While part of me wonders how best to describe this to you, I think it’s safe to assume that anyone can immediately grasp the maddening truth of it: My left ear has been hearing a high-pitched whistling sound, something akin to a dog whistle, for the past two months. It is ceaseless; from the moment I wake up to the last dreary second before I lose any perceptible sense of consciousness, my thoughts and the aural makeup of the world around me are accompanied by the ringing, the whistling, the ever-modulating noise that seems not to come from nowhere.
Perhaps it’s all in my head; literally, a malfunction in the nerve-receptors that tell my brain it’s hearing something in my ear. I suppose it would be a relief to have that clarified, to receive some sort of answer as to why this is happening. The sad truth of tinnitus is that even if I managed to find some identifiable cause, there exists no consistent cure of any kind. If you get tinnitus, generally speaking, it’s with you until it decides to leave. It is likely to leave at some point, but perhaps I’m part of the fifteen percent of the tinnitus-afflicted population who get it forever, carrying it with me through moments of excitement, boredom, romance and sadness, all the way until death.
There’s a sense in which it truly becomes a passenger in your life. In the early weeks I tried to ascribe positivity to the noise, thinking of it as the machine in my head that kept my body running; as long as I hear it, I know I’m alive. Perhaps that logic falters when I sleep, which is accomplished with the help of smartphone apps that play rain and thunder noises. Once or twice I’ve fallen asleep without the noises playing, but I slowly feel it’s becoming a necessity in my sleep space. With tinnitus ringing in your ear, noise becomes the devil.
It gets better with time, at least perceptually. I increasingly find myself getting through longer and longer stretches of time without noticing the noise. If I’m occupied in some form of engaging task – be it playing a videogame or tackling some complex problem at work – I function just like normal. Atlantic editor and author Scott Stossel’s recent book My Age of Anxiety, a dissection of our collective history with anxiety, raises a similar argument for combatting anxiety and panic, frequently reiterating the importance of an occupied mind in overcoming mental and emotional distress. Make yourself busy enough and you’ll almost forget you have an affliction.
This strategy works, but there’s a caveat: When you’re occupied, you never get to stop and enjoy the absence of your tinnitus. To notice the absence of the ringing is to take a moment of reflection, the act of which immediately brings the noise right back to the foreground. I wake up each day hoping to hear nothing, and the best I can do is be too pre-occupied to care. It robs me of pure silence, of relief from the sound. I don’t know that I miss the silence itself, so much as I miss the luxury of having it when I wanted it. Some of the more terrifying and lonely moments of my life were spent in the deafening quake of silence, and I’ve infrequently wished to situate myself in its presence. From that perspective, I’ve perhaps discovered the most luxurious affliction possible.
Which isn’t to sugarcoat things too much; my first couple weeks with the noise were wracked with anxiety, minor panic attacks and moments of despair dark enough to not be proper in sharing. The noise, so foreign and unwelcome, seemed to infect the very processes that allowed me to function, no longer allowing me the simple pleasure of eating, sleeping, or even thinking. As someone who never pined for a quiet home out in the country, I can positively reassert that now more than ever, I want and need the noise and bustle of the city to keep me company.
In an attempt to find the root of the problem, I was recently subjected to an MRI scan. Thanks to the strange scheduling of the machine, my scan was at 1:30 am. The entire experience was surreal, waking up at 1:00 am to drive downtown and sit in a futuristic tube of magnetic brain-scan equipment. The cacophony of noise was initially overwhelming, and the tube itself far tighter than I had expected. Without my glasses and bereft of hearing, I had no choice but to lay motionless and let the experience happen, mentally forming the machine’s endless sounds into musical notes whenever they rhythmically coalesced. I gained an even greater appreciation for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “IRM”, a song written as an attempt to capture the feeling of being inside the MRI machine [IRM is the French name for an MRI].
It is now April 3rd, two months to the day of when I first noticed the ringing while sitting at my desk at work. I still vividly remember the day before I heard the ringing, spending time with friends, watching the Super Bowl, playing board games, huddling close to my wife at the bus stop to travel back across town near midnight. There seems something so melodramatically carefree about those moments. Multiple medical tests later and I still hear the ringing and I still seem to be suffering from minor earaches in both ears. It’s nothing but a luxury that my right ear seems generally un-afflicted, though the random moments once every day or two in which it rings for 5 or 6 seconds are always cause for momentary panic. Perhaps I can learn more from the lessons Stossel discusses in My Age of Anxiety, that health is a combination of mind and body, that your work and your life cannot be extricated and quarantined from one another. Perhaps this ringing is a call to myself, to spend more time pursuing my goals, to not simply surrender.
And yet here I am, writing again, at last, waiting for this final sentence to pour itself out of me, and all I can hear is the ringing.