Halloween and Hearing Loss: How to celebrate with a hidden disability

From spice to silhouettes, pumpkins rule supreme. Autumn is here and spooky season is finally upon us.

After nearly 18 months in lockdown, it’s not surprising people want to make Halloween 2021 a big one. A night to reconnect, raise hell, and wear a different kind of mask. Finally, those with a penchant for the peculiar can take centre stage – we decorate to high heaven, our inner children play dress up, and those serial killer podcasts pay off, inspiring the creepiest of torchlit tales. If I have not been clear – this is my favourite time of the year.

So why am I dreading it?

Unfamiliarity perhaps? Through the lockdowns, I withdrew. I saw other humans as cause for concern. For a lot of us, the idea of partying again is alarming to say the least. Housefuls of people tipsily stumbling down crowded hallways seem a thing of the distant past. Understandably, people are apprehensive – social distancing is hit and miss, guessing at vaccine status or lateral flow test results, and masks are disappearing. Whatever your views on the pandemic, it’s a culture shock.

I could leave it there, attributing my uneasiness at returning to the “real” world to lockdown anxiety. It’s not a lie. It’s because of COVID. But it’s also because I can’t hear.

“The way I experience the world is my own, so why not tackle it in my own way too?”

I’ve been unilaterally deaf since I was 7, and my moderate-severe hearing impairment puts me at a moderate-severe disadvantage when socialising. Unilateral deafness means picking up all sound on one side and finding the source of noise is incredibly difficult. The lockdowns gave me a break from squinting through gloomy hallways or strobe-lit living rooms, attempting to translate slurred or screamed conversations. The pandemic brought its own challenges, of course. Lip reading is my main way of navigating a world that suddenly covered its mouth, and you can imagine how well that went, but it did mean a rest for my ear and me.

Socialising can become overwhelming to the point of physical pain, sparking headaches and anxiety-related stomach aches, but more exhausting is the sheer amount of mental energy it takes. Fighting against a wall of sound, desperately attempting to communicate through any way I can. I am constantly worrying that I’ll miss someone talking to me and look rude, or worse, assume somebody is talking to me when they are very much not. I panic that I’ll repeat something that’s just been said or attempt to join a conversation but miss a salient plot point. There’s a painful awkwardness in having to ask a stranger to speak slower, to face you, or to move their hands from their mouth. I dread the endless “I’m really sorry but could you just say that one more time?”, ultimately realising that it was so insignificant that repeating six times is just weird.

After so long away from these environments, going back shocked me. I couldn’t believe I managed them before (honestly, I never managed. I coped). I feel I’ve failed, not being able to just jump back in. It doesn’t matter how many times I’m told it’s okay to ask for adjustments, I should own my disability, people won’t judge – it still really sucks.

I hate that Halloween, my favourite night of the year, scares me. I do not want to give it that power. I’ve been using gigs, bars, and the odd party as trials, searching for a balance between being social and being okay. My conclusion is this – I owe my time to nobody but myself and deserve to have fun in a way that works for me. The way I experience the world is my own, so why not tackle it in my own way too?

Qualified only by experience, I have some tips on how to get through Halloween or any other social occasion when our inherently ableist society seems intent on making your life harder. While I created this checklist with deafness and anxiety in mind, I hope they could be of use to anyone struggling with our new/old way of life. Everybody has changed in some way over the last 18 months. To anyone who is coming back different or simply more understanding of themselves – I hope this helps you get what you deserve.

“I owe my time to nobody but myself and deserve to have fun in a way that works for me.”

Advocate for Yourself

You own your medical history and owe it to nobody. That information is yours to control and share as you feel comfortable or is necessary. However, people aren’t mind readers and do need a little heads-up. I’ve found a simple, “Hey I’m deaf, could you face me when you speak so I can lipread,” goes a long way. Asking can be nerve-wracking, but it really is okay to just tell people what you need. You are as worthy of being in that space as anybody else. Your disability does not reduce your right to fun.

Take a Break

It seems counterproductive, but a great way to survive an event is leaving. A little break gives you a chance to reset, breaking an overwhelming entity into smaller, manageable events. Utilise outdoor spaces, bedrooms, bathrooms. In a way, hosting an event can be beneficial, with your own room only a few seconds away. If you find walking out alone uncomfortable, find yourself a buddy. I’m lucky my friends are more than happy to accommodate my needs, and I promise people like this are around. Find them. Having a buddy will make your leaving less obvious and make you feel less “other”.

Be Purposeful

Everyone’s different, but I tend to need 5-20 minutes of rest. Staring at walls for that long can be disheartening and frankly boring, even with a friend. Giving yourself a something to do makes it feel more natural. I’m not saying write the next War and Peace but do something to entertain yourself. Netflix, music, a book, a walk, meditate – nap!

Be Gentle on Yourself

We all need a little kick up the backside sometimes and pushing yourself can be positive, but going too far, past the point of comfort (and even safety) all in the name of keeping up is never healthy. Sometimes the hardest part is accepting that sometimes disability means you just can’t. I spend so much time trying to prove I’m just as good as my able-bodied friends and that I can do it all but there comes a time when you need to put you first and say “Not for me, not today.”

When it comes down to it, needing adjustments is not a character weakness. You haven’t failed. Please, just be kind to yourself. God knows we all need it.