So…it’s official: I’ve got tinnitus. It’s probably no wonder, really. I began life in the pre-hearing protection era. I mowed lawns, saw the Who and Mission of Burma, and even for a short spell drove heavy equipment with never a thing pinning down my gorgeous, golden locks. I still play music loud in the car, in the shower. I will give myself this, though: I was never much of a headphones guy.
None of that may have even played a part, though, before you find yourself flinching in anticipation. This summer I took a terrific blow to the head which gave me as near an approximation of whiplash as makes no difference and to top it off, had an ear infection early this fall. Either one could be the culprit and if I had to bet, would put my money on the ear infection.
Don’t blame Mission of Burma. Never blame Mission of Burma.
The Magical Thinking part of my brain says, “You should never have told God all the things you’re afraid of.” For this, indeed, was a Top Twenty Dread. And God, in his continuing quest to toughen me up, to season me, if you will, before our great Reunion in the Sky, has duly been handing me these things from a silver platter one by one. I told you these things in confidence, God!
Tinnitus, you will be unhappy to learn, affects an amazingly high percentage of the population. It can come on with age, infection, injury, ear damage or even gradual hearing loss. Sometimes the brain, recognizing the inability of the ear to catch a certain frequency any more, will simply mirror the lost sound from the inside. What a chap, that brain!
I had laid in psychological stores before this latest, however. First, I had survived a jarring accident, one that had me vowing in the instant before impact that I’d take whatever kind of life survival would leave me with. Second, I have friends, young and old, who have tinnitus and I knew them at the outset of their tinnitus careers and have watched them bloom despite rocky starts. At first they looked haggard, worn, wan. Dark circles under the eyes. Weight loss. In a word, they looked put-upon. But then they learned to co-exist with it. I would solicitously ask how they did whenever we’d meet and their faces would switch from genial pleasure to looks of concern. “Don’t say its name,” they seemed to be implying. “Don’t wake the sleeping dragon. Did it hear us??”
Because that’s what you do. You defend yourself. You repack your attic, to coin a phrase. You stack the boxes in your mind up against the noise. You don’t studiously ignore it, because that’s not really ignoring, but you focus on other stimuli and your brain, you come gradually to realize, has the power to “lower the volume” on sounds it deems unimportant or too-regular. It’s not anywhere near as difficult as reading a book while the television’s on, in the long run.
I have to take a step back and make a few disclaimers before I go on, because I’m likely to offend certain other tinnitus sufferers, i.e. those who have it worse than me. The pitch of my own tinnitus is only fairly high and not very insistent in volume. Someone who reads this and has something like a steam whistle going off in his ears all the time may find this column a bit cavalier and a mite too Let’s-put-on-a-show! To those people I take off my cap and bow reverently. You are the true Supermen and I am only a boy in these matters. But…I may be able to help some, so let me get back to it.
Had I contracted this in another era, the impact of tinnitus would be far greater. Were it the seventeenth century, having what is essentially a tiny pitch-pipe breaking the silence all day would have been maddening in the extreme. As it is, there has never been a better time to come down with this malady (or any other, I suppose). All around us are leaf blowers, servers, refrigerators with compressors and icemakers, air conditioners, laptop fans, furnaces, fire alarms, sirens, highway noise, bathroom fans and so on. These approximate the sounds of tinnitus around us all throughout the day anyway. If you can co-exist with them, then you already have a pretty good set of coping tools in place to help you co-exist with tinnitus. These different pitches and hums and whines don’t seem to bother us unless we’re the types who damn and blast this modern age and the resulting loss of the sounds of nature-only.
I have been that man in the past. I will not be him in the future, because this fine, modern age has taken up what looks like permanent residence in my head.
Some people who first get tinnitus walk around their houses in the night with flashlights to try to determine the origin of the sound. They’ll put their ears against everything with a motor, plugged in or not. Eventually it dawns on them. Because nighttime is the quietest time, we notice it more then, especially at first. I woke with mine the very first time, too. “What woke me?” I wondered, for I’m lucky to be a heavy sleeper. I could detect no movement around me, nothing outside the window. I pushed out my chin and the pitch changed. “Oh,” I thought. “Another gift from the silver tray.”
In the day, one hardly notices it. There’s too much going on, too much activity, too much talking and driving and background music, ringing phones and elevator bells. The loss of sleep is what you have to fight against. Insomniacs are probably the unhappiest of all the -iacs, so try to remember what I tell you next.
I knew from my friends that your brain will minimize the attention it pays to the sound over time. I don’t know exactly how it does this, but it eventually leaves it to simmer and puts it at Priority Item #10,876 on the list of things it wants to think about. At my level of whine and volume, this is do-able. I refer you again to the rather neat metaphor of the attic packed against the problem. The brain can pile endless layers of silt and gravel and sand and whatnot (again: metaphors) over against it so as to almost totally bury it.
Remember when I’d ask after my friends’ tinnitus and they’d practically wince? That’s because whenever you THINK about it, the layers peel away to reveal the One True Sound. “Yep,” you say to yourself. “Still there.” YOU HAVE TO GO LOOKING FOR IT. That’s a great thing. I do this sometimes in the night, in the hopes that with the healing of the ear infection, the tinnitus will eventually depart, too. I can hear the fridge and icemaker downstairs, the furnace beavering away in the basement, the sounds of the wind in the trees outside and the odd car passing one street over. Then I can isolate it. I give it about three seconds of attention.
Then I bury it again. It never fails. Think about it and the rest of the onion lifts off to show the still constant noise at the center (again with the metaphors). Forget about it, or let the mind re-pack and re-prioritize it, and it’s almost as if it isn’t there.
Some of you will have this visited upon you. Many of you, actually, if the numbers are to be believed. I want you all to do well. I hope this little chat will help you to do just that.