In celebration of May Better Hearing and Speech Month we are happy to provide an exclusive interview with Author Katherine Bouton.
Author Katherine Bouton is making a lot of noise - and a huge difference - with her books about hearing loss.
Her 2013 book Shouting Won't Help: Why I--and 50 Million Other Americans--Can't Hear You” inspired many people to start the conversation about hearing loss. Her new book, Living Better with Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends . . . and Hearing Aids” . (Living Better is not yet out. It can be pre-ordered but is not available until June) should help keep that conversation going.
“It was gratifying to find how many people shared my experience,” said Bouton. “I got many many letters and emails from people who said I had told their story and thanking me for making it possible for them to talk about their own hearing loss.”
A former senior editor at The New York Times, Bouton's work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and many other magazines and reviews. Bouton spoke to Connect Hearing about her books and hearing health. She also spoke about Better Hearing Month, which is recognized annually in May.
Connect Hearing: Katherine Bouton, it's a pleasure to speak with you!
Katherine Bouton: Thanks!
Connect Hearing: Can you talk about your journey with hearing loss?
Bouton: That's a broad question! I first lost my hearing when I was 30, in one ear only. It was a major loss with no obvious cause and after much fruitless testing it was diagnosed as Idiopathic Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (ISSHL).
After a couple of years, that hearing worsened and my other ear also started to go.
That ruled out ISSHL as a diagnosis (you can only have SSHL once), so now my hearing loss is just idiopathic -- no known cause. Or maybe Idiopathic Meniere's (no known cause with some Meniere's symptoms). I ignored it for a long time. I was able to function well with the hearing I had. It wasn't until 2002 that I finally got hearing aids, in both ears. The left ear (the first ear) never responded very well to the aid but the right ear did and I was okay until late in the decade. Then the decline really started, culminating in 2008 with a major drop - to profound in my left ear and moderate to severe in the right. I got a cochlear implant in 2009.
Connect Hearing: That must have been very difficult.
Bouton: I fought accepting hearing loss for a long time. I basically lived a lie for a good many years. I think more people knew about the hearing loss than I realized, but none of them knew how serious it was until I wrote Shouting Won't Help. Even my family was surprised. My son, now 30, said to me at one point that he'd had no idea what I was going through.
Connect Hearing: How did you come to write the book?
Bouton: That's two broad questions! I've been a writer and editor for my whole career. Eventually I couldn't manage any more in my high pressure job at The New York Times and in December 2009 took a buyout. Suddenly after a very intensive career, I found myself with no job, very bad hearing, and seriously depressed.
Over the next few months I worked through all that with a therapist and eventually realized that if I couldn't beat my hearing loss I'd have to make it work for me. So I began to write about the very subject I'd spent years hiding.
Writing Shouting Won't Help, which is a memoir, was a liberating experience. I've never had to pretend to be a normal hearing person again. I still had a lot of information I didn't have room for in the first book, and as I went around the country talking about hearing loss I learned much more. So I wrote a second book, a more practical guide to living with hearing loss. As the subtitle indicates, it covers everything from love and sex to the workplace to friendships to hearing aids. And a lot more.
Connect Hearing: Well it's a wonderful thing you've done, because for most people hearing loss is not one of those things people are usually in a rush to talk about. What has been the feedback from your books? Can you share a story about somebody who was really inspired by your books?
Bouton: The feedback from my book (only one is published so far) and blog posts has been gratifying and in many ways inspiring. People write me about their own experiences with hearing loss, and often their stories are sad to read. Almost all of those people thank me for telling my story, because it frees them to tell theirs. Also many people without hearing loss have thanked me for helping them understand what their friends or relatives are experiencing.
I find people are quite open about hearing loss once they hear I have it. I'm not sure I can think of a single incidence where when someone heard about the subject of my book they didn't say that they had some hearing loss, and then begin to talk about it. Or that a relative does and then begin to talk about their concerns about it.
Connect Hearing: Hearing health isn't just about seniors. The World Health Organization recently said, "Some 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of hearing loss due to the unsafe use of personal audio devices, including smartphones, and exposure to damaging levels of sound at noisy entertainment venues such as nightclubs, bars and sporting events, according to WHO." It must be extremely frustrating for you to see young people taking their hearing health for granted. Do you have any advice for parents?
Bouton: One thing parents can say to their kids is that it doesn't take much noise exposure to damage their hearing. And even mild hearing loss can interfere with many things people hold dear -- including the ability to hear a whisper. I like to ask younger people to imagine what it would be like not to be able to share gossip or confidences with a friend because you can't hear a whisper, not to be able to hear your boyfriend's sweet nothings because it sounds like hissing in your ear...
The other thing mild hearing loss often obscures are the throw-away lines --the punchline of a joke, insults muttered under someone's breath, the little asides that make everyone laugh and leave you in the dark because you can't hear it.
Connect Hearing: As some of our readers know, May is Better Hearing Month. Are you involved with any projects to promote Better Hearing Month? What are your plans for May?
Bouton: Every month is better hearing month for me. But I'll be doing various interviews for organizations that are observing Better Hearing Month, including public radio and AARP. I just did a public service announcement for Spotify today.
Connect Hearing: The theme for Better Hearing Month is " Early Intervention Counts.” Are you seeing more awareness about hearing safety and health? Is the message getting through, or is there more work to be done?
Bouton: Some but not enough. I'm not sure if by "early intervention" the reference is to protection or treatment. If it's protection -- using those sophisticated earplug musicians use -- that's really important. Once you lose your hearing you can't get it back. At least not yet (science is getting there).
As for early treatment, most audiologists feel that's the most important time to get hearing aids, because it keeps your brain alive to the stimulus of hearing. If you let your hearing go until the time when you absolutely have to correct it, your brain will have a much harder time learning to rehear. Hearing aids -- and I would add other, less expensive hearing devices -- are excellent for mild to moderate hearing loss.
Connect Hearing: Ms. Bouton, thank you so much for your time. It was an honour to speak with you.
Bouton: My pleasure.