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Tinnitus

TAB Does evil exist, or is it just my imagination? Is the devil inside my head?
TAB A lifetime ago we had a friend named Biz whose father owned some property with an abandoned farmhouse in a place called Pleasant Grove, high on a mountaintop in Jackson County, Alabama. Once in a while we would go out to sweep the dust, mow back the grass, and spend the night out there in the woods. The house wasn't much more than a shack with a sagging front porch, a musty little kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms. There were bees living inside the outer wall of one bedroom, and you could hear them in there during the night. We'd stay up drinking warm beer and playing cards before retiring cautiously, careful not to make too much noise and alarm the bees.
TAB One night around 1984 Annie and I were out at the cabin with a couple of friends. I have a picture of Annie holding Uno cards, a big Budweiser there on the table. I had been drinking a few beers myself and during a break in the cards I went out onto the front porch, my Walkman playing Roger Waters. There was a tree growing right next to the porch that almost begged to be climbed, so up I went into the night. No sooner had I settled on a branch high above the roof when a picture flashed unbidden into my mind.
TAB I saw a dark, hooded figure moving through the woods behind the house, somewhere out there in the distance, coming toward us in silence and darkness. I saw no face or features, just a man-like figure threading through the trees, but what I saw in my mind was pure evil, Satan himself.
TAB Funny how the mind plays tricks, how an idea so simple could be so powerful. I had been alone in the dark countless times, up in trees at Percy Warner Park in Nashville, on the beaches of Mississippi at 3 AM, alone in the woods, caves, in graveyards and empty buildings, and I tended to take it all at face value. What you saw was what you got; I wasn't scared of the dark and a little proud of that. But this split second of imagination, a moment of video that for whatever reason played in my head, frightened me. That vision of a dark, evil figure moving toward me scared me enough that I immediately came down from the tree to go back inside with the others.
TAB I have to confess it was years later that I made the connection between that vision and what came next, the sad and stupid little event that changed my life subtly but forever for the worse. Like most turning points it was a tiny thing, nothing dramatic despite the fact that it involved a gun. In those days one of my friends liked to play with a muzzle-loader rifle, and he had left it there in the living room.
TAB I have never cared much for guns, and had no real knowledge or interest in a muzzle loader, but in idle boredom I picked up the rifle. I was being cautious enough that I would never have pointed the gun anywhere near a person, but for reasons I don't understand I hefted it up towards my shoulder and sighted down the barrel at a window. I wasn't even holding it right, kind of up in the air and forward; my finger was nowhere near the trigger, but I'll accept responsibility for picking the thing up. What happened was my fault. In that senseless moment as I stood there someone reached over and pulled the trigger. Blam! The gun went off and I was sure I had blasted out the window, but the guys were laughing at my expression of horror, knowing they had just pulled a good joke. The barrel had been empty, no bullet or gunpowder there, but the small charge in the flintlock, intended to set off the real blast, had been present. When that little charge went off like a firecracker, it was no more than an inch or two from my right ear.
TAB My ear was ringing like crazy from the concussion, but of course I didn't think much of it at the time. It was still ringing when Annie and I crawled into bed later. To my surprise it was still ringing the next morning. That was almost twenty years ago now, and the ringing in my ear has never stopped, not for an instant. Sometimes it rings quietly in the background. Often it's the single loudest noise I can hear.
TAB Tinnitus is different for every person who suffers from it. Some people have a roaring in their ears. Some people hear a "whooshing" or clicking sound sound, tones high or low. My tinnitus is a high-pitched, wavering note that resonates forever in my head, a bit of a symphony actually, since there seem to be about three tones all playing at once, the highest one so bright and piercing that it almost can't be ignored. When that little band is playing full tilt, which is about half the time and in fact is the case tonight as I sit here writing, it's loud enough that I hear it over music played at any comfortable volume, over the noise from the open window in my old truck, over anything less than a jackhammer or jet engine. As one doctor says, there is tinnitus and then there is damn tinitus. Of course, it's worst at night, when things are quiet, when such a stupid little thing can keep you awake until you start thinking of putting another gun to your head to make it stop--except somehow you suspect it would never stop, even then.
TAB In 1984 a specialist said that nothing could be done to stop the ringing, unless I wanted surgery to cut the nerve and make that ear deaf. Now the doctors know more and say that if I were deaf, the ringing would seem even worse because tinnitus seems to originate in the brain, not in the ear. Places such as Atlanta Ear Clinic and Alliance Tinitus and Hearing Center attempt to treat tinnitus by piping in other sounds, retraining the brain to ignore unwanted signals. I figure the chances of that working for me, with the penetrating pitch in my ear going stronger than ever after 20 years, is probably close to zero. William Shatner (yes, Captain Kirk is a fellow victim), has said the most haunting thought is not that the noise will never go away, but that it will get worse. Indeed, every year it seems that my ring is a little louder, and sometimes now I hear other sounds coming from deeper inside my head, rumbling there in the background.
TAB Of course, one thing worse than ringing in the ear is making aother people listen to this kind of whining and feeling sorry for oneself. I have two friends who are in wheelchairs after automobile accidents, and they don't whine. I know other people who have died from cancer (or worse yet, watched a loved one die) and they would trade places with me, I know. I am lucky to have the life I have.
TAB But I can't help going back to that night long ago at Pleasant Grove, the vision I had of evil coming toward me, how it might in fact have come silently into the room with us, shared that space for a moment, and then left me with this permanent reminder of its presence in the world.
TAB Does true evil exist or is it all something we imagine in our heads? It's a question I'm still almost too afraid to ask.

Postscript (November 2002)

An unhappy thing happened just weeks after I wrote the account above. A new noise appeared in my head, almost as if I had summoned it somehow.
TAB The new sound is the opposite of the original high-pitched chorus, the yin to that yang. Ever connect up a set of speakers and you cross the wires momentarily so that the speaker gives a constant, low buzz? That's the sound that I hear now, not from any particular ear but from all around me. The first night I heard it I awoke inside our RV at 3:00 AM, wondering what idiot was running their generator in the campground at that hour. I finally got back to sleep and forgot about it, but imagine my surprise to hear that same generator running the next night in my own bed after we got home. I actually walked around the house trying to find the source of it, but of course there was no external source, just the short-circuit in my head. I hear it every night now, and in the mornings, whenever it is quiet enough.
TAB Two significant things about this sound. First, I can stop it almost at will. If I clench my teeth together just right, the sound will stop--but only for a second, and then it will quickly find itself and tune back up to its former volume. Second, I started hearing this about a month or so after I started taking Trazadone, an antidepressant, to help me sleep. The doc said Trazadone at a low dosage wouldn't affect me, but should make me sleepy. I could take it every night if I liked. And since I had problems getting to sleep just about every night, naturally I did. Only now I wonder: did the increase in serotonine, which is how Trazadone works as an antidepressant, help carve this new pathway of nerves that makes my brain think it hears that constant, low sound? I stopped taking the drug, sleep be damned, but the sound remains. Once the nerve pathway is lit, can it ever be unplugged?
TAB Whether trazadone has anything to do with it or not, getting to sleep is not gotten easier now that I hear two sounds in my head, the one so high and the other low, keeping each other and me company during those long empty hours of staring into the darkness.

Post-Postscript (September 2004)

Another change came all once about three weeks ago. I was driving in the car with Laura and Annie, and asked what was making that high-pitched tinkling sound. Annie, who is used to me not hearing any kinds of high-pitched sounds, gave me a funny look. Later at home I heard the sound again, and realized it was coming, alas, from inside my head. Another phantom, this one almost more insistent than the others, as if some new trick was required to gain my attention. In truth, it's just a modification of one of the constant high-pitched tones I hear in my right ear. As the standard tones waver back and forth, one of them sometimes turns into a rapid tinkling of a bright little bell, usually at about 8-10 "tinks" per second, almost like morse code but too rapid to deciper.
TAB At first I thought this could be a positive thing, that someone the nerve generating the tone was getting frayed and having a bad connection that might one day even break entirely. But now it seems this is just another "nerve memory" that is being played back. Whatever.
TAB It's clear to me that I would have tinnitus (the diesel side, anyway) regardless of the damage done by the gunshot. I know my mother had it, so perhaps it is genetic. Sometimes I think I can almost get used to this stuff. Other times I have go sleep on the sofa so I can run the dishwasher in order to get some sleep. I can't cover up the ringing in my ears, but if I can hear something more to the world than the inside of my head, it is somehow more bearable.
TAB I used to say I would give $100,000 to anyone could stop the ringing in my head. Ridiculous, eh?

Links

ACA Tinnitus info (including FAQ)
American Tinnitus Association


Copyright © 2007 by Rodger Ling. All rights reserved.