Teenage Hopes Challenged by Tinnitus

cindy-zhang By Cindy Zhang

I am 16 years old, well-versed (-ish) in computers, strong enough to carry stacks of textbooks, and can run an eight-minute mile (if we’re generous). Unfortunately, I haven’t had a moment of silence in years.

Fateful Night

My tinnitus began when I was just in middle school. It slithered into my ears on an ordinary day in the middle of the night, and I remember thinking, Has this whisper always been here?

As it turns out, that whisper hadn’t always been there, and that whisper would never leave.

To this day, the cause of my tinnitus remains ambiguous: Was it my constant use of headphones? My days spent in band without hearing protection? My TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder), which I am still dealing with to this day? Regardless of the cause, the onset of tinnitus plunged me into darkness.

Day in and day out, I would fixate on my ears, living in a state of denial about my condition until I could no longer do so. When it finally registered that the hissing was not going away any time soon, the full weight of that realization struck me mercilessly, and I entered a period of purposelessness, anxiousness, and hopelessness. Above all, a deep sense of loss seized me. I felt like I had lost a part of my youth, a part of my life, and suddenly felt I was aging far too quickly. I felt like my youth was over.

Strangely, I can only recall crying once during this time of grieving. Unlike my tinnitus, my grief and panic were silent, but they were potent enough to convince me that tinnitus had robbed me of my life.

Words Saved My Life

During that tumultuous period, I completely shut myself off from the rest of the world. Instead of reaching out to friends and family, I remained silent about my tinnitus. In hindsight, it would have been far wiser to reach out and communicate, and I implore anyone dealing with tinnitus to do so. For me, however, I scoured the internet in search of a cure. What I ended up with were patient stories — many, many patient stories — with one unifying theme: The power of the mind.

stickiesAt first, I couldn’t believe what I was reading, but my desperate heart clung to those lessons and stories. My longing for hope loosened the grip of tinnitus on my life. The change wasn’t instantaneous, but I slowly began to take back my life, one moment at a time, harboring that newfound hope that life was still possible.

Finally, there was a day when everything clicked. Everything I had read online in the patient stories became my truth. I can’t recall whether it was a birthday party or a trip to the mall with my friends, but on that day, I was completely immersed in my surroundings and happy. So engaged with my life that I had forgotten the hissing noise in my ear.

I learned two lessons that day, which I fully embrace:

  • First, that living — truly living — is the greatest cure for tinnitus.
  • Second, that stories — real, raw stories — can renew one’s sense of hope and save a life.

How I Cope

Adjusting to life after tinnitus is as much a spiritual ordeal as it is a worldly one.

In the worldly sense, I use many strategies to cope with my tinnitus. When I initially realized I had tinnitus, the first thing I did was buy a pair of high-fidelity earplugs, which reduce loud noise while still allowing me to hear clearly. I bring them with me whenever I know I might be exposed to loud noise.

I’ve also learned to manage my stress. When my tinnitus is louder than it usually is, I step away from whatever I’m doing and walk around a little to clear my mind.

Additionally, I’ve realized (as I’m writing this, in fact!) that I have neglected taking care of my TMJ, one thing I suspect caused my tinnitus. It’s important to take care of conditions that might make tinnitus worse.

Although there are lots of tinnitus management methods, focus on the power of the mind is what brought me to a much better place. It’s a state of constant spiritual adjustment that is needed for me to manage this condition:

Live positively, live responsibly, and read.

Tinnitus does not have to be a condition that engulfs your life. If anything, tinnitus can teach you how to live — and that, above all, is the truest form of youth.

Cindy is a high school student who enjoys writing and spending time with her Mock Trial Team. Though she is definitely future-focused, she says she will never forget the importance of organizations that help people overcome challenges, such as the American Tinnitus Association. In her journey in life, she hopes to give back to the ATA since it helped her to overcome tinnitus.