I'm revisiting a subject I wrote about on May 17, 2004 in the Chicago Tribune because the Wall Street Journal ran an excellent article on tinnitus--the irrepressible noise that bedevils some 50 million Americans--driving some of them nuts.
This is my own story about tinnitus, which I'm posting because the otherwise fine Journal article mentions someone who had surgery.
Don't do it. Here's why:
Fifty million Americans have it, and it drives 12 million batty enough to seek medical help. Some who have it--tinnitus--can't sleep, hold a job, or keep their families together. Some go goofy and a few kill themselves. But for Americans who don't have it, it is considered a minor annoyance that you should "just get over."
It's as if the ringing, clicking, banging, chirping or whistling is just an itch that can be scratched. Scratching does no good. You can't stop it. Always, it disrupts concentration, robs you of the joy of ever "hearing" silence again, reminds you of your subjugation.
In good times, it brings on the bad. In bad times, it worsens the bad. It's associated with such things as hearing loss and exposure to loud noises. Stress worsens it, and in a destructive spiral, tinnitus aggravates stress. But nobody has a cure, because nobody knows what causes it.
This being the first Tinnitus Awareness Week, it seems appropriate to note how
millions of people at this moment are resorting to a vast array of therapies, gizmos, medications and potions. Diversionary sounds produced by hearing aid-like devices, miniature water fountains, the radio tuned to quiet static, therapy or behavior modification. Relief is reported by some, others not.
When it got bad enough for me, I finally went to an ear doctor who told me, “Nothing can be done.” He said he had it himself, which is why he became a specialist. Only to find out that “you’ve just got to learn to live with it.” Cruel and insensitive? I thought so. I continued to focus more and more on it, nearly becoming a slave to the ringing—mine sounds like an idling jet engine while the plane taxis to the gate.
So, I sought out the best, who promised that he could do something. An MRI showed that a blood vessel was impinging on my auditory nerve, creating a pulsating rhythm to the ringing. Go into the skull behind the left ear and insert a little plastic doodad to separate them. Risky, but I agreed. Anything, to help.
I nearly died, literally, twice. First, the operation created a subdural hematoma, requiring another, immediate four-hour surgery, involving removal of the left side of my skull. Two weeks later, I was rushed back to ICU after developing a blazing fever (kind never determined) and grueling pain. I forgot my wife’s name and, when I needed it most, the Lord’s Prayer. Worse, I put my family through an indescribable ordeal, spending days in the surgical, emergency and ICU waiting rooms, waiting for my foolishness to kill me.
To this day, I cannot apologize enough for what I did to them. As for me? I lost hearing in my left ear. But being deaf in that ear doesn’t mean I hear nothing. The ringing continues as intense as ever. I’m not looking for sympathy, only for wider public understanding that millions of people are fighting this dreadful condition. They feel isolated and without help. They can find some at the Portland, Ore.-based American Tinnitus Association. Their publications and Web site (www.ata.org) are packed with encouragement, suggested remedies, research news and promises that something can be done to help.
Its fight on behalf of 50 million Americans is not heralded enough beyond tinnitus sufferers. Notably by groups and agencies that fund research. After all, no Nobel Prizes are given out for conquering an “annoyance.”
Actually, this column is written more for my fellow sufferers, who have tried everything possible and feel hopeless. The mind is a wonderful thing, and is probably the most important tool available for fighting tinnitus. Now, five years after my operation, my ringing doesn’t bother me as much, although it is as loud and persistent as ever. It only intrudes into my consciousness a few times a day, typically at a loud event.
Amazingly, my mind has somehow found a way to put it out of my mind. Kind of like breathing: You don’t notice you’re doing it unless someone mentions it. I no longer use gizmos and water fountains. No longer try behavior modification. No longer focus on the latest “advances.” And I’ve returned to the doctor who gave me the best advice: “Get used to it.” It can happen.
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