My life as I knew it ended with a slosh. Way back in 2003, when I was a junior in college, I noticed a sloshing sound in my right ear. I decided to ignore it. This is rather shocking given my predisposition for always assuming the worst, but telling my parents and going to the doctor seemed like the least desirable options. I decided to wait out the weird sloshing and assumed that it would most likely go away in a day or two. To be safe, I went to Target that evening and scoured the limited ear care section. Since it sounded like liquid, I bought some drying drops. I squeezed them in my ear and hoped for silence. The sloshing prevailed.
Over the course of a week, the sounds in my ear became progressively worse. They escalated from the now familiar sloshing, to buzzing and ringing. I could no longer remain calm about it, and due to my overwhelming course load, it was becoming impossible to ignore. I was having trouble reading and my ear rang throughout my classes. Some days I could barely hear my teacher and classmates over the ringing. I had to tell my parents.
While my dad stayed calm about it (his list of diseases and ailments was long and established, so ringing in the ears barely phased him), my mother completely lost it. She assumed that I would be dead within the day, and alternated between crying over my imminent demise and yelling at me for upsetting her.
I went to the doctor, but he had no idea what was wrong with me. Here’s the trouble with tinnitus: It is a symptom, and it could be indicative of pretty much anything. There is no way to treat it, unless its cause is treatable. He told me to stay calm, and I was sent to an ENT and an audiologist for a barrage of hearing tests, including one where electrodes were stuck on my face. I did have some slight hearing loss, but it was nowhere near severe enough to be the cause of the tinnitus.
One way the internet has remained consistent during the past 11 years is that it never was the place to look up symptoms, unless you wanted to spend the night curled in the fetal position waiting for death. Again, because it is a symptom, it pretty much arranged the causes in order of reverse severity, starting with the words we have learned to fear the most: tumors and aneurysms.
I obsessed over finding the answer and the cure online. Instead I found message boards of people living with tinnitus, talking about nature-sounds CDs and avoiding quiet hobbies. I began to realize that this might not kill me, but still would be something that I had to fight the rest of my life. I was twenty. I was trying to figure out my future, and all of the things that I loved, like reading and writing, no longer brought me any joy. I had to fill my head with sounds of birds chirping and rain falling to get through my homework. I tried to ignore that I could still hear the ringing in my ear over the supposedly soothing sounds.
The noise continued to escalate, and I spent most days and nights in a deep depression. Sometimes the sounds got so bad that I ran out of class in tears, which only made the noise louder. My jaw would vibrate like it was being drilled. I would ride the subway back and forth because the one thing louder than my ear was a city’s hum and screech.
Another reason that tinnitus is so troubling and confusing as a symptom is that it can manifest itself in a variety of sounds, and can be limited to being heard in one ear or both. It can also come from different locations in the ear or head. It is mostly subjective and hard to evaluate by medical professionals. While I was searching for information, it was impossible to match my specific experience to another person’s. Mine was completely limited to one ear, and in certain circumstances, was audible to others if they pressed their ear to mine. This was a horrifying discovery, and one that my doctor dismissed with a note of “crazy” in his records, despite my dad’s insistence that he heard it too. I’ve since been vindicated in current internet research that this was totally real.
Since the noise continued, the doctor suggested going for an MRI to rule out the very serious potentials. To be honest, I don’t really know what he said, because once the word “aneurysm” was uttered -- out loud and by a professional -- I ran out of the office and sobbed in the car while my mom made arrangements for more tests. The doctor did come outside to make sure I was okay, and somewhere between my sobs and gasps, I heard him say, “well, it’s probably not that.” It didn’t help.
I failed my first attempt at an MRI. A cage and mask were put over my face, which I kind of dealt with reasonably, but I lasted about three seconds in the clanking metal tube, furiously punching the release button. The technician seemed annoyed that I wasted everyone’s time, and I felt sad and radioactive with the dye that had already been injected. I tried again with Valium and an open MRI a few weeks later. There was nothing wrong with me.
Searching for medical answers now seemed pointless, and I was running out of options to pursue in that regard. All of my tests came back normal, but still the screaming in my head was constant, day in and day out. There was never any relief.
I started taking Lipoflavonoid pills. You might be familiar with their commercials if you watch the Maury show. I have no idea if it helped, but I was obsessed with making sure that I took them. I changed my diet to avoid certain foods that could elevate blood pressure. I started eating meat again in case it was a vitamin deficiency. I listened to non-stop nature sounds. I had a series of pressure point massages, where I would get my butt kneaded in my living room while my dad sat on the couch chatting with the masseuse. Of course I did little to chart or organize my progress, so I have no idea which of these things was ultimately effective.
After about two years of solid sound, it just stopped. I really wish that I could be more helpful than that to people who might be suffering, but I have no idea why it stopped. I might just have gotten used to the lesser noises. Tinnitus websites offer this for the prognosis of recovery: Most people get used to it and some don’t.
I lived in blissful silence for a few years, but I knew that it would return. It did, but it thankfully never reached its peak again. Now I only hear dull sloshing at night, and it doesn’t usually bother me during the day.
For people who are dealing with tinnitus: I know that you are looking for answers, and I know that it seems like there are none. Upon looking at my notes from when my tinnitus was at its worst, and doing a bit of research for this article, there is definitely a correlation between stress and the severity of the noise. Perhaps as I became less worried and more used to the sounds, I actually helped to cure myself. I know that in the midst of the loudest noises, staying calm is a near impossible task.
For those of you who have never experienced this: please take care of your hearing, since hearing loss is the most common cause of tinnitus. Wear earplugs at concerts and other loud events, and don’t worry about looking silly since most of the professionals there are wearing them too. If this is all new to you, you can check out this site to hear the sounds of tinnitus. Just listening again to those sounds that used to plague my life is reminder enough that I need to take this more seriously again.