I have never heard silence. I understand the concept, but I have to imagine it because I have literally never heard silence. Instead, I have tinnitus.
Most accounts of tinnitus describe a constant ringing in the ears, sometimes to a debilitating degree. I get a strong ringing in my ears once in awhile but, in the small wee hours of the morning, the sound I hear is closer that of bathroom fan mixed with the whine of an old TV turning on.
Constant, but relatively quiet.
Tinnitus is most commonly associated with a constant ringing in the ears after years of loud music and abuse to your ears. For many, it’s not a condition, but a symptom instead. It can be the result of ear injury or head trauma, as shown in the recent film Baby Driver, or it can be related to overexposure to loud noise and age-related hearing loss.
However, I didn’t do anything to bring this on myself. I inherited it.
The heritability of tinnitus has been debated by doctors for years, but this year a breakthrough finding was made; bilateral tinnitus shows a significantly higher heritability than unilateral tinnitus.
Unsurprisingly, that’s what I have.
Having bilateral tinnitus means that I hear “phantom noise” in both ears, even when there’s no sound. Thanks to dear old dad, I will never need a white noise machine — mine’s built in.
My father was the first to explain to me that I had tinnitus, and what it was. Ten or 12 years ago he mentioned something about how lucky the people who can hear “real silence” are, and my world shifted — Wait, people can really hear nothing? As it turns out, only about 15 percent of Americans have tinnitus. And while it’s strange that I have —and never will— hear the sound of silence without a Simon and Garfunkel song playing, I’m thankful that my tinnitus is mild.
It doesn’t intrude in my life, it doesn’t keep me from sleeping or distract me in other situations. After 20 years, I simply think of my special blend of tones as silence. Sure, I’d love to know what it’s truly like to sit in true silence, but unless someone makes a joke about how sweet silence is after a day with kids or something of the like, it rarely crosses my mind.
I do wish, though, that someone had told me sooner and that we, as a society, were more open about it. There’s a lot of condescension when I talk about my tinnitus because until very recently it was almost exclusively believed that tinnitus was a self-inflicted condition. I want kids and teenagers to be able to talk to their parents without being scolded for playing music too loud — especially when that may not be the problem.
If you have a buzzing, a ringing, a rushing, a static that runs through your ears 24/7, you’re not alone. If it’s adversely affecting your life, talk to your doctor. If it’s simply affecting your life, ask the people around you if they experience it, too. 15 percent isn’t a large amount of the population, but it’s still about 50 million people.
We’re out here, and I know that I would rather hear from you than from the white noise in my head.