Many late deafened adults suffer from something I term deafness paranoia. It is an outcome of the embarrassment of mishearing and mispronunciation, as well as misunderstanding the dynamics of social situations and the resultant isolation. Let me explain.
Deafness paranoia can be as mild as feeling embarrassment when you make a mistake believing everyone thinks you’re stupid, through to delusions of persecution - that everyone is out to get you, talking about you, judging you and laughing at you.
For me this was manifest in a number of ways. When I walked into a room and people stopped talking to look at me I thought they had been talking about me and stopped so they wouldn’t embarrass themselves. If I entered a room and people were laughing I thought they were laughing at me. If I was in a group and didn’t hear something, asked what had been said and was told ‘oh it doesn’t matter’ I thought it was a secret about me that I wasn’t meant to know. If I said something out of context because I had not recognised a conversation had moved on, when people laughed I thought they thought I was dumb, an idiot, sub-intelligent. If I didn’t say anything and remained mute, politely smiling or laughing on cue, I thought people considered me rude and socially inept. When I became the life of the party, to hide my embarrassment and to control what people talked about, I went home feeling a fool.
In other words, no matter the circumstances I couldn’t win. I thought people were out to get me, to catch me out no matter what. Eventually it washed over into my professional life and I felt my employers were always plotting to replace me. Paranoia came slowly without me even knowing it and grew worse the longer I was deaf and the deafer I became. I withdrew and became even more isolated often crying in my loneliness.
Of course there was an element of truth. I did make embarrassing mistakes, I was left out of meetings at work or entertainment with clients and I wasn’t invited to social occasions with friends and colleagues. But this wasn’t because people were out to get me or were even embarrassed to be with me. Mostly it was because I was incommunicado and therefore out of mind, just hidden in full view.
When people looked at me as I walked into the room it was simply because this is what people do – they check who has arrived, when they were laughing as I walked in and stopped it was just normal social banter. I really wasn’t that important.
Paranoia associated with deafness is a recognized and documented attribute, particularly in the elderly. The paranoia is based on mis-interpretation of social cues and is associated with low self-esteem. The longer the deafness goes on and the more isolated someone becomes, depression is a real possibility. This is when the paranoia starts. It is difficult to recognise and difficult to treat however, understanding that this is an outcome of the isolation forced upon you can be a start to recovery.