That phrase, Ringing in the Ears, is a bit of a misnomer. Tinnitus is more like a constant tone that sometimes fluctuates in amplitude, every now and then it pitches so high that the tone causes my entire body to curl reflexively in pain as the tone painfully dissipates like air forced out of a balloon through a tiny hole, and it never goes away. It also seems as though it tries to trick my mind into thinking that it can't be dealt with directly. When they ringing is loud enough, a quiet house or park seem only to intensify its amplitude to a point where thinking is all but impossible. On those days, which happen more often since the quarantining, a quiet house is a prison; a prison of tin that hums an eternal tune, which marches to the beat of madness.
Did I listen to music a full volume with headphones when I was younger? Nope, more than two to three hours a day with the volume low and the sound of even a soft voice, along with the tinnitus, makes me cringe in pain. Had I gone to too many concerts? Nope, I've only been to one concert, and that was back in the Summer of 2001 where a dear friend of mine, as I was living in Phoenix at the time, and I went to see Sting at the Blockbuster Pavilion, which was an outdoor concert. The crowd was noisier than the music, which I struggled with hearing. Was it damaged when I was in the Army? Hardly. First, every time I used my rifle it was in a training exercise or yearly competency, and for those, we all wore ear protection. I never saw combat. How did my ears get damaged? Like the Monster says:
"I was just born this way."
Yup, but the birth defect isn't what you might first think.
Okay, time for a bit of biology. The Eustachian Tube has two primary purposes. One purpose is to allow for pressure equalization for the Middle and Inner Ear to function under different atmospheric pressures. When everyone says that their ears just popped, this is the Eustachian Tube, which is normally closed at the end where it connects to the throat, briefly opening to either release or to take in a bit of air to acclimate to the change in pressure. Interestingly, the place where the the Eustachian Tube connects with the throat is near where tonsils and adenoids hang out. The second purpose is to drain fluid and mucus that builds up in the Middle Ear.
When I was born, the rumor is that the first words said at my birth came from my maternal grandfather, and those words were:
"Check out the thunder-thighs on that kid!"
At just over nine pounds and nearly twenty-two inches long, I may have not been monstrous, but I sure was a huge infant. What no one knew, was that my internal organs were a bit too large. Think of it this way, a heart that's too small may not have the strength to properly pump blood at a pressure high enough for sufficient circulation, leading to all sorts of circulatory, infection, and septic issues. A heart too large is literally going to work harder, causing blood pressure problems, potential stokes, and will most likely exhaust itself sooner than a more normal sized heart.
That was the problem with my tonsils and adenoids. They were not just large, but near adult sized when I was born. In 1975 there was no way anyone could have known. When I was born, the ultrasound was less than a year old, and still used rarely, and mostly in England, where it was invented. As I grew, I wasn't any different than most children when it came to watching TV. We all sat too close. When I was seven, my mom had been out in the back yard, mowing the dirt (we lived in Phoenix, most everyone was just mowing dirt and weeds, not grass), when she had caught her nail on something and yelled at me to get the fingernail clippers. It was as though she whispered something. The back door was open, I stood right there, and was only no more than eight or ten yards away from her. It was then she realized that I couldn't hear her.
The next day, I had my first ear test, and very much like now, once the headphones are on, all outside sounds are muted, and the ringing in my ears is always the loudest sound. Come to find out, I was over 60% deaf in both of my ears. Once they looked down my throat, doctors were shocked that I could breath and swallow food. My tonsils and adenoids left a gap of less than a quarter inch diameter for food and liquids to get through, and those giant glands blocked my Eustachian Tubes from draining. Just imagine over seven years of fluid and mucus buildup in a passage not much more than an inch long. All of that was in my Inner Ears.
For the next three years, I would have ear tubes surgically placed into both of my eardrums to drain everything that was in there, once a year. These naturally are pushed out when the eardrum attempts to grow back together, over keeping the alien presence. The thing that shocked all the doctors then was that I never felt any pain. This was why they agreed that the tonsils and adenoids had to have blocked the Eustachian Tube in utero. The ringing was, is, my constant companion. After all was said and done, I had over 95% of my hearing back in both ears. This was also the reason why I was horrible at spelling. The fine differences in sound was, and still is, extremely hard for me to discern. 'B,' 'P,' and 'D' were all one sound through my ears. I'd often write the wrong letter as I was sounding it out. Tinnitus was another side effect that would only worsen in time. Most teenagers can hear sounds up near 30 kilohertz, but I never heard anything over 13 kHz. That top end is what I hear constantly. Anything over that and it just doesn't exist to my ears.
So, here I am, with this 13 kHz whine as the baseline for every waking moment of my life, and then the world got quieter from the Covid-19 pandemic. I only can take classes online. I live alone and we have to do this in order to survive right now.
But 13 kHz is always there. Hypnotic. Unending. Maddening. I just want to sleep so I don't have to pay it no mind. I need YouTube on, not watching, but listening, to override the sound. And though the darker, broken, parts of my brain try to get me to imagine things I don't want to see, its fallback option is always tinnitus. It turns up the amplitude. It widens the band. It blankets everything, and it only gets more powerful with age. At the age of 45, I have the hearing of my mother, 24 years my senior. Not only do I not do isolation well, but the 13 kHz is like a death knell, ever so slowly overwhelming my ability to think through it, and no matter how engrossing a book is, or a couple minutes in the sun feels good (though not too much more than a couple minutes, I am a pinkish, pale guerro), that sound never leaves.
Yeah, today's a particularly bad day, and that 13 kHz is torture.