Tinnitus. Mine turned on with sudden violence, like a brash, bare light bulb or a shrill phone call popping into a darkened bedroom at night. And the on/off switch—some kind of single-use neurological relay the evolutionary purpose of which will never be clear—then disappeared from the wall, along with all means of egress, gone where neither herbalist nor otolaryngologist, neither white coat nor life coach, shall ever find it. The light is just on now, and the room doorless, forevermore. What do you mean you can’t see it?
By all rights, my tinnitus should have come from too many years of standing on cramped club stages with my head on a level plane with the crash cymbals of exuberant or unskilled drummers, and if I had to estimate the percentage of tinnitus cases due to intemperately struck Sabians and Zildjians, it would be in the low double digits. (Aside: young players, always use at least an earplug in the drum-facing ear—it will help with your vocal pitch as well).
At least I could have claimed it as a battle scar, to the extent that anyone cares to hear the rock stories of an old man, but no. My one-note soprano companion debuted—stridently, like a diva assuming the stage—in the fall of 2007, the apparent result of an ear infection or, more likely, of the combined antibiotic and steroidal drops used to treat one. And there she was, of pure, unwavering, pitch, an infinite pedal point, breathing circular through a delicate mouth always open, electric eyes fixed on me, her one true one. Why, shhh, you can hear her right now as soon as this truck passes, or as soon as this peeper cycles through its coded phases.
But you can’t, and that really gets at the mystery of misery of this condition. Our consideration of the causes of tinnitus is per force tentative and speculative because, on some profound level, there is nothing there, nothing to detect, nothing to study. The medical discussion of tinnitus has been based almost entirely on the anecdotal reports of patients, medical science’s dirtiest and least favorite kind of data.
No trained ear will ever register this sound in my head, nor any high-tech pressure-detecting needle budge in response to this the song of my life. It is hard to express the sickening, isolating effect of this fact. No one else will ever perceive it and share this round room with me. As if I didn’t already feel enough like a solipsistic universe unto myself, subject to the gravitational influence of other nearby rotating bodies that I can’t quite make out in the blackness of space. I am lord of the ringing.
But If you start to sentimentalize and tragedize your tinnitus—“for I shall never taste the silence of the night sky again”(pronounced ah-GAYN), then you’re really in for it. You’re ruined. Instead, I recommend considering all the rest of your reality as something equally unverifiable and incommunicable. Imagine all you perceive as your brain and sensory apparatus involved in a complex act of imitative modeling based on incomplete input, and not as the direct experience of creation through the open, undistorted tubes of your eyes and ears.
Your tinnitus—this broken theremin, this single, looped measure of bel canto, this alarm of life—is probably as close as you are going to get to the music of the spheres. No one ever said it would be beautiful by human aesthetic standards, certainly not 21st-century American human aesthetic standards.
If tinnitus is killing you, my only advice is let it. Let it kill, specifically, the part of your brain that cares. Worked for me.
I joke, but with the authority and the jaundice of someone who’s ears have been ringing continuously for almost exactly thirteen years. My tinnitus is diagnosed as moderate to severe — no gentle flauting of the fringes — and is accompanied by significant wear and tear hearing loss in the busy 2.5 kHz range, wherein lies, among much other information, the articulation of human speech. Fact is, as much as it grieved me for years, as much as it got worse and worse while I enjoyed what may be the pinnacle decade of my life as a performing musician, I was born for this affliction.
A white noise source gets me through the night, and I can get by without it. The grueling programs of habituation, in which one trains one’s brain to not notice a particular stimulus, didn’t feel worth it to me. I’ve walked by every tinnitus virtual quack stand in the world without even bothering to look at the pamphlet. There are sides to me paradoxically sanguine and pre-defeated. In my head, I see myself as a broken thing accumulating injuries and scars, dragging a gimpy leg (both legs are fine), spitting and offering a few curses as he continues to do whatever the hell he pleases.
A new study by Hubert Lim, et al., at the University of Minnesota, reports promising results from a tinnitus treatment that targets brain cells that are firing abnormally. And zapping them. Studies in both humans and animals seem to confirm that stimulating touch-sensitive neurons in the tongue or face can activate neurons in the auditory system and that pairing these zaps with sounds appears to rewire brain circuits associated with tinnitus.
Ok. I do care. Maybe one day, ashen and bent, I shall taste again the still silence of the winter night sky. I am not holding my breath. I just assume and accept that this telephone in my head rings always and only for me.