Hearing Loss: A Strange New World

Losing an ability you once took for granted can be a soul crushing aspect of the human condition.. even if you’re an alien.

*WARNING* This article contains Star Trek references, puns and (circa-1990) spoilers. Please proceed with tongue in cheek and show mercy upon me.

It’s a tad cheesy 30 years on, but Star Trek, The Next Generation (TNG), is the show that inaugurated me as a Trekkie so it’s a bit of a touchstone. If you’ve gone down the ol’ Netflix rabbit hole or like me, you’re old enough to have watched it prime time (!), you remember the lovely counselor Deanna Troi and her “empathic” powers.  

The Complex Counselor

Troi is one-half of a telepathic alien race called Betazoid but since she is also half-human she is not fully telepathic (being able to read minds), but rather empathic. She can sense how someone is feeling, if they’re telling the truth, hiding something, or even if they’re REAL vs. holographic. That’s a thing on future space shows, see. 

So with this enhanced ability, she acts as counselor to the crew of the 24th century starship Enterprise by appointment AND serves as a handy BS-filter on call.  She’s able to determine if a Romulan knowingly crossed the neutral zone or if a Ferengi is trying to pull a fast one on Captain Picard.  I mean, it’s a solid skill. 

The Loss of Empathic Abilities

In the 4th season episode, “The Loss”, the counselor suddenly and traumatically loses her empathic powers when the ship flies into the wake some some space anomaly and gets stuck in it. 

While the crew works to get the ship un-stuck, the fallout from Troi’s affliction is tremendous. Once her physical pain subsides, the emotional and spiritual pain lingers and disables her. She can’t do her job, which seems to baffle everyone. It doesn’t matter to her that her special powers are not required to be a counselor or that people are able to the same profession despite never having her abilities. It’s how SHE developed and functioned with those abilities as a whole person and now a part of that whole has been subtracted. She’s trying to comprehend the loss in her body not jump into someone else’s reality and perspective. The absence of her empathic senses creates a profound void and the episode focuses on her trauma and recovery process. 

Now, we mere humans cannot even imagine HAVING such a sense to begin with, so we (and the rest of her shipmates) are like, “Hey it’s ok girl. You can’t do that magic thing anymore, but jeez you can still do your 9-to-5”.  We can feel bad for her, but it’s hard to know what to say or how to support her because all we can do is rationalize from our own perspective. We can’t possibly know how she feels because we haven’t gone through it ourselves.  

This is what it’s like when someone loses their hearing. 

Over time or suddenly, hearing loss is a true loss that needs space to be emotionally addressed. People in that space with you become a part of that process by default.  People who have not lost hearing have a tendency to sympathize (“I’m so sorry”) or even display apathy (pretend it’s not happening), but empathy – knowing how it feels – is harder to come by.

TNG is notorious for their deeply philosophical plots, often veiled analogies to life’s complex social dilemmas, and this one is no exception.The Loss” was written as their “blind” episode, meaning one of the characters suffers a disability, but the twist here is that no one could imagine having that ability to begin with so she would essentially becoming “blind” but doing so within an entirely born-blind community. The born-blind folks understand what it’s like to be blind, but not what it’s like to lose sight. Troi lost her empathic powers and her support system is comprised of those who are non-empaths, or actually.. they are never-empaths. 

“You have no idea! No idea what this is like! How can you know what it’s like to lose something you never had?!”

“I don’t claim to.”

“And yet you’re telling me I’m supposed to get used to it!”

– Troi to Dr. Beverly Crusher

The equivalent to the never-empaths in this episode are of course, Deaf folks like me who never had that typical-hearing ability to begin with. So someone that has experienced hearing loss and someone like myself might both have the absence of hearing in common but unlike them, I haven’t “lost” anything.  I was born the way I am. I’m not mourning anything.

So my perspective is much like Troi’s shipmates who never had her empathic powers. They’re sympathetic but they’re focused on getting her to understand all the rational things.

Still a complete, worthy, whole person

Troi has MANY other abilities to tap into and might actually even be easier to access now that she doesn’t have that magic power covering everything for her. 

She can feel comfortable in her life over time, it’ll just look very different from what she had before. 

Of course she doesn’t want to hear that from them. They don’t know what it’s like to be empathic anyway..

”They say when one loses a sense, the other senses become stronger to compensate. Uh, a blind man develops better hearing…”

”With all due respect captain, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Captain Picard and Troi

Takes one to know one

On the flip side, another Betazoid with their powers intact might react to Troi’s loss as a hearing person reacts to another hearing person becoming deaf. 

They would recognize it as a traumatic loss, view the person as now-disabled and offer sympathy (or apathy).  But again.. they wouldn’t “get it” either. The actual trauma of the loss may be their focus. And perhaps no realistic advice would be forthcoming because they don’t know what it’s like to live without their enhanced abilities either. So she might have pushed them away too. 

Ideally, finding someone who has traveled a similar path is key to understanding how to continue on the journey – sharing the experience of going from point A to point B, and thriving. 

Poor Troi was the only Betazoid on board and thus isolated from those who could truly relate. She would have to search the galaxy to find someone. 

In the non-Trek world, it’s not that hard.

If you are on a hearing loss journey, you are definitely not alone.

Tons of people have embarked on the journey that you’re on right now. And you don’t have to travel to strange new worlds, either.

There are literally MILLIONS of people who have some form of hearing loss.

Every race.

Every gender.

Every age.

Every country.

Every everything, basically.

You do have to know where to look because while we see people out in the world wearing hearing devices, not everyone on the journey is in the same space in terms of talking about their travels. So you may not find them as readily on the street, but you can find them.

I hesitate to call them support groups, but that’s they’re generally known as and where you can find them. You may not find the right one initially, because hey with people from EVERY walk of life, you won’t always have a lot in common, but you will have ONE THING in common in that room.  And that one thing can make you feel like you’re sinking into a warm bath.  Or stepping out onto a warm beach on Risa after being stuck on a stinky, cold, over-air-conditioned .. starship(?) 

It’s worth it.  

The Hearing Loss Association of America offers support in every state and most areas through group support. You can find some great hearing loss support groups by clicking here. 

Lurk or get really involved, your call. Either way, the experience of being around people who “get it” is empowering. 

In my beloved Star Trek, they seek out new life and new civilizations, but every time they are called back to Earth, it’s a welcome, beautiful sight.

Finding other people who know what it feels like to experience hearing loss and can truly empathize with you, well – it’s home. 

Peace and long life, friends.



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