If I’ve Said it Once…

If I've said it once

The photo above was taken at the 2006 Walk4Hearing in Pennsylvania. It was completely coincidental that the Walk coordinators invited “Elmo” to interact with the children on site that day. Poor Elmo had no idea what hit him as I squealed and came flying across the parking lot to hug his neck! Children he was expecting. A grown woman – not so much. However, Elmo encapsulated my reemergence to the hearing world – the first toy I heard months following my cochlear implant activation. Elmo’s voice (emanating from the “Tickle-me-Elmo” toy I found on the shelves of a local store) was the first CHILDHOOD voice I recognized after having been tweaked and re-programmed numerous times following my activation. It was an epiphany for me. From that moment on, I knew I was going to be OK. I could hear again – and more importantly RECOGNIZE voices. So to find Elmo that beautiful August day, 7 years ago, was thrilling for me!

I stepped back to introduce myself and explain “why the exuberant hug“. Elmo interrupted me and mumbled something. I said something to the effect of “HUH?” (I’ve always been particularly good with words).

Elmo spoke up. “I CAN’T HEAR A THING INSIDE THIS SUIT“. I stared blankly at Elmo for a moment and then broke into peals of laughter. Elmo put his hands on his hips and looked as exasperated as a character was able while inside a red furry suit! I apologized. Profusely. Welcome to my world!

Welcome to My World

Something numerous readers email me about is their frustration at trying to explain what is working – or not working, to closest friends and family members. I was at an ADI (Assistance Dogs International) conference in Baltimore several years ago and just happened to be in the right place at the right time; relaxing against a wall in the hallway outside a conference room. Because of my position, I was in the perfect place to see and hear a lady take her husband by the elbow and drag him over to the side (near me) to fuss.

She whispered (loud enough for even ME to hear), “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times… I cannot climb over your bag when you put it in the aisle. Do you want me to fall in front of everyone?”

Readers constantly tell me how frustrated they are to have to repeat “how to’s” to those closest to them. Folks they don’t interact with much they expect to remind about what works well for them and what doesn’t work. However, people think that if they are closely acquainted with someone they don’t ever need to be reminded of what they can do to communicate better, or to assist if needed.

A close friend of mine and follower of Hearing Elmo has MS and deals with fatigue frequently as a result. She was out to eat with her mother recently at which point her body just shut down. Although they were not finished eating, she needed to leave and needed to do so right away. She stood up and wobbled, and ended up asking her mother for assistance. Her mother did so but was very quiet on the walk out to the car. It was there her mom let her exasperation get the best of her.

“I don’t understand how you can be out on the field to oversee your son’s soccer team one day, and need help to the car the next. I don’t know how things can turn on a dime like that with you!”

My friend was shocked – and grieved that her mom, someone as close to her as anyone, failed to recognize what to her was obvious. One cannot pick and choose when fatigue and weakness will hit. My friend thought she had explained this to her mom (and very likely HAD). But her mom needed a refresher course in how symptoms of MS manifest themselves to my friend – a unique individual.

When my frustrated friend relayed what happened to me I thought, “Well welcome to my world”. Don’t all of us who live with invisible illness, disability, or chronic conditions deal with the same thing? We have to repeat ourselves – often.

Learning to communicate

It cracks me up to be on the training floor at Fidos For Freedom, Inc. sometimes. Clients and volunteers are asked to “Meet and Greet”. I hate these exercises. I’m not gonna lie. You pair off in groups of 2 or 3 and shake hands, talk, and introduce yourself. This is very “real life”. It is something we do in the “real world”. But I have to tell you there are few things I dread more. For one thing, that wonderful “voice in my head” via the training room floor’s hearing loop system is gone. Instead there is a BUZZ of voices overlapping and rising in volume all around me. I struggle and ask for repeats the entire time – all the while making sure my dog is in a proper down/stay and not flirting with nearby dogs. If more than one of us in the group have hearing loss, we juggle for position trying to put everyone on our “best hearing side”. If you look around the room there are plenty of people with cocked heads leaning close, or others who have definitely invaded the personal space of someone in their group. I’ve been in groups of people who did not have hearing loss who ask, “Now remind me which is your good side?”

My balance disorder allows me to move just fine. Standing still? Not so much. I wobble when standing still. Especially when standing in a large room with low ceilings and ceiling fans. I’m not the only one to be wobbling though. I giggled out loud one day when I lost my balance and a fellow client who uses a walker reached out to steady me and almost lost her own balance. She giggled right back in response and said, “I forgot you can’t hold still!” It was comical actually. Yes, we may both have balance problems, but we could help each other. We learn to laugh at ourselves if needed. We learn to accept help. We learn to communicate what it is we need.

Significant others and Spouses are “Just PEOPLE”

Do you get frustrated with the people in your life who should “know better”? “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times…”!

Even those we love the most are NOT mind readers. They may know how best to communicate with you if you have hearing loss. They may know that certain things like weather or temperature influence how you feel. They may know how certain medications may help – or hinder you. If I’m honest with you, however, I will admit that even *I* do not know how I will feel from one day to the next. Maybe even from one HOUR to the next. It is my responsibility to communicate my needs. It is my responsibility to give gentle reminders. I am responsible to explain 1001 times if needed.

We need to remember that those who love us? They’re just people. They do the best they can – and 9 times out of 10? They are not being a butt-head on purpose. My own spouse doesn’t even blink when I ask him to take my elbow one day, and maneuver my way around a crowded mall without assistance the next. If I’m telling him once AGAIN that I cannot take a call in a crowded store and to please answer my phone? He simply says, “Oh yeah!” (He’s cute that way)

Someone recently belly-ached to me, “At what point do I assume they will never get it? When do I give up?” Who said anything about giving up? There is no “end game” here. It’s a journey.

Let’s all be willing to communicate – again – what we need.

Denise Portis

© 2013 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Hypervigilance vs. Awareness

Where is she looking? What does she see?

Being “aware” is a natural state for me. I think anytime an individual loses one of their five senses, they learn to compensate by being more aware of things around them. When all five senses are working, input is sent to an individual’s brain about their environment, people around them, etc., to help them determine if any action should be taken. However, when a sense goes “missing” as the result of acquired disability, accident, or illness, individuals have to learn to compensate.

Now that I have Chloe (my hearing assistance/balance assist dog partner from Fidos For Freedom), I have changed from a hyper-vigilant state to simply being more aware of my surroundings. You see, now I depend on HER. If I’m watching my partner as I should, she hears and then sees things I often miss. I’ve learned to pay attention to her body language and cues, as well as visual focus and reactions to stimulus around us (such as a sudden, loud noise). Do you know my blood pressure has gone down since I’ve been matched with Chloe? Hypervigilance is a negative state of being.

Psychologists define hypervigilance as an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity coupled with an exaggerated intensity of behaviors in response to possible threats. Hypervigilance is often accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion. People who are hyper-vigilant often stay in an abnormal high state of arousal and respond to stimuli by constantly scanning and detecting possible threats. Individuals with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) often exhibit hypervigilance. Why then would a person who loses a sense,  struggle with hypervigilance? I do not believe that people with acquired disabilities start out being hyper-vigilant. I think it evolves after an individual experiences something very negative as a result of having lost a sense. For example, I do not remember the exact day and time – but I do know that in June of 2003, I was shopping in a retail store and was stunned by the reality of how dangerous being deaf can be. I was scanning the shelves for items and a person evidently needed by. I didn’t hear the “excuse me” or whatever was offered to let me know I was in the way. The woman pushed passed me fast and I ended up flat on my face on the floor. I rolled over and looked around to see her standing there indignant (and not at all apologetic) demanding, “Why didn’t you move?”

“I’m sorry – I’m deaf”, I replied. She had the good grace to at least blush, pushed her cart and hurried away. I was so shook up that I left my cart where it stood, gathered my things, and left. I vowed from that day forward that I would do everything in my power to make my invisible disability more visible. I went through a fairly stressful number of months after the incident and became hyper-vigilant whenever I left the house. I stayed in a state of exhaustion because of it. Enough time went by that I eventually learned to relax a little and just work at picking up good awareness habits. I wear my hair up so that the technology I use is visible. In 2005, I was implanted with a cochlear implant that served to reduce my tension even more since I re-gained the ability to hear. After I was matched with Chloe, “being aware” became even easier. In training, an oft repeated phrase we hear is, “Trust your dog”. In the beginning it is very difficult to do because we are not accustomed to doing so. It takes practice to eventually instill the HABIT of trusting our dogs.

I got a lot of flack this last fall from extended family members for taking my dog to the hospital with me when my daughter had emergency surgery. My family members who do not live with me do not understand that Chloe isn’t a “crutch” – she’s a tool. I use Chloe to be more safe and more aware of my surroundings. My husband and I very rarely go someplace without Chloe. However, occasionally we do go to places where we leave Chloe at home for her safety. These places may include: ICU areas of a hospital, zoos (where animals may become agitated since they want to eat Chloe), or to places that may have guard dogs (such as jails, etc.). When we occasionally go to amusement parks, I do not ride fast rides because of my balance issues. However, someone with an assistance dog may determine that these places are not good for the dog to be either. You can’t exactly put a dog on a roller coaster! So when I happen to be without Chloe, my husband has noticed that I am startled more easily because I don’t have anything alerting me to things I miss on my own.

I do not take Chloe with me to stores, church, and restaurants when I’m visiting my parents. They do not welcome the attention she draws. It is their home and I respect their wishes. I’ve had folks tell me, “WE will be your ears and watch out for you. You don’t need Chloe”. However, when I’m counting on people to cue me it never actually happens. People ignore many sounds that are just background noise to them. I’ve noticed that my parents can be having a conversation and stop on the curb while I just step right out into the road, unaware that a car was coming because they blocked my view of that direction. I have to be much more careful. I’ve also noticed that as a result of having a balance disorder, I stumble more when Chloe is not with me. In throngs of people, individuals “bump”, “crowd”, and invade the space of people around them because they are in a hurry. When I have Chloe with me, people notice and take care to stay outside my immediate perimeter. I’m rarely jostled or bumped when Chloe is with me. As a result, I fall and stumble less.

So Chloe does reduce my anxiety and create a different kind of awareness. I’m aware of HER. I depend on her. Having said all of that, having an assistance dog is not for everyone. In some ways it is like having a really smart toddler around. She investigates things with her nose, and yet I don’t want her to put her nose on every thing we come across. So I have to remind her “head up, Chloe” and be aware of things at her eye level. For example, because it is Easter season, going to Wal-mart means I need to be aware of all of the stuffed bunnies and ducks often at her eye level. Stores put them there so a child will say, “Mommy? Can I have this?” Well Chloe would like them too! So I have to be aware of her at all times.

At Fidos For Freedom, teams do a “meet and greet” activity. I HATE THEM. This activity is very hard on the people there who have a hearing loss. The idea is that you put your dog in a safe place and then communicate with another person or a couple of different people in a group. When you have a hearing loss though, you have to see the person’s face if you are in a large, noisy room filled with other groups of people talking. So it is difficult to make sure Chloe stays “safe” and STAYS PUT while actually carrying on a conversation. The activity is one of those “necessary evils” we endure so that we know what to expect in public – in REAL life.

I have heard people with hearing loss bemoan how difficult it is to carry on conversations when there is a “hub bub” of chatter around them. Sure, I may have a special program on my cochlear implant to help eliminate background noise, but it is not perfect! It is hard to concentrate on the speaker! Add to that trying to make sure your partner is in a safe place, only adds to the stress level a bit. So although Chloe eliminates much of the stress in my life, it can add to it as well. I don’t know that there is a good solution for “group meet and greet” for a person with hearing loss also partnered with a dog. (I’m open to any ideas though – grin).

Ok? SO?

Today’s post comes as the result of an email I received last week. With the person’s permission, I asked to blog about her question. “How do I know if an assistance dog would help me? Is it more trouble than it is help?” These questions are important ones if the person is thinking about training for an assistance dog. Some others you may need to ponder:

1. Am I OK with the attention having an assistance dog draws to me in public?

2. Am I OK with people stopping me and asking what the dog does for me?

3. Am I OK with having to pack a “bag” to go anywhere in order to make sure I have the things needed to travel with a dog?

4. Am I OK with occasionally being confronted and denied access?

5. Am I OK with having to care for and groom a dog daily?

6. (Because of #5), am I OK with having to invest in stock in LINT ROLLERS?

These questions and more are important things to consider if you are thinking about getting an assistance dog.

For me, the #1 benefit is that I am more relaxed and at ease in my awareness. I no longer feel the need to be hyper-vigilant and I’ve learned to trust my dog.

Where Can I Get One?

Self-training or Hiring a Trainer:

Countless owners have “self-trained” their dogs to perform specific tasks. There are pro’s and con’s to doing so. Private trainers can be expensive, but they can custom tailor a program for the specific needs of a person with hearing loss. Unfortunately, many dogs wash out before they can become service dog material, and a person might go through several dogs before finding one that is right for the work. Self-training is difficult, and also runs the same risk of washing out several dogs before finding the right one. But many who have self-trained their dogs have a strong bond and partnership as a result of this work. Usually, people who self-train have very good mobility or caregivers to help out, have had one or more service dogs in the past and have had some training experience, even if only with their own dogs. Individuals can hire a trainer as well and some of these trainers assist in “puppy selection”.

Some links to get started:

http://www.dogpawsability.com/

http://sdog.danawheels.net/ot-adog.shtml

http://www.amazon.com/Teamwork-II-Training-Manual-Disabilities/dp/0965621618

Training Organizations:

There are numerous organizations from which a person can get a “program” trained dog. A list compiled by Assistance Dogs International, can be found at:

http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/membersstatecountry.php

Another list can be found at: http://wolfpacks.com/products/servicedog/trainers.html

Many programs offer training and a dog at little to no cost, as they depend on the generosity of donors, sponsors, and volunteers. Others have ways in which you can help to raise money for the dog being trained for you.

Every state has similar requirements for a hearing assistance dog, but I always carry my ADI guide to Assistance Dog Laws. A copy can be obtained at: http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/guidetodoglaws.php

Feel free to email me if you have additional questions!

Sincerely,

Denise Portis

© 2011 Personal Hearing Loss Journal