Posted on The Outsiders Network on 9th January 2015.
As humans, we are always searching for a sense of belonging: to a community, to ourselves, a place, the world itself. We want to feel accepted and understood. For some of us, the world is a harsh place, a place where we have been left out in the cold, facing barriers that other people might not come across. My own journey towards a sense of belonging and acceptance has been riddled with pitfalls and lighbulb moments – times when I have felt more of an outsider than ever, and times when I have realised that only I can accept myself, that I belong to myself.
I was likely born deaf, but in the early 1980s, newborn hearing screening tests weren’t available in the UK. So it wasn’t until my aunt noticed that I wasn’t always responding to her that I took a test at age 6 in 1990 and was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss. This means that at 6 years old I could hear more than I could now as my hearing has dropped over time. At the moment it has been stable for some time, since I was a teenager. My sister was also tested at 2 years old and diagnosed with the same deafness.
Humans are nothing if not adaptable. My parents grieved for a while, but life went on and all the challenges associated with having progressive hearing loss – sudden drops, stable periods, audiology appointments, extra support at school, learning to become a champion lipreader (and body language reader) – became a part of life. In fact, being deaf has in many ways made my life richer and fuller. I’ve had many setbacks but also great victories, and have witnessed the same with my sister. I’ve met many deaf and hard of hearing people who have been through similar things, and in hindsight understand that what may make me an ‘outsider’ in some company means I am part of something bigger than myself in other ways.
When you are someone looking into the world of deaf people from the outside, it might look quite confusing. Things are never quite as they seem. I grew up mainly in the hearing world, dipping in and out of the deaf world through friends and through contact with different people. My sister and I were performers at Chickenshed Theatre (previously Chicken Shed Theatre Company) – so we both grew up immersed in an inclusive, diverse environment, learning to see that everyone has potential, has something to offer the world: that everyone matters. The world outside Chickenshed seemed cruel at times.
My secondary school (High school) experience was one of the hardest periods of my life: this was the time when I found myself misunderstood by others, retreating more into a world of imagination, books, the life of the mind – of writing and observing. Ultra-sensitive, I found myself repeatedly hurt and feeling betrayed by people I considered friends. Always the diplomat, I found myself stuck in the middle many times. I became someone who often seemed like I had a split personality – withdrawn, quiet and anxious at school, but with close friends (more often outside school) I opened up like a flower and would even become quite gregarious. I have since come to realise that this contradiction is part of who I am – having taken various personality tests over the years, I test as an INFJ, amongst other things – and I accept that I am always going to be a contradiction.
Meeting my now husband through an early social network, Bolt.com, in the early 00s, helped me to move even further into a place where I learnt to trust my own convictions and appreciate that true belonging happens when we least expect it. Love opens our hearts and expands our understanding of what it means to be human. I was sure, even then, at 16, that our relationship was meant to last, and as with many things since, taught me to trust my heart and intuition. It seems that being wise comes from going through things and learning from them – even as I felt like an alien at times, I learnt that I’m not the only one.
As I moved from school to University, I found a new sense of independence and confidence. At first, I found that some aspects of University life didn’t suit me – I quickly figured out that I wasn’t an extroverted party animal and would always much rather go to the cinema than clubbing – but my course was one of the best things that I had chosen to do. Studying Sociology gave me so much understanding of society and fed my appetite for new ideas and concepts that I hadn’t found at school. Socially, I struggled – there were only a few deaf people on campus and in the end one of my housemates seemed to wilfully misunderstand my need for certain types of access (such as subtitles on TV) and made me feel, once again, like an outsider. It’s what you do with these feelings, though, that make the difference between closing yourself off and changing the world, in your way.
Blogging, in my final year at University, gave me the outlet I needed to work out my direction. At first, it was a personal blog, but slowly changed into a feminist blog, as I discovered the feminist community online, in 2005-06. This completely changed the way I saw the world, taking off my blurry glasses, awakening me to many hard truths about the world. At the same time, I became aware of how much in-fighting there was – debates are all well and good, but the constant fighting, defending and anger took its toll on me and in 2007 I decided to close down my feminist blog and start anew with Cats and Chocolate. That year, I also decided to go back to University and do a Masters degree in Women’s Studies, which was one of the best decisions I ever made. That year, I rediscovered my love of writing and was surrounded by people who inspired me to be a better person. It made me understand that we are all whole people. We all have a world within us.
All these experiences we carry make us who we are. Belonging can be a powerful thing, but belonging to yourself, first and foremost, is the important thing. Recognising this has helped me to understand that even when I give myself to various projects, causes and communities, I can move between them and not lose my sense of self. At times, I have to remember that we all need time to step back, re-evaluate, and readjust. I’m still learning to accept that being an outsider isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just different – and equips us with our own unique perspective of the world. The world needs more people willing to help us understand our nature: that we all have potential and can work together.