The Alarm that Sparked Tinnitus and a Marital Crisis

By Stuart Levine 

It began with a loud shrieking beep. And then another. And then two more. Who could’ve ever predicted that a 30-year marriage filled with love, trust, friendship, and too many wonderful moments to count would nearly be destroyed by a smoke alarm?

Over the course of several weeks back in the spring of 2020, my wife asked me to check the four smoke alarms in our house. It had been about seven years since we last tested them, so the request certainly wasn’t unreasonable. And, admittedly, I probably have more than a normal amount of fear of fire (don’t even think about lighting a candle around me), so it made perfect sense to ensure the smoke alarms were still working properly.

blue headOne would think that, after the first time you’ve placed your head near a smoke alarm when testing it, the incredibly loud noise might convince you to partake a different method. I consider myself fairly intelligent. I graduated from college. I can engage in political discussions. I have a high-pressure job in the entertainment industry that requires me to think on my feet.

Somehow, though, I didn’t have enough sekhel (Yiddish for “common sense”) to move my head away from the smoke alarm and use a stick or broom to press the button. Or to put on a pair of noise-reducing headphones. Nope. I stood next to four alarms and the ringing got louder with each one I tested. The decibel level for the fourth and final alarm was so loud that I winced when it beeped.

Fast-forward four days to when I woke in the morning with my ears ringing like fire engines. What was
going on? Why was it not stopping? It immediately sent me into a mental, emotional, and physical tailspin that was pure torture. Like all those in the throes of tinnitus for those first few weeks and months, the dark thoughts that filled my head were unimaginable.

How did my wonderful life turn to hell in what felt like a nanosecond? How did this happen? Clearly, there must be someone to blame. And that someone was my wife.

It wasn’t like she wasn’t extremely sympathetic to my nightmare. She took me to doctor’s appointments, served as my nonstop listening board, and made all my meals and tried as best as possible to make me eat when I was dropping weight. Feeding myself and any sort of self-maintenance were on the very bottom of my priority list.

Though her job in academia was stressful and had its fair share of challenges, especially in the midst of the pandemic when we were working from home and trying to figure out the work-life balance, she rescheduled meetings, left the virtual office for hours at a time, and did everything she could to help me get my life together again.

red headWhile all that was true, it didn’t prevent me from blaming her for what had happened to me. Why did she ask me to check something that wasn’t broken? Would you put your head in an oven to see if it was working? She has admittedly always been overly cautious—we often kid that “Be safe!” is her daily mantra—buying extra insurance, making sure two or three times that the house is locked before leaving. And now, it wholeheartedly felt like her unnecessary caution had cost me my sanity, job, future, and everything that I had worked so hard for up to this point in my life.

Mornings were the most difficult time for me. Getting up and hearing that ringing as soon as I opened my eyes was excruciating. My wife had put together a home gym adjacent to where I was sleeping, and I would hear her working out and could feel my anger build each morning.

Why was she allowed to get on with her life when her actions had permanently destroyed mine? Who was she to engage in something as frivolous as doing Pilates and lifting weights when I couldn’t even imagine how my life was going to continue past today … if I made it through the day. The unmitigated gall of her just moving on while I was clearly suffering was too much to bear.

No marriage is perfect. Each one has its ups, downs, and unique challenges. But we had a good thing. Thirty years filled with love and respect, with hardly a fight. Sure, there were the occasional “I think you’re spending too much on Amazon” or “I can really use some help making dinner once in a while” discussions, but rarely anything that rose to the level of true anger. We have long been a perfect fit for one another, with similar introverted personalities and common ground.

That’s all nice and good, but how was I supposed to continue a life with someone who literally tried to kill me by having me check the smoke alarms? On the day we tested the alarms, why was she cowering in the corner of the living room, trying to escape the loud beep, while I was on the front lines with my head next to the device? Why wasn’t she testing them if she felt so strongly about them possibly not working?

These are the thoughts you have when you feel distraught and when your life is falling apart. It’s not logical, of course, but when you’re in the middle of a storm, logic goes out the window.

We openly talked about how our marriage might not make it through this and how our separation would affect our 26-year-old daughter. It was truly awful, and we were having conversations that seemed unimaginable only a month before, when our biggest concern was which desserts we should order after dinner or which one of us would go shopping at Trader Joe’s that weekend.

And then, with the help of some supportive doctors, medication, a few days away from home for some treatment, and my mom telling me not so gently to stop blaming my wife, I came to the realization that my life was undeniably better with her in it than without her. Because I was starting to realize there actually was a viable future for me living with tinnitus and I wanted her to be a part of that. As destructive as the tinnitus was, I was determined it wasn’t going to take my marriage from me. I simply wouldn’t let it.

That was a little over a year ago. Today, though I still have tinnitus, it is a minor part of my life, one that I hardly give any credence to. I hear the ringing occasionally, but it doesn’t set off the emotional hell storm that it did in the first two or three months. It’s just a part of my identity, and like others with health ailments, something that I’m able to compartmentalize and realize it isn’t who I am.

Now we’re back to our comfort zone of discussions about which restaurants to pick for date night, what movies to see, and how eating a Dodger Dog at Dodger Stadium is one of life’s true pleasures. I’m still trying to convince her of that last one.

Our marriage is probably actually stronger now than ever because after you’ve looked into the abyss, you relish the fact that you’ve made it back on top again.

If you’re on a similar journey, please know you’ll get there. Try not to blame one another. Do whatever it takes to get through the hard times. And take a nice vacation for the two of you when you get to the other side.

Stuart LevineStuart Levine is a 59-year-old television executive living in Los Angeles.