To Be Understood Means to Understand

Melissa and her family
Melissa and her family

On 7/23/12, Hearing Elmo welcomed Melissa Sisco, from Alabama as a first-time guest author. You can access that post HERE. Hearing Elmo warmly welcomes Melissa again with a TWO PART post about her own invisible illnesses. Melissa is the mother of two young daughters and was first diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease in 2007. Melissa also has asthma/allergies, a heart condition, weak bones, endometriosis, and diabetes Type II. Melissa admitted that “Meniere’s Disease has been the single most challenging medical diagnosis I have experienced in my 32 years”.

The hardest things we encounter in life can sometimes be the ones you expect and assume will be easy. I am learning to realign and reign in my own expectations/assumptions. When you have struggled with a progressive illness for over six years, say one like Meniere’s Disease that causes hearing loss and loss of balance, you assume your family will support you the entire way. You assume that they will take the time to read the literature, the pamphlets from the doctors or at least even use Google or WebMD. You expect that they will get the hint as you slow down while walking, because your world has begun to buckle and spin. You assume that they will take it in stride when an episode of vertigo strikes and can only be remedied by lying down –for hours sometimes. You assume they will understand that an impromptu dunk in the water will harm your health in multiple ways because you have holes in your ear drums and have to wear ear plugs when you risk getting wet. You expect those closest to you to understand your new world, but the reality is that they don’t. Not at first. You actually have to teach them, or paint the picture if you will. They are not any more adept at struggling with accommodating my illness than I am. It really isn’t fair to expect them to know what was also foreign to me a decade ago. Experience can be the harshest yet greatest teacher.

Recently, a family member commented, “God, you really are deaf!”    Apparently he had been speaking to my deaf ear for several minutes without my noticing, “testing” my “deafness.” I simply turned to him, so we were face to face (even ground for me), and said, “Yes, so if you want my attention, try my right ear or tap my arm or shoulder please.”  All while smiling a really tight painful smile. Now what I really wanted to say was closer to a negative word, followed by an expletive, and ending with Sherlock. But I digress.

I admit I am still in the resentful stage, I resent that I should have to be the one to teach others about my own illness and its effects on my life. I never aspired to be a teacher; I haven’t the patience of those saintly souls. For reasons beyond me God has placed me squarely in a position where sometimes I have to teach, to save my own sanity. It’s just awfully annoying to teach family and friends who I expected to learn a little on their own in the last few years. My disease is nothing new anymore. I’ve learned a lot of my “new normal” on my own, (although I’ve been blessed to have great advice from those who’ve already invented this wheel –ahem Denise, Gayle, Shanna) but I do get downright angry when I have to teach someone something that should be obvious – at least in my opinion. I haven’t been wearing an absurdly expensive hearing aid in my left ear for 4 years just for kicks and grins. As more of my conversational frequency in my good ear wanes I have found that small talk is just no longer my cup of tea. I still avoid public situations in general. I have learned a distinct dislike of restaurants, malls, arenas and movie theaters. I am working on that, but I am a country girl at heart anyway. My country is just a bit quieter than it used to be, which is rather nice sometimes.

I have also found that there is finally a language I am really struggling to learn.  It’s called American Sign Language.  The only one I really need to know, and it makes Hebrew look like a piece of cake. (I would say Greek, but I can actually read that!) I’m quite certain that I appear as if I am under the influence of some sort of psychoactive drug when I’m trying to sign. The nuances of hand gestures completely elude me in a way that centuries-old grammatical rules never did. I can’t even profess to be able to understand it well, either. I get so focused on trying to comprehend one particular gesture/word I miss the next seven and am therefore totally lost. Like missing the pinnacle episode of your favorite TV show and trying to tune in to the next one and catch up – it just ain’t happennin’. I haven’t given up, but gosh is it hard. Bill is a great guy, but you can only make him repeat a phrase so many times before you start having weird animatronic/you-tube nightmares. (Thank the Lord, and Bill, for Lifeprint.)

I have recently also begun to despise the words disability and handicap with the exception of their necessary legal presence. I really just don’t see myself that way. I still do a number of things on my own; to include working, driving, doing basic household chores, etc. Although I despise it, I can grocery shop on my own, most of the time. I just can’t reach for anything on the top shelf, or on the bottom shelf, without relying on my cane or a sturdy wall or post. Sometimes it’s just easier asking for someone’s help. NOTE: Do not rely on shopping carts (that’s buggies for us southerners) for balancing because they have wheels. Really bad idea. Trust me.

I am able to be much more up front with people about my invisible “handicap.” I can flat out tell a stranger that I am deaf/hard of hearing, I need to see their face to understand them or I will ask them to type/write out something complex.  Most of the time this helps, and it is only occasionally that I encounter special people who begin to mimic Dr. Seuss using a bullhorn. Unfortunately, rhyming and loudness are lost on me. And it really annoys my co-workers or whoever else happens to be with me at the time. Sometimes I wish my hearing aid had a neon flashing light that proclaims “Deaf lady coming, repeat, deaf lady coming,” simply so I can save my breath. Sometimes I am saved by the Grace of God in the form of my own eldest daughter. She missed out on my shyness gene and takes the world by storm. She is quite eloquent when I see her shout at the top of her little six year old lungs, “My Mommy is deaf! Don’t you get it?”  All while sighing, knitting those eyebrows, putting her hand on her hip, and glaring at the perceived offender.  (Yes we are working on the politeness and manners thing- but it is easier said than done.)

A lady, let’s call her an acquaintance, I run into sometimes at work, asked me, “What is your cane for? I notice that some days you have it and some days you don’t.”  Another unexpected and unwanted teaching explanation. I replied to her that I have a balance disorder, some days I need it, and some days I don’t. Though you may not always see the cane it is usually nearby, just in case my power steering fails again without warning. She smiled at me with that look of “Bless your heart,” which forces me to fight the urge to strike her with said cane. I despise pity. I don’t want pity. I just want –a little bit— of understanding.

And I have to understand that not everyone else can see my illness, even if a person has known me for thirty plus years. One of my mandatory responsibilities now is to help others understand me as I learn myself. I have to constantly remind myself that, though my illness is invisible, dealing with it is truly a two way street. No one ever said it would be easy.

PART TWO: “It’s Not That Easy” will run Friday, July 19, 2013.

Thank you to Melissa Sisco!

Denise Portis

© 2013 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

4 thoughts on “To Be Understood Means to Understand

  1. Melissa, I love you very much. If I could take any of this away from you, I would in a heartbeat. I wish we lived closer to each other so I could assist you any way possible. You know you are the daughter I never had and I would fight for you like a lioness for her cubs. As I fight my own ‘invisible’ illness, I know what you mean about the misunderstanding and isolation. I don’t know when we will ever see each other again–travelling for both of us is a difficult task. Through miles and the feelings in my heart, I am hugging tightly all the time. I am so proud of the woman you have become; wife mother, daughter, niece and a great writer. You are remarkable. Love, your Aunt.

  2. Hello Melissa,Nice to “meet you” and thank you for your wonderful post. Your family is beautiful and I love your girl’s dresses. I whole-heartily agree with your mindset on not wishing to teach the world while learning yourself and the urge to simply bash everyone who is careless, callus or just plain dumb. Looking forward to your follow-up post and wish you an easy, breezy week!Sarah

    Date: Mon, 15 Jul 2013 13:23:30 +0000 To:

  3. This is so very well put, and is one of the few articles I’ve seen that really captures both sides of the understanding illness fence – the view of the ill, and the view of their support group. I think everyone everywhere should read this.

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