How the Character of Deanna Troi Helped Me Cope With My Sudden Deafness
After going deaf in both ears from Ménière’s Disease at age twenty-two, I felt lost and alone. That is, until I saw the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode entitled “The Loss” for the first time.
Sight, sound, smell, touch and taste; our five senses work in tandem to ensure our survival both as individuals and as a species. Yet, most people don’t give these fundamental senses of ours a second thought. I was one of these people until, one morning, I awoke to find that my entire world had fallen silent.
I was twenty when I started experiencing a high-pitched sound in both of my ears, as if someone was blowing a whistle directly into them. These episodes generally lasted for 2 to 3 days, without ceasing. About two months after the start of that, I began experiencing severe vertigo attacks, where I felt as if I was on a carousel. These episodes typically lasted 10 to 12 hours and occurred on an almost daily basis.
Both of these things were accompanied by a feeling of fullness in both of my ears. Have you ever been on an airplane and gotten a build-up of pressure in your ears, followed by a popping sensation? That’s exactly how I felt, except my ears refused to pop. That fullness feeling remained for six months before the pressure finally subsided, only to return with a vengeance a mere few hours later.
It took two long years of going from specialist to specialist and having nearly every test under the sun done before finally receiving a diagnosis of bilateral Ménière’s Disease. Ménière’s occurs in 1 out of every 1,000 people and typically only occurs in one ear. 1 in 10,000 people have it in both ears. My case is even more rare because I got it so young; the onset of Ménière’s typically occurs between ages forty to sixty.
One day, I awoke only to find that I couldn’t hear a thing. I couldn’t hear the birds chirping, the radio in my car, people talking to me — nothing. It was as if someone had muted the world, my world. I felt as if people around me were simultaneously there and not there. I could see them, but they didn’t feel real. My entire world had faded to grey and everything, living and non-living, had morphed into these two-dimensional beings. It was as if I had slipped into some dismal alternate reality. I was suffering, and I had no way to communicate what I was going through. People were sympathetic, sure, but no one seemed to truly understand.
It was only a few days after the sudden loss of my hearing when I saw, for the first time, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Loss”, starring Marina Sirtis as Counselor Deanna Troi. Watching Troi lose her sense of empathy paralleled so much with my own experience. As I continued to watch, tears brimmed my eyes and my breath caught in my throat. Everything that I had been trying to communicate, but couldn’t, was being so clearly expressed on screen. Sirtis, through her character of Troi, was putting into words what I couldn’t.
One quote in particular really struck a chord with me: “How can you understand losing something you never had?” Hearing people know what it’s like to hear, like I did, but they don’t know what it’s like to have their hearing taken from them. On the other hand, most of the deaf individuals I know were either born deaf or lost their hearing at a very early age and, as a result, don’t know what it’s like to hear. Troi’s pain and frustration of losing something that she not only depended on but took for granted mirrored my own frustration. Here was someone, albeit a fictional someone, who not only understood what I was experiencing, but was experiencing it as well. For the first time, I didn’t feel so alone.
What I learned from watching Troi overcome the loss of her empathy is that, while it was okay for me to grieve the loss of my hearing, I had to adapt and keep moving forward. It’s hard, and I had to learn a whole new way of living and navigating through life, but hard does not mean impossible. In fact, it is because of my deafness that I found my calling in life. I started learning ASL (American Sign Language), and I not only picked up the language quicker than any of my classmates, but fell in love with both the language and the culture surrounding it. I then furthered my ASL journey by studying to become a Teacher of the Deaf.
I was blessed with the opportunity to meet Sirtis via a “meet and greet”, at a virtual convention this past April. Sirtis was deeply sympathetic when I told her about my struggles with Ménière’s Disease, going so far as calling me a genius when I told her that I was reading her lips, in conjunction with using my residual hearing, in order to communicate with her despite my being deaf.
I unfortunately ran out of time before I was able to tell Sirtis my story of how she gave me my life back. However, if given the opportunity, I would tell her that she is the reason why I am where I am today; that I doubt any of this would have happened had it not been for her stellar performance of Troi in that one episode. Also, I would tell her that she is more than just an actress. Sirtis is a strong and inspirational woman who, very much like Troi, gives sage advice and always knows the right thing to say. Thank you, Marina, for everything you’ve done, not just for myself, but for so many of your fans.