‘Everybody has their challenges’
Erica Siegel was already experiencing severe depression, when she began losing her hearing as well. She hasn’t let either condition stop her.
Listen to Erica’s Story
It can be easy to ignore the fact that one of every five people you pass on the street may be dealing with some kind of mental health issue. There is usually no outward indication of the struggle that is going on in the brain and, in many cases, individuals fearful of judgment, discrimination or stereotyping, are doing their best to hide their condition as well.
People living with a severe hearing loss also work hard to navigate through life without drawing attention to their challenge, though they may be constantly straining to read lips, filter out background noises and answer questions appropriately.
Having any kind of disability you’re trying to manage in a world designed for people without mental or physical challenges can require constant monitoring, self-discipline and focus. Now imagine having something like bipolar disorder and a severe hearing impairment at the same time. That’s what Erica Seigel has been dealing with for more than two decades – though you might never suspect it.
While Siegel has battled depression since her teens and lost most of her hearing in her twenties, she’s also been an exceptional student, performed around the world as a professional actress and started a successful pet sitting business. The impression you come away with after speaking with her is that she’s smart, funny, persistent and above all, determined that her challenges will not limit her possibilities nor discourage respect for her intelligence and talents.
“I think it’s important to understand that I’m just a human being, just like you,” says Siegel, 43, who moved to Sarasota, Florida from the Washington D.C. area six years ago. “Everybody has their challenges. Everyone has their difficulties.”
Siegel ‘s idyllic childhood in Bethesda, Maryland gave no hint of the difficulties she would encounter later in life. She had a happy family life, with a brother five years younger she adores and two supportive parents who recently and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. In school she was a bookworm, an excellent student and socially engaged. She was on the crew team, sang in the choir and acted in school theatrical productions.
In fact, life was so good that when a doctor who tested her hearing during her teens told her she would benefit from wearing hearing aids in both ears, she treated it as a joke.
“I told him he could happily put a hearing aid in my ear when I was 80, then I walked out of the office and didn’t go back for five years,” Siegel recalls. “There was no way I was going to go to college wearing a hearing aid. I just didn’t think that was really going to help me socially and I was definitely not ready to accept I had a problem.”
She got in the habit of reading people’s lips and fared well despite the audio deficit, “not realizing what I wasn’t missing.” But while hearing loss did not run in her family, mental health issues did; her mother has experienced severe and chronic depression. So it was harder to ignore the dark cloud that settled in during the second semester of her freshman year at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
She started gaining weight, spending more time isolated in her room and feeling “horrible.” When she went home for summer break after her freshman year, her parents could tell she was struggling. But she insisted on returning to school, where she moved into a sorority house and tried to dispel the myths that surrounded her.
One day she found herself in the bathroom she shared with her sorority sisters, staring at a “humongous” bottle of Tylenol, the entire contents of which she considered swallowing. Thankfully, she instead called her father and said, “I don’t think I’m doing so well, could you come pick me up?”
That marked her first hospitalization. She was put on medication for her depression and it made her gain weight, which upset her even more. Yet despite her parents’ entreaties that she take some time off or attend a smaller college while living at home, she insisted on returning to school after just one semester off.
“My parents didn’t want me to go, but I was not having it,” Siegel says. “I was going back to school and I was going to prove everybody wrong and that I wasn’t going to let the depression beat me. It was one of the hardest years of my life.”
Neither did the school administration welcome her back, barring her from working with a campus psychologist because they felt she was too ill and preferred she withdraw from college. Instead she found a therapist off campus and even arranged a presentation for her sorority sisters about depression, bringing in a psychologist to talk about what symptoms to look for. A young man she dated for a year and a half provided loyal support, as did several friends she confided in, but “other than that, social life was really hard.”
Just getting herself to classes was an immense challenge. To do so, Siegel devised a game: She’d set out and pick the closest nearby landmark – a stop sign, or a certain building – and whisper words of encouragement to herself as she walked in that direction. Once she’d arrived at the focal point, she’d praise herself generously and pick out the next target that would move her closer to her destination. After class, she’d navigate the same course in reverse. It was effective, but exhausting.
“My college years were extremely difficult,” she admits. “Nobody talked about this stuff in my college years and it wasn’t like you could go on Facebook and find a great podcast on depression. That stuff didn’t exist and it was really stressful for me. I had to just force myself to go places. It was a real struggle, it really was. I was very, very sick.”
Having always excelled in the sciences in high school, she majored in psychology, “really hoping I could figure out why I was so depressed all the time.” But in fact, it was her extracurricular activities, in particular singing in several choirs, that provided the most therapeutic benefit. She did her last semester of school in Australia, hoping her problems couldn’t follow her if she went as far away in the world as possible. Though that proved to be “absolutely wrong,” she still managed to graduate just one semester past her original target date.
After graduation, she took a job with AmeriCorps and was assigned to work for the federal Department of Social Services in Colorado. The work was intended to further her intention to work in the psychology department of a children’s hospital, helping young patients cope with their procedures. But she also began acting and singing in local community theater productions and ended up finding “a new joy in my life.”
“It was amazing,” she recalls. “When I did these shows, everything sort of went away for a while. Suddenly I’d found something that made my life make sense.”
She left AmeriCorps, returned to Maryland and enrolled in a musical theater program. She also saw a new doctor who prescribed lithium. When she asked why, the doctor said, “Because you’re bipolar,” to which Siegel replied, “No, I’m not.”
But the more she thought it over, the more the diagnosis seemed not only plausible, but accurate. She remembered the dramatic mood swings she experienced in college, when she’d be deeply depressed one minute and “drinking too much, doing stupid things and being a real party girl” the next. She could even admit that when she was on stage, there was a certain mania that fueled her performances.
The lithium helped her feel more grounded and she accepted an acting position with a Quest Visual Theater, deaf theater company out of Washington D.C. that performed for hearing impaired audiences around the world. She loved the company and the work, but she also noticed a pattern.
“When we’d get to another country, I would become more and more manic throughout our stay and do really stupid things that made the company look bad,” she says. “And then I would fly home and disappear for weeks at a time because my depression would come back. So I definitely understood it was bipolar disorder.”
By that time she was also wearing hearing aids in both ears. Not only did that impact her self esteem – “I’m so vain! I’m an actress!” – but it also forced her to learn how to sing all over again. The total loss of hearing in one ear coincided with the manager of the theater company calling into his office and saying he would have to let her go because he couldn’t afford to pay her any longer. It was only in retrospect she realized that was simply his kind way of saying he and the company could no longer afford her erratic behaviors.
After leaving the theater company six years ago, Siegel moved to Sarasota, Florida, where her parents were now living, and underwent surgery to get a cochlear implant in her most affected ear. She also switched gears professionally, starting a pet sitting business after recognizing that “I think I like dogs better than people.”
Three years ago, however, her depression descended more extremely than ever before. Doctors could not identify a precipitating factor and prescribed a grab bag of medications and treatments. She cycled in and out of the hospital for the next two years, feeling suicidal much of that time.
Then the COVID pandemic hit and she became even more isolated due to the difficulty of trying to read the lips of anyone wearing a mask. The decision to move back in with her parents, who are “the most supportive people you could ever want to meet” proved to be a good one.
The family enjoyed swimming in the pool, bike riding and an assortment of other activities still possible during the lockdown. The stability and unconditional love were as therapeutic as anything a doctor could prescribe and Siegel’s history contributed to her resilience as well.
“I think I got through Covid better than some people because I know what it’s like to go through a difficult time,” Siegel says.
Thanks to her parents “who have been just extraordinarily helpful” and her team of doctors, Siegel has not returned to the hospital for the past two years. The Havanese pup she adopted and named Joey (after her grandfather) has also proven to be a lifesaver.
“I had dogs growing up, but they were never just my own,” she says. “And now I have my own and she’s just like my child. She knows everything I’m feeling.”
And Siegel has been feeling so well lately she’s recently set another goal: to compete in a sprint triathlon. As someone who has always refused to be defined by her diagnoses, continually raising the bar is one way she’s found to keep making progress. That’s why she says she’s often more discouraged by her hearing loss than her mental health challenge.
“The mental health challenge I’ve accepted will be with me the rest of my life and I can always continue to work on it,” she says. “The hearing, I’m struggling with. It’s thrown me for a loop a little bit because there’s nothing I can do for that problem, there’s no medication I can take to make it better.
Her advice to other who encounter someone with a challenge?
“If you want to help me with the hearing part, make sure you’re standing in front of me so I can see your lips and make your sure you’re talking loud enough. As for the mental health part, all I want people to say is ‘I know that must be a really hard thing for you to deal with and I’m here for you if you need anything.’
“It really doesn’t take much at all.”