I come awake but I keep my eyes closed as I wait and listen. For a few moments, there is nothingness—and then it starts.
First a hum, low at first but becoming higher in pitch as a deep rumble starts, giving me two sounds that don’t even have the courtesy to harmonize.
Then, with a slight shift of my head—or perhaps it’s the panicked realization that another day of noise is about to start—the whoosh sweeps in. Not like waves on a beach—more like a waterfall but without the grandeur, the beauty or the pleasure. This whoosh is high frequency and sometimes it lasts for only a few seconds and sometimes longer. Then it disappears for a while until the next time a sudden noise—anything over, say, 60dB—or head movement sparks it again. Sometimes it’s just random.
The noise comes uninvited and unwanted. Dorothy Parker, the famed American wit, would exclaim at the sound of her apartment doorbell, “What fresh hell can this be?”
I can tell you that this fresh hell is head noise—the sound of my tinnitus. I’ve had it before, but infrequently and in short bouts; only once was it even very bothersome. But it has been my companion now since early June, more or less constant in my right ear, which is the one with no real usable hearing and with which I scored a measly 8% word recognition at a recent hearing test.
“How many words did I get right?” I asked my audiologist.
“Two out of 25—you did better than I thought you would.”
“Sight and keep.”
“I guessed right with those, did I? Yay me. I knew ‘keep’ was in there somewhere. It always is. Like my tinnitus.”
Apparently there are a million or so reasons that could cause this fresh hell. Blood flow disorder, caffeine, salt, alcohol, high blood pressure, something growing on my acoustic nerve, cochlear hair cells waging war or some serious confusion between the inner ear and my brain. Oh yes, and stress. It’s always stress, isn’t it?
Once, when listening to someone describe their horrible tinnitus, I remember thinking, “Boy, am I ever lucky I don’t have THAT!” But now that lightning bolt has hit me and I admit to feeling a little outraged. But did I honestly think I was immune from it? That I’d paid my dues with a lifelong hearing loss, that things wouldn’t (or shouldn’t or couldn’t) get any worse? Did I expect a reward for becoming Ms. Hearing Health Advocate—like being spared the ear-thunder?
I guess I did.
Last week, during a particularly noisy period, I decided to donate my cochlea to science. But I want to do it now—before I’m dead. Take it, please, and perhaps replace it with an artificial one. Friends with cochlear implants say they no longer have tinnitus, but is that true of all CI users? The other option is a snip-snip of the nerve, but I read in the latest issue of Canadian Hearing Report (Vol. 10, No.3 2015, page 9) that of those people who seek relief by having their VIII nerve surgically severed—30% still suffer from their tinnitus! OK, forget that, but if this head hell doesn’t go away, I will ask for a CI and I promise never to complain about it. I would shave my head and wear a magnet with the manufacturer’s name flashing in neon lights. But even with that level of commitment, I doubt I would qualify in my province for an implant, because I function so highly, they say.
But for now, what can I do about it? I’ve checked some of the standard suspects: my blood pressure is normal, I go light on the alcohol, caffeine and salt, I’ve started increasing my water intake and I take deeper breaths. (I don’t know whether the last two are supposed to help, but they sound restorative, don’t they?)
I need to stay calm and seek help. I have an appointment tomorrow with an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) and hopefully he’ll say something more reassuring than learn to live with it. Maybe they discovered a miraculous cure while I was away camping last week. Failing that, hopefully he’ll suggest an MRI to see if anything nasty is visible and fixable. He may suggest tinnitus management therapies which work differently for different people.
Surely one of them will work for me? I’ll keep you posted.