Sonic (dis)comfort

I don’t know when the ringing began. This, even more than the sound itself, I find to be extremely frustrating - because everything comes from something, right? Everything has a source. But the ENT doesn’t know. The audiologist confirms that I have perfect hearing, a series of harsh beeps and raised hands, eyes closed as if swearing on my own eardrums ability to hear the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Maybe it’s TMJ, my providers collectively wonder, an even further tightening of the jaw spurred by therapy I underwent to correct and loosen my shoulders and neck - but the tension just finds a new place to rest. Add my dentist to the list of professionals shrugging, but agreeing to cast a mouthguard that I now where faithfully and mostly have learned how not to wake up in a pool of drool.

The ringing persists. I’m lucky, I think, because it’s not that bad - meaning, I don’t notice it too much as I go through my daily life. The volume varies, the sound a high whistling static, the same as if you left an old style TV on without an input in another room. It’s most noticeable in the quiet. Without any other stimulus, the sound sometimes feels like it’s filling the whole room, like my whole body is reverberating in the same harmonic. There’s no real escape in those moments other than to add other sound to the mix. Absolute silence is a gift I no longer get to enjoy.

This presents a double edged sword for someone like me who has slept lightly for as long as I can remember. Even in elementary school I was introduced to the white noise machine as a way to help me fall asleep. Babbling brook was my favorite, the cold, slightly metallic sound of water over rocks, repeating endlessly. I listened to it enough to memorize every moment in the audio loop, the bigger gurgles and small hissing sound of bubbles. There was comfort in the regularity, a sort of structure that my anxious, closeted self couldn’t find elsewhere. I preferred the sound of nature over the generic “white noise” sound - the one that reminded me only of the therapist office I sought to avoid, little brown machines in the corners seeking to cover the secrets kept behind closed doors.

Around the same time I was introduced to foam earplugs as another way to dampen the existence of Manhattan around me. These insulated against the clanging of the steam heat, the rustling or squeaking that might portend a mouse, the sirens blaring down York Avenue. Looking back, I remember the type of white noise these provided - not yet the hum of tinnitus, but a sort of emptiness. My comfort with earplugs has served me well in life - whether it’s navigating a cramped, shared bedroom in a college dorm or apartment, sharing a bed with a snoring lover, or living less than a block from the elevated subway as I do now, my trusty beige or pink or green lumps of foam have always been a source of peace and isolation. Until now, that is. Now, they provide a breeding ground for the incessant whir of my own anatomical failing. I am left to decide on any given night: do I choose the uncertain cacophony of the city around me? Or the certainty of an insatiable buzzing?

Being so aware of my hearing, however, is not without its moments of joy, joy in recognition of the fullness that often hangs in the air of everyday places. It’s not just the ocean or the mountain that contain their own soundtrack. Maybe it’s the laundromat, a place of constant motion, of water mixed with machines not unlike the babbling brook. A place where you could go at any time on any day and the sounds would be the same - even the TV seems set to the same infomercial not matter when you arrive. Or you notice the sounds of an airport in a different way, for the first time coming to appreciate the rhythm of moving sidewalks, gate change announcements, and rolling luggage. Even the hated subway holds its own melody, the clacking of boots on platforms, the recurring pitches of trains slowing down or speeding up, the chime of doors closing or opening - a song of a city in motion. I find a type of sonic comfort in these moments, moments where I allow myself to indulge in hearing every detail rather than focus on pretending not to hear for the sake of ignoring the tinnitus.

I’m scared of losing my hearing. A combination of bad genetics, too many pop/punk concerts as a teenager, a lifetime of headphones, too many years in the loudest city in the world…the odds seem a bit stacked against me. Or maybe the fear isn’t about losing my ability to hear - it’s about gaining something, a ringing more loud than I can ignore. Sometimes the tinnitus appears as a moment of complete loss of hearing, like water suddenly overfilling the drum, a pressure like a dam about to break. It’s in these moments that I ponder what I would do if that sensation were to become the norm, a question I have no answer to. All I can do is pause - pause and enjoy the sounds all around me.

Matthew Kastellec