Tinnitus (noun): a condition that causes you to hear ringing or roaring sounds that only you can hear.
I have always had this high keening in my ears; I don’t remember a time when I heard true silence. Growing up, this was something that I just assumed was normal. I didn’t learn that this was a “condition” until I was in middle school, when my mother took me to try acupuncture for the first time in an attempt to help alleviate my allergies and frequent asthma attacks. I remember the question staring at me as I filled out the intake medical form:
Do you experience a constant ringing in your ears? y/n
I turned to my mother, confused. Doesn’t everyone?
Curious, I did what any kid at the beginning of the Internet age would do: I began searching the web for information on my newly discovered condition. I learned that what I had taken for granted for so long was a definite medical problem; that I was one of the 50 million “sufferers” of tinnitus, 16 million of whom had sought medical attention for this condition, and 2-3 million of whom had been “permanently disabled” from it. I learned that this condition was unbearable; it was a problem that had the ability to drive sufferers “crazy”–even to suicide. And from all of this information, I learned that my tinnitus was an unfortunate and pitiable affliction, one that could be “managed,” but never “cured.”
Since then, I have grown to hate my tinnitus. Most of the time I can just ignore it, but the more stressed out or caffeinated I am, the stronger it gets. This creates a vicious cycle during the school semester: I get stressed from school, so I drink a lot of coffee, my tinnitus gets louder, which makes it harder for me to focus, so I drink more coffee and get more stressed. And so on. I have wondered about how a lot of things would be different if I did not have this constant ringing in my ears. Would my focus be better? Would I not feel as disconnected from my friends and surroundings if this ringing weren’t always drawing my focus back into my own head?
These past few readings on disability studies and ableist culture, however, have made me reflect on my initial framing of my tinnitus. I have begun to wonder: if I never read those initial medical articles–if I thought that everyone experienced this constant hum–would I mind it so much today? There’s something comforting about this steady tone; it’s something I can focus on when I’m feeling anxious, and it makes me feel grounded in my own body. And while I have always believed that tinnitus makes it difficult to focus, maybe that lack of focus isn’t due to the tinnitus, but to the stress and exhaustion that generally accompanies it. Looked at in this way, my tinnitus could be seen as a kind of warning system: it’s my body’s message to me to slow down, drink some water, and take a break. It would mean that my tinnitus allows me to communicate with my body in ways that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to, and that is not a depressing or unfortunate thought, but is actually pretty cool.