The Times I Was Almost Glad I Had Tinnitus… Almost
By R. Lynn Lovejoy
For as long as I can remember, I have had tinnitus. As a child, I was plagued by ear infections. I was so skinny and sickly as a child, the school nurse worried I was undernourished. I came from a lower middle-class family, with a father who always had low-paying jobs without health insurance and a mother who never worked outside the home. All that aside, I always excelled in school.
In elementary school, I didn’t seem to have trouble hearing or understanding my teachers. But I always was bothered by constant noise in my ears and head. I actually thought the noise was the movement of air, because I had learned that air was made up of various gases with particles so tiny and fast that we couldn’t see them—that had to be it! Being convinced of that in my early childhood helped me cope.
One day, I asked my father if he, too, had ringing in his ears or head, and he said, “Ahh, that’s all in your head!” In his own ignorant way, he was absolutely correct. We never spoke about it again. In high school, when I asked a group of students if they heard noise in their heads, they gave me a strange look, making me regret that I had asked the question. However, one of them said, “Yes,” so I knew I wasn’t crazy. But, I did know something was wrong and that no one was going to help me.
Children look to adults to give them answers or a chance to talk about things. I felt alone as a child having this condition, with no understanding from my parents and teachers, no physician ever inquiring, no other friends or relatives having the condition. I assumed it was just my “normal.” But if I had been diagnosed as a child early enough, maybe I could have been fitted with hearing aids, worked with someone to change my diet, been more careful about exposure to loud noises and protecting my hearing. Not all children are going to be able to adapt to tinnitus as well as I did—that worries me.
My tinnitus is incessant and sounds like white noise, or the static you hear when tuning between radio stations. As a child, studying outside helped me focus. When I was inside, I always had music or a fan whirling in the background to help me concentrate. I didn’t realize that such background noise was called “masking” or “sound therapy.” Today, I use a sound machine. But, there were times in my life when the only relief I could find was through driving in my convertible with the top down or riding fast on my bike.
I married young and had three children in four years. After deciding I needed more education, I went to college to get a nursing degree. After a few years as a nurse, I went to law school. Today, I’m a Board-certified real estate attorney in Florida.
To get through school, I had to train myself to concentrate. The absolute silence of a library, a lecture hall during testing, a courtroom, or a church, bothered me immensely. I tolerate quiet environments by telling myself over and over again that I can get through a few more minutes, a few more hours. This mantra works!
A few years ago, I went to bed feeling well, but woke up to a roaring noise in both ears. I was dizzy and could barely hear anything else. I turned on the TV, and the voices sounded warped—like an alien talking in a sci-fi movie. I screamed for my fiancé, who tried to comfort me. His voice also was distorted. I cried, terrified that I would go crazy from the noise.
When my general practitioner examined me, he said the middle ear was retaining water, which was causing the noise. He scribbled a prescription for antibiotics, which he said probably wouldn’t help, and told me to take an over-the-counter allergy medication to reduce the fluid. Over the course of several days, the roaring subsided gradually. I was never more thankful than the day I only heard my tinnitus!
Years went by without another episode. Then 18 months ago, I awoke to the same deafening roar and was trapped by vertigo. Gripped by fear, I made a doctor’s appointment that led to a diagnosis of Meniere’s disease, which has no cure and can cause and aggravate tinnitus, as well as deafness.
To control the buildup of fluid in my ears, I take a diuretic daily and eat a bland, low-salt diet. When I changed my diet, my tinnitus became quieter. I then cut out caffeine, which reduced the volume again.
When my audiologist found that I had hearing loss at low frequencies, I was fitted for hearing aids. These also improved my tinnitus. Oddly, now tinnitus has become my guide for gauging the onset of another attack from Meniere’s disease. If the roaring begins to drown out my tinnitus, I immediately take allergy medication and strip all salt from my diet. So far, this has worked to keep attacks at bay.
I don’t like tinnitus, even though it serves a certain function in my life now. I long to hear the silence that those with normal hearing enjoy. I still remember the day and sense of amazement I felt when I googled something about tinnitus and saw that there was an organization that existed to support people like me. Somebody cared! I became a member of the American Tinnitus Association immediately to become a part of a community providing support to those with tinnitus and funding toward a cure. We need silence, real silence.