Seven years ago, I read an article in the Observer by author Bella Bathurst, which was titled ‘How I learned to love my silent world.’ In the article she wrote about how she’d grown to appreciate the quiet life after two accidents which made her go deaf. Recently, while moving, I found the article and decided to make contact with Bella to find out how she’s got on since then. During my initial interview by email, I found out some surprising news. This was followed up in person a few weeks later, when we met at a cafe in a London park. As I arrived, Bella was eating a coffee cake, which was quickly followed by the arrival at our table of a ciabatta sandwich. Perhaps an explanation for her appetite could be found in the fact that she’d cycled from one side of London to the other to get there. We spoke for over two hours about her experiences of deaf life.
How did you first become deaf?
I started to go deaf in 1997, shortly after the second of two head injuries which were thought to have been the reason for the hearing loss. I used digital hearing aids in both ears, and learned a bit of BSL. I loved it – I found it elegant, tactless and funny, and I was fascinated by its history.
Then in 2009, my audiologist diagnosed the loss as being due to otosclerosis (a genetic condition in which little bones of the middle ear start to silt up and immobilise), and explained that the condition was operable, one ear at a time. I then went to clinic near Montpellier in France where they specialise in these ops. Each ear cost about £6000. The operation on the first ear went wrong, then recovered. The second ear went right. So I’m now hearing again.
Wow. So you can hear again. Is there anything you miss about being deaf?
Honestly? No. I’d like to say yes, but it wouldn’t be true. I started to lose my hearing when I was in my late twenties so I’d had all that time as a hearing person, and I really painfully missed being able to hear. It was hard to adjust, and at the time I was too stiff to ask for help. Writing is a famously solitary profession, and adding deafness on top of that seemed like some kind of involuntary monasticism, so I worked as hard as I could to fight that isolation.
I also assumed that there was nothing that could be done about the loss – that what remained of my hearing would just slowly degenerate. So discovering that there was an operation for otosclerosis and then having that operation – that was miraculous.
A couple of weeks after I had the second operation, I sat in a London cafe and listened to a couple of people at the next table bitching about their colleagues. I was so pleased to be able to eavesdrop on all these amazing conversations going on all around me again that I nearly went up and thanked them.
Becoming hearing again – was there anything difficult about that?
No. It was so miraculous it was completely ordinary, if that makes sense. It was an incredibly complex operation on an incredibly complex bodily process, but the result was just … this is simple. Hearing is simple. Being part of the world again is simple, and all of it is a bloody miracle. Like having a baby.
I spent a couple of months groping around on the bedside table for my hearing aids every time I woke up, and then even that began to fade. But I haven’t forgotten what I learned or how deafness shaped me. And how much of all our communication is not spoken.
Did being deaf influence your writing?
I’m not sure – I think it made me even more eager to connect because connecting had become such a conscious thing. I’ve always been drawn to non-fiction and journalism because they’re all about other people and other worlds – getting out and finding what the wider world has to say for itself and how thrilling and inventive that can be.
I always concentrated really hard on people when I interviewed them, but once I started to go deaf I’d concentrate so hard I’d end up utterly knackered. And no, I haven’t yet fed it into any of my stories, only that Observer piece, which now sounds very uncomfortable to me. I’m getting much more interested in it now, though. If I’m honest, I was ashamed of myself and ashamed of being deaf. I know I’ll go back to it in some written form at some point though – I just haven’t worked out when or how.
Why were you ashamed of being deaf?
The shame came from not going with it, therefore feeling it was potentially isolating. I didn’t think of myself as ‘properly’ deaf, and therefore I didn’t see myself as part of any community. I didn’t understand then that 60% hearing loss is just as ‘valid’ as 80%, or being a hearing member of a deaf family. So I excluded myself.
If I’d gone with it, I would have found it much easier. I think finding a way to make those connections is really important.
Photos copyright: Charlie Swinbourne, 2012
At the same time, you’d written a very positive article about your life as a deaf person. How do you feel about that now?
The whole thing about silence was… you’re not knackered if you’re on your own. Especially with writing, it was great for concentration, but the flip side of that is that it then becomes an effort to go back into the world. It wasn’t that I was in denial of it, but finding isolation a relief is not necessarily a good thing.
I think now there are huge advantages to being deaf. What it hones and allows you to experience is a whole other way of being that most people have no idea of.
We all rely so much on speech, but there are so many other forms of communication, so much transmitted through the eyes and the heart. The deaf world has a huge amount to teach the hearing world about all the other forms of language – touch, humour, instinct. The need to really concentrate on someone’s face when you can’t hear them, to really look at them fully, that’s amazing, and it’s something that the hearing world is doing its best to lose.
It’s a shame I didn’t find a community of people and I made being deaf such a struggle for myself. But that’s totally different to seeing it as a negative experience. I know I’ve been massively enriched by it.
When I wrote that original piece I got a huge reaction to it. But also it was one of the few pieces around at the time that gave insight to a much more common problem. Acquired deafness is on the rise so I think a lot of people are hiding it to a greater or lesser degree of success.
Where did you feel like you belonged, in the deaf or the hearing world?
I felt like I was neither fish nor fowl. Neither part of the hearing world or the deaf world. That’s partly why Limping Chicken is so important, because at the time there was very little online, and apart from BSL signing classes, where could I go? There were loads of deaf older people but frankly I didn’t want to hang out with them. Sounds brutal, but normal wear-and-tear age-related hearing loss is different.
On rare occasions, like at signing classes, it was comforting to be with people who, even if they weren’t deaf, they were open to it. Aware of what you needed to be able to see.
Can you still lipread?
Yes, I guess so. I’m not very proficient, but I enjoy muting the sound on the TV once in a while and trying to work out what people are saying, or watching people talking when I’m in traffic. I used to wear glasses, and I was definitely deafer when I took them off!
Do you think your deafness make you more independent?
I was too independent anyway! You can have too much self-sufficiency.
Did you feel left out of things?
Very much so. I spent 27 years as a hearing person. All my friends were hearing. And none of them had any experience of with deaf people – with a few exceptions.
Were any of your friendships affected by your deafness?
No, bless them, my friends stayed my friends throughout. But it wasn’t until after the second operation that they told me the extent to which they had helped me and compensated for my deafness – things like sailing with a friend who has a boat; he told me later how tricky it was having a crew member who had to be facing the right way and standing in the right place before he could issue an instruction. Fine normally, not so great in a gale!
Do you still think of yourself as having a deaf identity?
Probably not – I’d spent so long being able to hear before I went deaf. Now, talking about it, I feel like some kind of deaf tourist – I spent about 14 years seeing the sights and gaining the experience, but that doesn’t make me a native.
Even so, I’m still intensely grateful for that time. It taught me all sorts of things, like how much it is your responsibility as the deaf person to put other people at ease, to make sure that they understand what works and what doesn’t work, and to allow them to ask whatever they want to ask.
I also learned how supremely intelligent our senses are and how much energy listening takes up. By default, I learned a lot of lip-reading and body language – which is very useful, even now. I learned a lot about acoustics, restaurants, bars, and machinery; it still amazes me how much white noise is out there, and how little people really want to hear each other.
And I learned how much love and effort my family and friends put into adapting to my deafness. I learned that sound is astounding and that you can let a great piece of music or someone else’s laugh enter you and melt your innards in the same way that love does. So being deaf was a wonderful and vastly enriching experience. I didn’t always like it very much, but I don’t want to lose what I learned when I was deaf.
Bella Bathurst’s latest novel The Bicycle Book is now available in paperback from HarperCollins. You can find out more via her website: bellabathurst.com.
Interview by Charlie Swinbourne
The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, training and consultancy Deafworks, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.