Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A Letter to My Other Selves

by Lisa Wirkus

I recently found letters I wrote to my d/Deaf and h/Hearing selves back in 2012 as part of a project someone suggested for me while I was contemplating my changing identities. They still move me, and perhaps they will help someone who reads them.

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Dear d/Deaf self,

I’m not comfortable with you. There are many days when I long to be rid of you entirely. Still, even in the midst of my intense rejection, and even hatred, of you, a still, small voice tells me to be quiet – tells me to just take it all in. But I immediately push that feeling aside because “quiet” is precisely what I am constantly reeling against. Or is it? Maybe silence is really what I detest – a lack of ideas, language, and connection. As I think about it, a “quiet” spirit is my heart’s desire.

Although I am reticent to admit it, your muted reality has given me some new insights. You have helped me to slow down (because I can no longer keep up at the quicker pace,) and you have thrust patience upon me – something I have vehemently resisted. But, alas, with you, deaf self, as part of who I am, patience has become a regular requirement for even the simplest of everyday interactions. Seriously though, I do appreciate the extra patience…and maybe even the occasional reprieves from the impersonal hustle and bustle of everyday business.

On the other hand, missing punchlines to jokes, feeling the need to smile and nod a lot, and being told over and over, “Never mind. I’ll tell you later,” has saddened me. I have lost my sense of control. And I don’t like it! I don’t like having to guess what is going on around me. I don’t like others thinking that I am rude simply because I have not heard their calls. And I resist identifying with you because I am afraid that others will view me as less capable, more concrete in my thinking, or, worst yet, as one with a condition warranting pity.

I long to counter these exterior assaults by claiming my pride as a Deaf person. I see Deaf professionals and Deaf adults thriving, ready and eager to proclaim, “I am proud to be Deaf.” You see, I think deep down, I long for you to become more of who I am, Deaf self. I see the close-knit relationships, I see the mutual understanding, I see the shared worldview, and I see the solidarity which is created from the commonly understood and communally celebrated triumph over oppression.

While I gaze at Deaf culture from the outside, you invite me to see myself as one on the inside: not only deaf, but Deaf, proud of the entirety of my identity, a victor over struggle. At first, this always seems appealing, but then I am jarred by the patronizing tone which seems to be ever-present in my praise. Comments such as, “I can’t believe that you are able to do so well with such a significant disability,” or “It’s amazing what you have accomplished despite your hearing loss” cause me to cringe. I don’t want to be an inspirational story or a charity case. I want others to see me for who I am and what I can do instead of qualifying all success based on a standard lowered to account for my hearing deficit.

As much as I resist allowing you to become my predominant identity, I find myself gravitating toward groups of Deaf people instead of hearing people when I have the choice. I revel in the ease of communication when all around me I see hands flying. I long to really fit into the core of Deaf culture. Deep down, I want to Deaf – to be able to claim an identity based on shared cultural values and experiences, not a label determined by others to put me in a limiting box.

I want to be able to claim you, Deaf self. I want to be comfortable saying, “I am Deaf,” without having to apologize for who I am. But this is not only an internal struggle. Hearing people think that I must be exaggerating my hearing loss because I speak so well or because my eyes happen to catch their unobstructed lips as they begin to talk. Deaf people see me as an outsider. I didn’t grow up deaf, so I missed out on all of those experiences that helped them to form their Deaf identities. Some within the Deaf community view my ability to speak clearly as an automatic exclusion from their group. To them, it doesn’t matter how much I can’t hear. I will always be “THINK-HEARING.” I try to accept that, for it is an accurate description of me, but the accompanying, blatant denial of you, my Deaf self, hurts.

I know the rules. I didn’t have Deaf parents. I didn’t grow up with a hearing loss, and I didn’t learn to sign until my early 20s. Therefore, I will never be admitted into the core of Deaf culture. Deaf self, I just want a place where I can be true to you and unashamed to name your presence within me. I want to know you better. I want to learn more about you. I want to be able to accept you, and just as much, I want others to accept and recognize your presence and importance in my identity.


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Dear h/Hearing self,

You were my comfortable reality for so long. With you as my center, I felt unlimited – like I could do anything. But now I feel a distance between us. You are still a part of who I am, but not my sole core. Still, I long for you to play a more prominent role in my everyday life. But you just keep telling me that’s not possible.

When I think of you, I conjure up sweet memories of the endless music lessons, indoor drumline, show choir, marching band, wind symphony, crowded parties, my senior oboe recital…my English horn solo in the WVU orchestra’s performance of Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. I remember the soft whisper of my sweetheart the first time he said, “I love you.” I cherish the holy moments in church when music touched my soul in a more profound way than words ever could.

Although you are still a part of me, you’re not as sharp as you used to be. When I think of the sounds I hear now, I envision you as a professional athlete who was once known as a great player, but now as an 85 year old, you have faded into obscurity, relegated to limping around the house and reminiscing about the “good old days.”

As much as I feel disconnected from you because of my audiological deficit, you will always be my “home.” I grew up with you. Everything I learned, everything I experienced, for the first 25 years of my life was experienced through your perspective.
You helped me to learn that people don’t always mean what they say. Tone and inflection are not only important to produce as a musician, but you taught me that vocal tone and inflection can be a window into the hearts and souls of others.

Growing up, I learned best through listening. While you were my only reality, I was able to learn quickly. Being an auditory learner, I was often able to excel without ever needing to pick up a book. I miss the ease of learning that you afforded me – the effortless, never-ending, soundtrack of life that provided so much incidental information.

When I fill out forms, and I am required to check “hearing,” “deaf,” or “hard-of-hearing,” my pen naturally hovers over “hearing” before my ears and brain remind me of my shifting reality. The first time I was finally able to call myself “hard-of-hearing,” I felt like I was betraying you. When I recently described myself as “deaf” in an email requesting interpreters for a conference, I wondered if I was being true to you. By writing that, I didn’t mean to suppress you, but I had to get them to understand my communication needs.

That’s my struggle with you right now. So many parts of you are so familiar. I will always hold dear the worldview you espouse, and I am thankful for my ability to speak clearly and express myself easily to the general public. My problem is that as my hearing self, in many ways, I feel selfish. I can talk, and others can easily understand me, but it is exhausting and frustrating for me to listen to other people speak relying only on my pathetic residual hearing and lipreading ability.

I don’t want to be selfish. I do care what others have to say. It’s just that sometimes I don’t have the capacity or the energy to listen effectively. So, hearing self, how is that fair? How is it fair for others when I am missing or misinterpreting what they say? And how is it fair for me to constantly have to work so hard when other people can even multitask while listening to me?

I already know the answer: It’s not fair. And I haven’t been fair to you either, hearing self. My mathematical, rational brain wants there to be one appropriate label for me, i.e., hearing or deaf. I want it to be simple. Of course, in real life, things are never that simple. I also feel I must apologize to you because as I lose more hearing, as I become more fluent in ASL, and as I feel more comfortable in Deaf culture, I sometimes feel pressure to suppress you. I’m sorry if I succumb to that pressure.

Even if I become completely deaf, you will still be an important part of me. Thank you for continually reminding me of my roots. Please understand, though, that I need to explore my identity as a d/Deaf person. While I do that, I will try my best to not be insulted by others calling me “THINK-HEARING.”


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Lisa Wirkus is a full-time video relay service interpreter while also serving two churches part-time as an ordained elder in the UMC.

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