There and Back Again: Expressing Pain and Hope Through Poetry
By Ann Ramsey
Throughout my life I have been an occasional poet, usually picking up my pen after waking from a dream with a pretty couplet running in my head. My total poetic output, in other words, couldn’t have filled a pamphlet. But that changed after I got severe tinnitus and hyperacusis about six and a half years ago. What was once a trickle of verses became a torrent.
When I first got this condition, I was obsessed with finding a cure. I wanted the pain, the ringing, and the sound distortion to STOP. I made the rounds of medical specialists, slogged through my days in bewildered anguish, and found refuge only in drugged sleep. My personal life was on hold. I managed to work, but without ease or satisfaction. It was like being trapped behind a thick wall of sound. Could I communicate anything at all through that barrier?
Then, about eight months into trying a variety of therapies, something changed. Words suddenly came pouring out into my journal. Before long, I was re-working them into stanzas and rhymes, with clarity and focus. These poems gripped me like puzzles I could not put down until each one was finished.
My early poetic images were horrific: heaving volcanoes covering the landscape of my life; running across the decks of a sinking ship; ring-wraiths shrieking over my head as I trudged to Mount Doom. I created alarming word-pictures of loss, loneliness, and defeat. Although they expressed my own truths, these poems read like self-pitying histrionics, so I kept them to myself.
Yet, the mere act of writing my feelings on paper gave me a sense of having shared what I was experiencing. Furthermore, upon reflection, I realized that writing poetry, itself, represented a level of complex thought I had not been capable of a few months prior. So, although grim, the poems stood as a small victory. I had made progress. And, if I could puncture through the wall of sound enough to write, what else could I accomplish?
Next, I used poetry to record my reactions to the different therapies I tried. I scribbled down my frustrations when setbacks occurred during Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. Thought poems bubbled up rebelliously during meditation. I composed rhapsodies to nature’s tinnitus soothers: waterfalls. I thanked my patient husband in odes, and wrote bemused observations about my sound pillow’s effect on my cat. My oeuvre was growing, and growing less desperate. I was addressing the process of salvaging my life.
In the years since, I have found additional artistic outlets that provide refuge from tinnitus and hyperacusis: needlework, video taping waterfalls, keeping a journal, and photography. As my coping mechanisms have expanded, so has my tolerance to noise; and with that, my symptoms have lessened and become more manageable. My social life has returned, and so has my gratification at work. I can now attend the theater, hear live acoustic music, and visit museums. My poems now cover the range of gains and losses that make up my life.
Although I have benefitted significantly from a variety of therapies, including Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, and others, I still have tinnitus and hyperacusis. They may be my unwelcome companions for a long time to come. Yet when I talk to other tinnitus “newbies,” or to my first caregivers, it’s clear I’ve come a long, long way. My tinnitus and hyperacusis poems now flow from a place of greater understanding, as well as of hope for continued improvement.
I have learned to not seek one magical cure. In addition to trying a variety of therapies, I recommend responding to some kind of an artistic urge, even if it seems like wallowing at first. You may find art therapeutic, eventually becoming something you can share. This approach served me well. There’s no denying I am a different person now, compared to who I was before 2007. I may be living a “new normal,” but I am back.
*This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Tinnitus Today. Today, Ann is happy to report that she recently retired with her husband to the Brandywine Valley. She volunteers as a photographer for the nonprofit Friends of Cooch’s Bridge, a site that tells the story of a Revolutionary war battle in Delaware. Ann has not only resumed playing the guitar but has also embarked on writing her own original songs, now boasting a repertoire of some 40 compositions to her credit. She is active in the Philadelphia Area Songwriters Alliance and received a 2023 Artist Development Grant from Delaware’s Division of the Arts. Her tinnitus and hyperacusis are not interfering with her quality of life, which brings her great satisfaction. As part of her management strategy, she wears Phonak hearing aids with white noise maskers and sleeps with a sound pillow from soundpillow.com.*