later) would point out my poor hearing, I would find ways to excuse myself out of conversations or situations where I couldn’t hear well, and slowly became a lip reader to get by. All this to say, that I resorted to putting my real HoH story in a box, never to be let out.
As kids, we are living subconsciously. We absorb information around us like a sponge and those pieces of information, over time, start to form our own consciousness as we grow. My consciousness was formed around my feelings of helplessness about being Hard of Hearing (HoH), coupled with not feeling like I belonged in my large joint family, and facing physical abuse from my mom for not getting good grades. Imagine a child who is thrown all these things their way all before they’ve even hit puberty— that child learns that they can’t trust anyone, they can’t confide in anyone. They learn independence, despite being born amidst two large joint families. And they learn that in order to fit in and be liked, it’s better to conform and put yourself in neat, identity boxes.
Having gone to therapy now, I’ve learned recently that this is a classic textbook definition of trauma — if you’re abused or neglected at a very early age or question the love from your primary caregiver(s) or your basic need for belonging isn’t met — and trauma like that can leave you feeling lost and anchor-less. The identity boxes were the anchor that helped me in the face of this trauma.
Over time, I formed many identity boxes: like I never told friends that I secretly loved cheesy, romantic Bollywood songs, while they were all jamming to NSYNC, Led Zeppelin, and Jennifer Lopez. Or I got really into Sweet Valley books because the coolest girl I knew was reading them. During my teen years, I adopted the “bimbo” box because it was easier to explain that I was dumb, instead of admitting that I couldn’t/didn’t hear them properly. In my 20s, I created a “traveler” identity box to travel to 30 countries before 30 (admittedly, the best box I put myself in!).
And this approach of learning to adapt, putting myself in boxes, and conforming to identities that helped me get by… worked, for a LONG time (over 2 decades)… till it didn’t.
In 2015, I started a new job at Twitter in San Francisco and was over the moon to have hit a milestone in my career. However, to my dread, the open desk floor plans (that tech offices love) made it really hard for me to hear anything my colleagues were saying. I resorted to my tried & tested methods — pretending like I heard them and secretly hoping it wasn’t a question or anything that needed a response. But I was missing so much context in those casual conversations that it began impacting my reputation and credibility at work. My manager’s reaction when I told her during a 1:1 that I was HoH a few weeks in, was a very cold, unempathetic, “You really need to tell people that earlier.” Comments from colleagues like “Did you not hear me just tell you this yesterday?” became frequent.
And so, after surviving 18 years of school across 2 continents, 4 years of lectures at a large public university, and almost 5 years in the workplace at companies like Cargill & Pepsi, at the age of 26, I decided to get hearing aids. I wish I could say it was because I finally got the courage. Truthfully, it was just out of fear of getting fired and disappointing my mom or myself.
My first pair of hearing aids were and weren’t revolutionary at the same time. They cost $1,500, were not covered by my Twitter health insurance, and amplified background noises like the pipes in the walls, the crunching of paper (or maybe it was potato chips?), and the clickety-clacking of heels. The batteries would always stop working at the worst time and needed replacement weekly. But despite that, I was elated to have them because for the first time, I heard clarity in speech. I could hear words being enunciated, I was able to hear (almost) every word someone sitting at the opposite side of the conference table was saying. It was life-changing. When I told my parents about my decision to get hearing aids, they didn’t understand why I needed them now after 26 years of surviving without them. But I told them I was done surviving and ready to start thriving. I continued to keep my real hearing story in a box. I hid my hearing aids behind my voluminous hair at work. For a long time, I didn’t want anyone to know I had them and tried not wearing them outside of work. At 26, I still had the fear instilled in me from childhood that I shouldn’t become dependent on hearing aids and shouldn’t tell people in case they judge me or treat me differently.
This year marks ~7 years since I first got hearing aids and I just got a new, high-quality pair in 2020; I can honestly say that I’m thriving. It’s not like I hadn’t figured out how to make it before, but you know what they say: what got you here, won’t get you there. The hearing aids were the magic I needed to get to the next phase of my life. I struggled with hiding my new-found experience with hearing aids, but like my mom, I’m a fighter and I had a renewed energy and a brand new super-power that gave me determination. Within 6 months, I was on a project at work where I was finally able to add valuable contributions (unlike previous projects) and I leveraged my childhood skills of discipline and hard-work to get promoted after underperforming for almost a year. Shortly thereafter, I got called by my dream company for a role that I was positive I was going to get. That same month, I met my now-husband. It was a perfect match (the job & also him!) and it all almost felt too good to be true. I’m still at my dream company and fully married (aka twice, to the same man! ;)) and ~4 years ago I began to truly own my story, my real full self, hearing aids and all, included.
Google and my now-husband both provided me with the psychological safety I never had growing up. I was finally in a judgment-free zone and I felt like I belonged. During my first week at Google, I was in a meeting with a fellow Googler who was blind and the room was set up for them to fully engage in the video conference we were both attending. A few months later, I discovered the Deafglers forum, an internal group of deaf & hard-of-hearing Googlers. I was humbled at the volume of discussions, the number of other HoH people like me, and the deep engagement on topics like hearing aids, closed captioning, and HoH experiences. It made me feel less isolated. Simply consuming the discussion was therapeutic and slowly helped in building my confidence to be more open and transparent about my hearing aids and my real story. I learned of a simple, yet impactful, analogy through these discussions that forever changed my perspective on my disability: “hearing aids are for ears, like eyeglasses are for eyes.” They are serving the same purpose (helping you correct one of your weaker senses), but one is considered “trendy” and the other boxes you into a “disabled” person.
Looking back now, I’m wondering what if I had this type of information to retort with when I was younger, would I have had the courage to use it? Would I have felt less helpless? What if my parents had this information – would they have still responded out of fear of society’s stigma? What if I hadn’t felt the need to hide this box and had been open with my friends or cousins when I was younger — would I have felt less isolated? Or would they have judged me out of their own fears that I don’t know about?
I’m grateful that our generation and future generations have the privilege to learn and unlearn about the psychological impacts of trauma and can make well-researched decisions. I’m glad I was able to overcome my fear of judgment by others for needing hearing aids. Our generation is becoming “woke” by reading books (I attribute the spark to my own mental woke-ness to Why Buddhism is True), attending therapy, learning about the experiences of others across the world, and consuming content through multiple resources to connect the dots of their own life and meaning. We are fortunate to have the information on-demand to educate ourselves, speak up about our experiences, and evolve the next generation’s thinking. And in order to evolve the next generation, we can’t stop playing the game of life just because we realized we were dealt a few bad cards. We can’t just give up and say that “my life experiences messed me up so now I’m not even going to try; or I have no hope.”
I continue to uncover new behaviors or mentalities that I need to unlearn. I continue to uncover identity boxes I’ve put myself into subconsciously that I need to get out of. But that’s just part of growing up now, right? The best part is that uncovering myself from my HoH identity box has allowed me to uncover myself out of so many other identity boxes too and embracing my full, real, raw self. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s always extremely rewarding.