I often sit on a stool at the long bar-top counter in my favorite coffee shop. From here, I can see everyone. Theoretically, I could speak with them, too, although these days only a few will leave the glow of their screens or the beat in their earbuds. Few enough, anyway, that we tend to shy away from those who do talk, as though we suspect there must be something a little wrong with them. What kind of sociopath speaks to strangers?
Me, apparently. My tinnitus, the slight but constant ringing I hear, prevents me from wearing headphones comfortably. And that leaves me vulnerable to the chatty and the lonely, the people who just want to talk. I’ve conversed several mornings with a local Raleigh man. He’s a little nutty, prone to conspiracy theories and deep suspicions. Climate change is probably a hoax, he told me during our first chat. QAnon is going about it the wrong way, he added, but they may be on to something.
These are not the kind of discussions I have in graduate school, or anywhere else for that matter. It was just a surprisingly enjoyable conversation with a smart, peculiar, and misinformed man—with a human being of a kind I don’t meet often. Our conversations have continued. They’ve ranged from the weakness of the dollar to his difficulty dating as a forty-year-old. And I would never have spoken to him if my ears didn’t ring. My damaged hearing has helped me listen to strangers. The need to shift my focus away from the persistent high-pitched ringing, the need to be intentional with my attention, has had the curiously reverse effect of expanding my awareness of the surrounding world. I notice more by forcing myself not to notice my tinnitus.
About forty-five million Americans have tinnitus, according to the American Tinnitus Association. Some sufferers hear a pulse, their heartbeat sounding in their ear. Others, the most common type, hear a constant high-frequency tone. In its most severe forms, the perception of sound is interpreted by the brain as music or even language—aural hallucination of a song or a monologue with no end.
I’m lucky enough to have the mild form, a faint but steady tone somewhere around 830 hertz (about G-sharp in the second octave above middle C). Tinnitus is not a disease exactly. It’s more a symptom, caused sometimes by hearing loss, obstruction in the middle ear, trauma, or ototoxic drugs. Often there is no known cause at all. And there is no cure.
I first noticed my tinnitus while in college. Having become interested in astronomy, I convinced a date to drive with me out to a distant field, far from the light-polluted cities with a telescope and blanket in the trunk, so we could view the Milky Way. As we focused on the red supergiant Betelgeuse, shoulder of the hunter Orion, I became aware of a noise increasing in volume until it occupied all my attention.
“Do you hear that ringing?” I asked. My date gave me a puzzled look.
I doubt I developed tinnitus that night. It was likely just the first time I was in a space quiet enough to notice. I can’t be certain what caused the ringing. It may be genetic, since my parents both have the symptom. More probably, it derives from years of competitive soccer, where being able to block a fast soccer ball with our heads was a sign of status. We looked down on those who protected themselves with cushioned headguards or refused to head the ball. Even if these serial concussions didn’t contribute to my tinnitus, they didn’t help. The acne medication I took a year before my tinnitus became noticeable is another possible culprit. But if the medication is to blame, the ringing went unnoticed at first. In those days, I worked near loud machines and lived in a noisy low-rent frat house.
“I've had to learn to accept tinnitus as part of myself. It is no longer a symptom. It is permanent. It is me, and it shapes how I perceive the world.”
I recognize that I do not suffer the way people with life-threatening illnesses and physical disabilities do. Most of the time my tinnitus is simply annoying, like the mosquito that finds its way into your room at night while you are trying to sleep. On some occasions, however, the annoyance has pushed me into a feedback loop of negativity. The difficulty has been to find ways to limit the effect. I study in places with enough background noise to mask the G-sharp. I reduce my exposure to noise a few hours before I go to sleep. I’ve had to learn to accept tinnitus as part of myself. It is no longer a symptom. It is permanent. It is me, and it shapes how I perceive the world. The best way I have found to manage the condition is a kind of deliberate inattention, training myself to turn away from the inner noise and out toward the genuine sounds of the world.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s well-known story, “Harrison Bergeron,” a boy genius is required to wear a radio in his ear as an artificial impairment that scatters his thoughts every twenty seconds. But I’ve found that my own inescapable noise has become almost the opposite of an impairment. It has forced me to expose myself to aspects of life I would have missed if I were absorbed in the images on my phone or the melodies in my earbuds.
In their way, my peers, wrapped up in their hyper-personalized videos and music, suffer from a kind of artificial tinnitus. You see them everywhere, harmonizing to one of thousands of songs in their playlist while driving, listening to an audiobook at the grocery store, or catching the latest episode of a true-crime podcast while on their morning walk. They distract themselves from the sound of the world by the noise in their ears.
Over the past few years, I find myself rarely using my earbuds in the hope of protecting the hearing I have left and preventing the ringing from growing louder. This choice often leaves me as one of the few people on an airplane available to converse with other passengers. Or to chat with a Raleigh eccentric in a coffee shop. One of my friends even worries that I’m becoming a sociopath, to use their words, by not listening to music while lifting at the gym.
“I have opened myself up in ways that often seem all but lost. I now have chances to form small connections with those around me.”
But in meeting other people, most who are older than me, who for whatever reason remain AirPod-free, I’ve laughed about Don Quixote’s adventures with a theologian from Loyola on a flight to Denver. I’ve learned while sitting in a cafe about a barista’s dream to open her own coffeehouse. While waiting together at the counter of a car mechanic’s shop, I’ve spoken with a plumber about the difficulty of finding reliable workers. Such conversations are not novel or notable but they are human. Rather than being wrapped up inside my head, listening to a playlist on repeat, I have opened myself up in ways that often seem all but lost. I now have chances to form small connections with those around me.
This past year, I took a spill on my bicycle, slamming my head on a Raleigh street. Worse than the concussions I used to get while playing soccer, this latest concussion forced me to isolate myself in darkness for two weeks. In this isolated state, I became even more aware of the tintinnabulation in my head. The mental fog eventually lifted but the ringing did not fall back to its prior volume. It was louder, much louder, and the chatting with others I had learned to appreciate became more difficult. Even my thoughts were harder to hear.
A friend gave me a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. While I read Waugh’s story of a writer on a sea voyage driven to the point of insanity by his severe tinnitus, I had to listen to my own tinnitus. Fortunately, I never reached the condition of Pinfold, hearing the voices in his head plot his demise. But I can at least understand why the character (and Waugh himself, in the experiences he fictionalized) did everything he could to flee the ship and evade his mental stowaways. I have worked hard to eliminate distractions from my workspace and my life, but I am left with one: the noise I cannot cast off.
Maybe all of us have noises in our heads we wish weren’t there. It’s easy to be consumed by the noise, making it central to experience and allowing negative thoughts to take hold. Recovery isn’t quite the right word for managing conditions that don’t go away, but there is a kind of getting better through acceptance, a way of easing the effect. The first step is being intentional with our attention.
Turning away from the hallucinatory noise in the mind generates awareness of the sounds of the real world. By limiting internal attention—for me, deliberately excluding the ring of the tinnitus—we can produce an increase of external attention.
From earbuds to COVID masks, communication barriers seem to define our times. My experience of tinnitus has been debilitating at times, especially since my bike crash. But dealing with the condition has also proved, in its way, a good thing. Listening, even the willingness to listen, seems rarer than it used to be. Though my condition has grown worse, the tinnitus has at least given me one gift. I feel more human. And that, in its own way, is a kind of recovery.