My ears are burning

Ringing, actually. Like millions of others, I suffer from tinnitus, in my case a continuous squeal of high-pitched hissing, sounding much like the steam valve in a turn-of-the-century radiator I lived with in my first one-room apartment in New York.

Tinnitus affects millions of people, usually appearing in middle age, and rarely disappearing of its own accord. Though the sound appears to be coming from my ears, it is actually generated by the primary auditory cortex of my brain. Speculation is that such brain activity arises due to hearing loss, and is the brain’s way to replace missing frequencies. Hearing loss can be due to damage inflicted many years before the tinnitus begins. I remember attending a Chambers Brothers rock concert (famous for their hit song “Time”) in New York’s East Village when I was nineteen. My ears were ringing for days afterward, but then returned to normal. Could that possibly be the cause, and is it too late to sue The Fillmore East?

In any event, about five years ago my ears began to ring. At first, I assumed it would fade away, but after several days it became obvious that something had changed. In fact, the sounds seemed to be getting louder and more present, and became really annoying. We don’t fully appreciate silence until it is no longer available, and its loss was, and remains, enormous.

I’ve pined for silence, and have moved through the usual phases of grief for its loss. Initially, I felt panicky and thought I would go mad. I went to an audiologist for testing, and she confirmed my hearing loss; not serious, but all in the upper frequencies. As for the tinnitus, she sympathized, and wished me good luck. Anger was my next response, though anger directed at my own brain was not particularly helpful. Researched tinnitus extensively, and in the end everything pointed to one inescapable fact: I would have to get used to it.

Next up was deep sadness, even some depression. There are times of day during which the hissing and ringing dominates what I hear and the ordinary noises of the world fade quietly behind. Waking up at night is one such time, and in the silence of the dark such sounds are very loud indeed. Ultimately, I knew that acceptance was my only refuge, but embracing acceptance is not easy and takes time.

For a while, I decided to realign my relationship to the sound, to view it as a cosmic sound-track usually hidden from human beings. I decided I was hearing the secret harmony of heaven, and rather than trying to escape it I embraced it. Because this was an artificial self-created narrative, ultimately it was boring and I moved on. Today, after five years, I just don’t care about the sound so much. It’s always there if I look for it, but I’ve learned to relate to it as no big deal. Much of the time, I don’t notice it at all.

I’d like to think that since my brain generates my tinnitus my brain can stop it, and studies on brain plasticity show that actual structural changes can be made to the brain through conscious activity. Such an approach seems to work with pain, so I’m meditating on tinnitus until we are good friends and can say goodbye.

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