Remember those old TVs we had, with cathode ray tubes shooting electrons against the screen?
I would notice it right after I switched it on – a high pitched tone that rang in the air for a few minutes before fading into whatever program was playing. A tone caused by the “flyback transformer,” a transmitter in the television.
For me, that tone was also the sound of silence. When it was quiet, even if I was in another room, I would think the TV was on when it wasn’t. I never believed it was anything abnormal. When it was quiet we all heard a very soft version of the TV being on. Constantly.
In my early twenties I began to realize not everyone knew what I was talking about whenever I mentioned “the sound in our heads.” It was troubling to think I was hearing something other people weren’t; it was inevitable that one day someone would convince me that there was actually no “sound of silence” at all. They experienced no sound. Just the ambient sound of their surroundings. Silence was supposed to be silent.
Instead I heard a distant television and other people heard nothing. What the fuck? I wanted to hear nothing! So what if I was used to the television in my head? That didn’t stop it from annoying the shit out of me. And now, to suddenly know it wasn’t meant to be there… that was a tough reality to step into.
I had heard the word “tinnitus” before. As I grew up, my Mother was losing her hearing, so I was used to certain terms floating in and out of conversation from time to time. I didn’t understand exactly what tinnitus was until my epiphany, however, and I wish I could go back in time to erase the word from my mind. Back to a time it was just the “normal little sound in my head,” that one we all heard when it was quiet. Before it had a name.
If ignorance is bliss, then knowing can be sheer terror. The television in my head was a “condition,” a noise that I heard when there was no sound to be heard. Most people do not have tinnitus, affecting about 10% of the population. In a room of ten people, nine other people are able to enjoy complete peace and quiet while I must suffer. It wasn’t fair.
It will never go away. It may never get better. It’s gotten worse. It could keep getting worse. It’s never changed. It’s just the same 11 kHz tone which was once just one of life’s little mysteries. During the day it’s drowned out by other noises, but it’s still haunting me. It hovers in the background as I do everything I can focus my attention on literally anything else.
But when darkness falls, there’s no more escape.
It’s a screaming demon. Holding my hands over my ears won’t help. Going deaf wouldn’t help. It’s not really a sound at all. It’s all in the brain itself. The general understanding is that the brain is trying to replace sounds it can no longer hear and tinnitus is often a sign of actual hearing loss. My hearing is fine, however – it’s actually quite good – so it’s more likely that I suffer as a result of some sort of early and traumatic damage to my ears.
I had ear infections regularly as a child. Perhaps the demon was born back then. It could’ve been a medication I took for something else. Certain drugs are known to be ototoxic – toxic to the ear. Maybe I heard a very loud noise before I was able to even make memories of sounds. When I see small children at sporting events or loud concerts I feel anger and sympathy. I see a person possibly being setup for a lifetime of suffering. There is a staggering level of ignorance about the fragility of young ears. For that matter there’s also a staggering level of ignorance about how easy it is to damage adult ears.
There’s always the chance that I was born this way, but there doesn’t appear to be much research suggesting that’s possible. The simple fact is, once upon a time, I experienced silence, but it was long enough ago that I have no concept of it. No memory.
I try to convince myself that I am a bit lucky in that respect. If I’d spent the first 30 years of my life able to enjoy peace and quiet and then woke up suddenly with a sound that never went away, I might have gone insane. Depression, fear, anger, hopelessness – all of these things are common reactions for people who suddenly develop tinnitus later in life. But, to modify a line from the Batman villain, Bane, others merely adopted the noise. I was born into it, molded by it. I didn’t truly understand silence until I was a man.
Being “used to it” doesn’t change the fact that it’s torture. It’s gotten worse, which is a bit like having it start all over again. A combination of concerts, loud parties, and drugs with certain levels of ototoxicity have all contributed to a sudden rise in discomfort over the last few years. It’s almost completely my fault, which is the worst part. I love music and I used to go to so many live shows which only made things worse for me down the road. I have to be careful now, even if I’m just listening quietly with headphones. If I’m careless, the demon begins chasing me, screaming and clawing.
A little over a year ago I had my hearing tested by an audiologist. This wasn’t some simple hearing test you have done during a routine physical or something. This was a proper, thorough battery of tests. During this test I was put in a soundproof room and had noise cancelling earbuds placed in my ears. I was left by myself in “complete silence.”
I remember wanting to cry. I felt isolated and alone, trapped. I felt very small. The only thing I was aware of was the tinnitus. I had come face to face with the terrible glory of the demon’s might. It was deafening. If I should ever lose my hearing then that moment was a glimpse into my future. That moment was my ultimate nightmare.
I try and take better care of my ears these days. I am aware that hearing loss runs in the family, so I am keen to make sure I do not fall victim to that so easily. I know what lies ahead if I’m careless. The deafening wail of the haunted television in my brain.
I will not be able to endure that. That will be the end of me.
There is woefully little research being done with tinnitus, at least in comparison to other afflictions that affect similar percentages of the population. I feel like this has changed a little recently, in large part due to the huge numbers of military veterans returning from active duty with severe tinnitus symptoms. There’s a good chance you know a few people with tinnitus. Maybe reading this has made you realize that you have a little demon in your brain. I’m sorry for that.
If you would like to hear what my tinnitus sounds like, turn your volume down first, then click here. Gradually turn your volume up until you can just hear it in the background. It’s important to note that not everyone’s tinnitus is the same, some people here chirps, crickets, or even whooshing sounds. All of them are terrible.
If you want to learn more visit the American Tinnitus Association.