At 13 years old, someone taught me how to French braid at school and from that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a hairdresser. I loved playing with hair and making people happy. After graduating high school, I attended beauty school. A few months later, tinnitus struck and hearing loss followed. By 23 years old, I wore hearing aids. I continued to do hair for the next 18 years, taking a few breaks here and there.
My first pair of hearing aids were analog. I wore them all day at work which soaked up all sounds, even the ones I didn’t need or particularly want. Blow dryers grated on my hearing aids like a salad shooter, all day long. It could be my blow dryer or someone else, it didn’t matter. By the time I left work, my head pounded and my teeth ached from clenching my jaw. I took out my hearing aids before leaving the parking lot. The muted world restored my sense of peace; my jaw unlocked and my head throbbed less as I drove home. I didn’t usually put them back in until the next day right before work. Hearing at worked seemed more important than hearing at home. My family allowed me the much needed hearing break and I’m grateful for that.
Only occasionally did I tell anyone I had a hearing loss. I feared rejection so I faked my way through many conversations while blow dryers roared. I looked at the other beauticians with envy as they effortlessly chatted with their clients through all the noise. The noisier it got, the louder voices got. When busy, the place buzzed at low rumble making me double my effort to hear.
One day one of my clients said something while a hair dryer raged in the booth next to us. Since I was cutting her hair, I missed watching her talk. Her tone seemed neutral and when I looked up, her face didn’t show any emotion. I snagged one of my all purpose phrases and said, “How nice.”
Her eyebrows shot up and her mouth dropped open. I knew my answer missed by a long shot.
“I’m sorry. I’m hard of hearing,” I confessed. “I didn’t understand what you said. Can you repeat that please?”
“I said my sister nearly died and is in the hospital. This will be my last haircut for a while so I can go home and help her.”
I felt like a complete idiot. How on earth did I get that so wrong? “I’m so sorry! I hope things get better fast and I’m sure she will like having you with her.”
Snowbirds, people who go south for the winter, are common where I worked in Southern California. She went home and came back the following year. Thank goodness I hadn’t scared her off with my bluffing. In fact, she caught on to the whole game like an expert.
“Did you hear what I said?” she asked from time to time.
Sometimes I said yes and sometimes no. I give her credit for the start of breaking my bluffing habit. I learned not to be ashamed of my hearing loss because people generally wanted to help me, not scorn me. Other people started outing me around the same time and I found out it’s much easier to be upfront about it than hiding it. I feared rejection unrealistically. It didn’t happen and I kept building clientele.
As I became more upfront about my own hearing loss, it made a good topic for people. Many a customer had a husband who had a hearing loss. Their husbands tried them for a few weeks and put them in the drawer. By this time, I knew all about hearing loss and hearing aids (thanks to SWC). I gave them ideas and recommendations to take back home. I also cautioned them about the limits.
A few clients wore hearing aids themselves. We understood each other perfectly! We talked about their haircut/hairstyle before they took their aids off. After that, I made sure to face them while talking a little slower, if I asked more questions. For me, I felt a sense of relief not having to make small talk. For them, they were happy to find someone who understood at last and didn’t have to participate in chit chat either. I only had a few of them. Too bad I couldn’t get more hard of hearing clients.
Hearing on the phone at work tested my limits depending on background noise. Even though the t-coil made it easier to hear on the phone, blow dryers managed to work their way into the phone calls anyway. If not that, the caller’s screaming kids or loud TVs in the background made scheduling their appointment a chore and my progressive hearing loss only made it worse as time went on.
My biggest fear was getting a haircut wrong. I made sure to turn the chair around so they faced me or I stood in front of the mirror facing them to make sure I heard right. I listened with my entire being and repeated back what I thought I heard only in different words. I’m happy to say I didn’t give anybody the wrong haircut or hair style.
In spite of my love for doing hair, two times I quit to try something else for a steady paycheck. (Hair stylists get only a percentage of what they make or pay rent. Some weeks are good, some weeks not so good.) After a year or so I went back to hair. I missed the socializing, the variety of cuts, colors and perms making it something different every day. Once a hairdresser, always a hairdresser. I saw myself doing it until 80 years old, working a few days a week just to keep with it. My hearing continued to drop but my clients and I continued to adapt. No longer did I have a problem saying;
- “Sorry, it’s a bad hearing day. My ears are ringing!” Or…
- “I can’t hear with the blow dryer on, can we wait until I turn it off?” Or…
- When answering the phone and a few repeats later, “I’m sorry, I’m hard of hearing and I can’t seem to understand what you are saying. Let me pass the phone off to someone else.” Or…
- “I let my hearing aid get run over so I have lopsided hearing for a while. Bear with me,” which brought me to the digital age. I heard better but my natural hearing wasn’t replaced.
Then I had a big drop in hearing due to stress in my personal life. I passed the phone to others more and more. If I couldn’t understand someone in my chair, I brought one of the other hairdressers over to translate for me. I worked with a lot of good people who helped me when I needed it. One lady I worked with Dian, had a deep strong voice. I could hear her above everything else with little effort on her part. She patiently helped me many times by taking the phone or listening to walk-in customer whose voice was out of my range. Sometimes the noise in the salon would be so great, I never even heard the phone ring.
“Michelle,” Dian called out.* I looked up right away. “Phone,” she said, jerking her head towards the front desk. As I looked over to desk, another girl held the phone who now had my attention.
“I called your name like 4 times,” she complained. “Why didn’t you hear me?”
I shrugged. “She has a better voice for me.”
She rolled her eyes and said, “I’m going to buy a Nerf ball to get your attention. Anyway. Phone for you.”
Not always could hear the phone ring when the salon bustled. I’d hear something far off… was it my tinnitus or did the phone really ring? I looked around at the others until someone nodded letting me know the phone needed to be answered. Not wanting to appear being a slacker, I brought in my volume control phone which had a great ringer. For a few days they tolerated it but Dian approached me after a mass meeting on their part to tell me it scared them half to death and they would rather have it off. They agreed to let me know when it rang. Another bonus; they wouldn’t use my phone because it blew their eardrum out. One girl wore so much makeup it rubbed off onto phones so I didn’t have to clean the phone I answered anymore.
My co-workers, my clients and I were conditioned to my hearing loss. I had no idea how well trained until I moved not only to another city, but another state and started over.
In the big city, I found job at a beautiful, modern salon. It was the most beautiful salon I ever worked in. Sleek looking with windows all over and very few decorations. The place reeked of professionalism. White walls with some accent green stood bare and a unique rock wall backed the shampoo bowls. A gleaming hard wood floor with a basement below ricocheting each boot step like a bullet. Seven people at seven stations with seven blow dryers with at least one being used at a time and sometimes up to four of them roared.
Acoustics played hell on my hearing aids. I didn’t know the words for it but for the first time in my life, noise rendered me deaf. I couldn’t hear the person sitting in my chair unless I turned them around to face me which played havoc on my scheduling. People want to chat, make friends and bond but the environment didn’t allow me that opportunity. Clients didn’t come back because I stood there mute cutting, coloring or styling hair. I became a boring hairdresser.
Not only that but something in the salon made my t-coils buzz so I couldn’t use my hearing aids to answer the phone. The unspoken rule is the newest person answers the phone because everyone else is busy and it gives the newbie a chance to build. Even with my volume control phone, I could not get names and numbers right as people repeated over and over. A few people heard my voice and automatically said, “Never mind. I’ll call back later.” I went home grief-stricken each night.
For two months I strained to answer the phone before I went to the boss. She said she heard all my struggles with it and felt bad for me. We decided I would take towel duty (washing, drying, folding and putting them away) and we would let the phone ring through to the answering machine. The others would pick up the messages when they had a free moment but one co-worker resisted. She thought we lost customers by doing that so pressured me to keep answering the phone.
“You do better than you think,” she said. “We can’t let customers go like that.”
The old me agreed. It’s the way it’s done but the newer, deafer me couldn’t do it. I tried explaining to her multiple times how difficult the phone had become. I couldn’t lip read. I couldn’t observe body language and I couldn’t get all the sounds I needed. Plus, I felt unprofessional on the phone. She refused to listen. (Listening and hearing are two different things.)
“If you can’t understand them, give the phone to me,” she said.
I tried that but it put her behind schedule. After a rough phone call I said, “This just isn’t working.”
She smiled and waved a hand, blond hair bouncing around her face. “Oh don’t worry about it. I had a hard time understanding him too.”
Every day I woke up dreading work and kept coming up with excuses to go in later and leave earlier until I couldn’t stand it anymore. My confidence was at all time low. I couldn’t perform the basic functions. What good was I as a mute, dull hairdresser? It takes personality and bonding to build a good clientele. I quit. I gave up.
A few months later I found another job combing through CraigsList working in a tiny salon at an assisted living place. I hired in with the condition that I didn’t have to answer the phone. I’d be happy to do anything else in place of answering the phone but I drew a definite line this time. It turned out I didn’t have to use it much because I could run around the building collecting people instead. Yay!
The little salon stayed packed through out the day except during meal times. I had a hard time hearing but most of the people there understood hearing loss. I didn’t have to talk through blow dryers. I enjoyed that job and the people I worked on. They appreciated getting their hair done and I bonded with them. I could have worked there for a long time.
But I didn’t. The salon business owner constantly shorted my checks and I had to haggle over every penny. I worked there almost a year and more than half the checks were wrong, in her favor. Sometimes she forgot to add whole days in. Then a clients daughter raised my tip to 25%. She initialed the file in pencil because we couldn’t find a pen. Next week when I went in, the tip was erased but still visible. I gave my two weeks notice.
It’s been over a year and a half since I’ve been in a salon. I’m itching to do hair again but I need to be very selective. The salon has to be small. There has to be things on the walls to soak up sound and no more basements. Caption phones are available and I couldn’t work without one.
Can I? Dare I? I miss the smell of perms and even the sound of the dang blow dryer. I miss people and cutting hair. I’m thinking about it. I’m thinking real hard.
*Although I’ve been Chelle most of my life, Chelle became hard to distinguish between Sherry, Terrie and Tammy. All I heard was the E sound at the end prompting a repeat. Being called Michelle at work made it easier to pick out my name.