I was awakened from a deep sleep by an alarm. I fumbled in the drawer of my bedside table, my foggy mind trying to recall what I needed to be preparing for this morning, but I couldn’t find the phone. I leaned over to my husband’s side of the bed but his alarm wasn’t on. An early riser, he’d already left for work. I opened one eye and looked at the clock. 5:35am. The sound was still blaring, as clarity slowly surpassed my dream-state and I realized, I don’t have anything on my schedule until 9 this morning. But what the heck is that sound? I looked out the window but didn’t see the flashing lights of a car alarm, I checked the smoke detector in my room and in the hall. Then I came to the realization, the siren sound was literally inside my left ear!
It was incessant and I was freaking out. What if this is forever? My new normal. I will absolutely lose my mind! It went on for at least half-an-hour. I called my husband, putting the phone up to my non-dominant right ear. “Honey, if I’m dead when you get home, just know it is because I was literally driven insane.”
Then miraculously, the alarm stopped. I was briefly relieved, until I realized it had been replaced by a buzzing sound. In both ears.
It is the constant irritating whine of a florescent bulb. It isn’t white noise, but more of a neon chartreuse in its annoyance. A colicky baby, the size of the tiny toy in a Mardi Gras king cake buried deep in my head and screaming. All the time.
It strikes me that our lives are filled with noise and bluster. Politicians shouting, social media screaming “Look at me! Look at me!” Thousands of entertainment platforms, television, movies, webisodes and podcasts vying for our attention. Even the voices in our heads telling us we’re not good enough, smart enough, accomplished enough, generous enough. Or maybe that part is just me.
I often turn to meditation to quiet the general noise in my head, but now I can barely recall the lack of sound I used to meditate to find. As I sit in lotus position, the buzz nags at me like the highest note on a violin – an E5 played by a novice who refuses to put down her bow.
I go to my doctor. “Have you been to any concerts lately?” he asks. “Nothing recently, though I do go to several events a year, but my seats are rarely good enough to be close to a speaker,” I note. “Well, tinnitus can come on suddenly after a lifetime of exposure,” he says. Apparently, I join the ranks of musicians like Pete Townsend, Bob Dylan, Chris Martin, Phil Collins, Ozzy Osborne and Bono, even though I can’t play an instrument and my singing sounds a bit like the annoying violin I mentioned earlier.
One time in college I was on stage with Modern English at a classy joint called The Brewery. Evidently a very drunk crowd can appreciate even an off-key chorus of “I’ll Stop the World and Melt with You.” My performance was good enough to earn a shout out from the DJ at WKIX, though it probably had more to do with my fishnets than my vocals. I did create a little feedback when I grabbed the mic and crowd surfed for a few bars. The sound of feedback does resemble the current sound in my ears. But that was 1987. Could the ramifications from my 5 minutes of fame be latent for 33 years?
“Have you seen fireworks or been to a shooting range recently?” Well, no. It’s been seven months since the 4th of July and I’m not a fan of guns. Turns out, Ronald Regan developed tinnitus after a gun was shot near his ear during filming of 1939s Code of the Secret Service.
At least I’m not alone. Barbra Streisand has had tinnitus since she was a child. Martin Luther King, Jr. suffered from it too. Even Alex Trebek of Jeopardy-fame deals with tinnitus. I love Alex Trebek. I wish tinnitus also came with knowledge and respect.
Clearly, that isn’t the case. Recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Rush Limbaugh also has tinnitus. Shit. For a while there I thought I was in good company. I really wish I hadn’t read that.
I visit the audiologist. In a submarine-type chamber, I push a hand-held clicker every time I hear a ping or a ding through the din of my own incessant chartreuse buzz. The tinnitus is louder in this silent, enclosed space. I long for the distraction of the sounds of daily life.
It seems I have minor hearing loss in my left ear. They’ll check it again in six months. I don’t feel like I’ve been missing words or straining to hear through the persistent hairdryer on high in my head. Afterall, I still very clearly hear my husband’s snoring. I put earplugs in which make head hullabaloo seem even louder, still his grizzly bear impersonation breaks through and keeps me awake into the wee hours.
“Be honest,” I ask the audiologist, “Is this high-pitched sound permanent?”
“It is hard to tell,” she says. “There is no way to gauge the degree of noise that is caused by nerves misfiring in the brain. Sometimes it goes away in 12-16 weeks,” she offers hope. It has been eleven. “Sadly, if it doesn’t disappear on its own there really isn’t anything we can do. But we have support groups.”
I imagine sitting in a circle with a group of strangers. “Hi, I’m Suzanne and I have tinnitus.” “Hi Suzanne,” they all say as we go around the group and describe the vuvuzela screaming in our heads.
And I wonder, if a support group had been available to Vincent Van Gogh, would he have cut off his ear after a horrible bout of tinnitus? Since the sound is deeper than the flaps on the side of my head, I imagine Van Gogh got no relief from the cricket concert performing on the stage that was his eardrum.
“How loud is your car radio typically set?” asks the Ear Nose and Throat specialist during our phone appointment. Ok, I admit that I have been known to turn up my radio and sing rather loudly to Guns and Roses. But I have the factory-installed sound-system that buzzes if I get to a 7 or an 8. I haven’t outfitted my Prius with sub-woffers and I generally listen to NPR.
“Do you use power tools in your job?” There have been times where I’d have loved to carve out a better plot in my stories with a jackhammer, but no.
“Have you been in a car accident? Hit your head? Been concussed in anyway?” I shake my stable head filled with my non-concussed but noisy brain.
“The ototoxic chemicals in cigarettes can cause tinnitus,” he shares, “Do you smoke?” “No.”
“Are you on any medications?” He goes through a list and again, the answer is no.
The Doctor recommends giving up caffeine and alcohol. I am willing to try anything. After a three-week joyless trial run of life without coffee, chocolate and wine, I still hear the active bee hive. Thankfully that wasn’t the answer. But then, since it wasn’t the answer, what is?
When Rumi said, “Listen to silence. It has so much to say,” I’m guessing he didn’t have tinnitus. But I wonder, if 50 million Americans suffer from ceaseless sound, what is our version of silence trying to say?
I try reframing the sound, considering it as a constant companion, one that joins me on hikes, one that lets me know I am not alone. When my kids left home, I feared the silence of my empty house. Maybe this was the answer to my prayers.
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