Tinnitus: Planes, Trains and Other Inaudible Madness

12 March 2016 

“What did you say?” I ask with a tinge of disgust, “My ears are screaming right now.” 

That’s what I tell my husband and children, when the sounds of tinnitus are unbearably loud, drowning out nearly every other sound being detected by my cochlear implant speech processor. The sounds, themselves, are nothing like a screaming human being, really, but I can’t put the madness that is happening in the space between my ears, 24 hours a day, into better words. It’s as if every nerve in my head has a voice, and intensely panicked, is howling wildly to alarm me about impending danger. But there isn’t any. It’s just a beautiful, sunny day on a peaceful trail in the woods, an empty aisle in a quiet food store, a conversation with a friend in a coffee shop, a heartfelt moment at a child’s dance recital, or a soft pillow when the lights go out. Nonetheless… the grating noise fiercely persists. 

“The trains are zipping through the station” is another phrase I frequently use to communicate with my family that I’m having a particularly intense tinnitus moment, because the sounds are a mix of a similar hissing, whirling, whistling, ringing, raging, static-y ugliness, which can be heard at 30th Street Station. The sounds fluctuate in volume, but in my case, the mix is generally overpowering of all other environmental sounds. Like an insolent boss, it wants my undivided attention. On great days, it’s distracted, and its loudness can decrease to equal that of an industrial freezer, humming in the background; on the worst days, its volume rivals that of a church organ or airplane engine, and it refuses to let me attend to anything else without acknowledgement of its control. 

Though I did coincidentally lose my hearing as a 12-year-old, from what was years later diagnosed as auto-immune inner ear disease, tinnitus is not always associated with deafness, and mine ironically predates any sign of hearing loss, although, it was not nearly as intense in my childhood as it is now. I remember when I was about 4 years old, lying in bed, newly aware that I could hear something that other people couldn’t, and asking my mom, “Don’t you hear those whistles?” Her perplexed expression was the response, and is still the reaction of most people to whom I try to explain it. 

At this point, there is very little that can be done to treat the condition. Everyone’s case is different, but when it’s particularly intense for me, and I’m teetering on the verge of tears, exercise often gives me the boost I need to push through the immediate hurdle, and I’ve discovered that, more than anywhere else, I find peace on the beach, where nature has my back. The crashing waves, singing seagulls and whipping wind give tinnitus’s volume a run for its money. Most days, though, when I’m nowhere near a beach, and relief is out of reach, in order to persist, it takes strength and fortitude, which I receive through prayer. A good, old-fashioned counting of the blessings, as well as the empathetic awareness that most people treading the earth are fighting battles, some obvious and some invisible, is a very real method for gaining perspective. 

To sample the sounds of tinnitus, visit: 

http://www.hearing.nihr.ac.uk/public/auditory-examples-sounds-of-tinnitus 

For more information about tinnitus, visit the American Tinnitus Association at: 

www.ata.org

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