On Tinnitus

Lucie Bonvalet

I'm alone in a room that resembles a small recording studio. Gray-greenish walls. Dim lights. No window. A depressed-looking teddy bear hangs, nailed to the wall, in front of my chair, below the glass that separates me from another windowless room. As I'm writing this, I'm thinking: It can’t be. They wouldn't have just nailed him there. Yet that's the only image I can conjure up. A woman is addressing me from the room beyond the glass, above the nailed bear. She's covering her mouth with a sheet of paper (so that I can't read her lips) and she's reading to me a list of random monosyllabic words that I have to repeat. She pronounces the words into a microphone. I hear them through a lopsided headphone that connects only to my right ear. The words reach me as if more and more muffled, bathed in static ambient noise. I'm gradually more stressed, thinking that I'm making them up: house . . . king . . . phone. . . . I'm really not sure. I remember at some point I hear something that could potentially be the word mushroom, but at the same time I know for sure it's not mushroom. I'm also suspicious that it has two syllables instead of one. I say out loud mushroom back to her with a depressed voice and with the conviction that I'm mistaken. I have no idea what she's saying to me. I feel isolated. Lonely. The nailed teddy bear in front of me gives me a look of pity.

I don't remember life without tinnitus. I don't remember what it's like to hear clearly without a constant buzzing, sometimes dull, sometimes shrill, inside my right ear. I can't measure how this parasitic sound shapes my life, whether it is the true cause of my constant fatigue, my melancholy, the appearance of a gray veil, a sort of curtain of rain, between me and everything outside of me.

I've had tinnitus for seven years. In my case, only the right ear is affected. My left ear is normal. On the website of the American Tinnitus Association, you can find samples of different tinnitus sounds you can listen to. But you are warned in advance: “Turn down the volume of your speakers or headphones before playing any of the sound files. The recordings, like tinnitus itself, can be quite loud and irritating.” I find that my particular tinnitus is a cross between the 7500Hz Tone, the Buzzing or Cicada, and the Static, with hints of the Tea Kettle sometimes after work in the evening.

It is estimated that over fifty million Americans experience some sort of tinnitus, and to this day, there is no treatment for it. People have idiosyncratic ways to deal with it. Twenty years ago, I had a boyfriend with tinnitus. He couldn't sleep without two electric fans going at two different speeds; he had found a particular mixture of rhythms between those two fans that helped to erase his tinnitus. One summer, I convinced him to go to Barcelona with me, and he took the train from Strasbourg to Barcelona with one of his two electric fans in his backpack. But still, he was nervous to have to survive ten days with the sound of just one fan at night. I don't use electric fans (I find their sound more stressful than soothing), but I know I deploy daily a great amount of energy to not listen to the incessant swishing inside my right ear. Over the years, I have honed different sorts of weapons against the alien noises, but I don't know what those weapons are. I don't know how, most of the day, I make the sounds disappear. I know that whatever I am doing, it works, but it's exhausting. Sometimes, I forget to not hear, and suddenly a loud metallic high-pitched vibration swamps the right hemisphere of my brain. It forces me to stop whatever I'm doing and stare into space.

In my family, both my brother and my mother have tinnitus—my brother because he's a musician and has been exposed to loudspeakers for too long. With my mother, it's more complicated. She has Ménière's disease: a disorder of the inner ear that is characterized by episodes of vertigo, tinnitus, hearing loss, and a sensation of fullness in the ear. My mother is a philosophy teacher. She got the first symptoms of her disease, sudden hearing loss and tinnitus, on the day that an ex-student fell on her knees and declared that she was madly in love with my mother, that she had been for years, and that she could no longer hide her love. “Please, I beg you to hear me,” she pleaded. That evening, after her student left, my mother turned half deaf. I was nineteen then, a few years younger than that student, and I had been living away from home for two years. My mother told me the story much later.

For my part, my tinnitus was caused by a bomb. While I was traveling in India, I attended a Hindu ceremony by the Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi. During the ceremony, a bomb detonated a few feet away from me. The bomb was small enough that even though it blew me off my feet and I lost consciousness, it only obliterated my right eardrum. Besides that, it left me, for the most part, unscathed.

Yet there are so many possible pernicious symptoms that I could attribute to tinnitus. Isolation is the main one—how hard it is to hear and to feel heard. It taps into an old fear, an old pain of mine of not being able to communicate with other humans, not being able to understand others or to feel understood by them. If I want to feel close to someone and make sure that I understand every word in our conversation, I need to position my body so that my left ear, the good ear, is oriented towards the mouth of the speaker. That is particularly true in public places, where I need to block out all conversations but one. I fear that this positioning of my body makes it look as if I am shunning my conversation partner, closing myself off instead of opening up, since most of my face and torso twist away from the person. Usually, I also stop looking at them and stare at my feet in concentration, which does not help me appear engaged. This communication barrier is daunting in my work too. I teach French as a foreign language and have to constantly work to comprehend and communicate with people in a language that they, by definition, struggle with.

I feel loneliest when I’m among other people. Sometimes, I'm with friends, and a wave of sadness hits me because I can't hear them. I feel far away; I don't know how to destroy that distance. Talking is exhausting. Listening, even more so. Words turn into absurd stones that people throw at me, and they hurt because they don't hit.

The gray veil of ghost sounds causes not only loneliness, but a loss of music's richness. I didn't measure how much music was an important part of my daily joy until I could no longer hear it. My hearing has gradually deteriorated since the bombing. Or, more precisely, since they grafted a new eardrum in my ear. For months after the operation, I hoped that all I had lost was only temporary. I would sit at my piano at home, the way I had since I was six. I would tentatively press keys and notice, trying not to judge or to feel too much, when the sounds of the highest and the lowest keys could no longer reach me. I tried to recreate their texture, their touch, their color, from memory, but that wouldn't work. As time went by and I grew accustomed to the knowledge that some sounds would be lost to me forever, I began to crave colors in new ways. It all started with a dream: I was aimless and lost in the meandering streets of an unknown city and I could hear music. I could hear it clearly. I could hear in my dream the way I used to before. I knew the music. But I could no longer name it. I associated it with childhood. A passing stranger in the dream said to me that the music was called Image. When I woke up, two things happened: my relationship with my tinnitus changed and I stopped waiting for it to go away. I didn't welcome it, but I accepted the fact that it was now part of me. And for days, I naively searched my memory for piano pieces that were called Image. There were many. The first that came to mind were Images, six compositions by Debussy. I never practiced them because they were too difficult for me to play, and now they're the ones that are hardest for me to hear. They are reminiscent of that poem by E.E. Cummings that ends with, “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” They evoke intangible scars, the force of vulnerability, the precision of clouds. The other that came to mind was Visions Fugitives by Prokofiev. The movement I loved in my twenties was no. 16, “Dolente.” I decided I would try to recreate my love for them in my memory, through colors. I had no idea how to proceed. My loneliness progressed.

On the Tinnitus Handicap Inventory (THI) of the American Tinnitus Association, I score forty out of one hundred, which corresponds to a Grade Three handicap: Moderate. If you score one hundred, you are a Grade Five and your handicap is labeled Catastrophic. There is a rare type of tinnitus called musical tinnitus, where you perceive music or singing, sometimes the same tune, on a constant loop. That must be catastrophic, regardless of whether you are hearing Mozart or Muzak.

The line between psychic pain and physical pain can become very thin, especially in the heart of the worst of sleep deprivation. As a baby I had trouble falling asleep, and throughout life I have suffered from bouts of severe insomnia when for several nights in a row I would not sleep at all. But with tinnitus, the texture of my sleepless nights has changed. In the silence of the bedroom at night, the vibrations emanating from the damaged nerves in my ear expand, branching out to my entire skeleton. The bones everywhere in my body throb in the distance, fragile. My bones become a cage, painful. I don't know if I'm trapped inside or floating outside of the cage. Words, if they are able to form inside of my pulsating brain, must obey the throbbing, and sentences break like bones. I feel the need to leave the bed and walk, or read, or write. I keep an insomnia journal and it's almost unreadable because it's made of fragments of looping broken sentences. But if I had the guts to study them more closely, maybe I would discover that all of the words and sentences obey the same rhythm, and perhaps they all lead to the same damaged nerve somewhere in my ear. Some sounds, some music, can trigger in me explosions of sadness. Anger is rarer. But I wonder whether my sadness is to my anger what rain is to mist: the same matter but two different fundamental states. I know of only three antidotes: the ocean, the inside of a forest with a light wind, and, most precious of all, a purring cat who accepts the resting of my head against her belly as I bury my broken ear in her fur.

In striving to recreate my beloved lost sounds—the high and low keys on my piano, the music of a dream, the favorite movement in a memory—and to cut through the gray veil of alien vibrations, I decided to learn to draw. My craving for colors and lines, the same way that I used to crave harmony of sounds and rhythms, came gradually. I learned to draw two or three years after I was injured, in my late thirties. For the first two years, I used only graphite. Almost exclusively black. I introduced colors slowly, tentatively. After a few years, I began to paint. I experienced for the first time the intense pleasure of colors. I remember my very first painting: I used only cadmium yellow. An entire tube. No brush. Just one or two painting knives and my gloved fingers. I spread a large sheet of paper on the floor at the back of the studio. I don't know how long I stayed like that, sometimes on my knees, sometimes on all fours, obsessed with what that color was doing to my brain and how good it felt. At some point the teacher came to check on me and asked me how I was doing. I showed him my blobby yellow creation with a pride I had not felt since preschool. He looked at it very seriously for a while, with both hands crossed behind his back—an attitude often adopted by actors playing important psychiatrists—and said with genuine kindness: “I think this one is done. I think it's time to start a new one.”

When I'm in the drawing studio, I love how it feels to mix colors; I love the texture of the paint, like yogurt with honey. I love how it feels like to splash it onto white paper. I love when it drips. I love when sunshine falls from the window of the studio and stains the skin of a model. I love to draw ribs, elbows, rays of suns, shadows, skin, eyes, everything vibrating, everything breaking and multiplying. Together. How hungry I am, then, to listen to skin. Something happens between my eye and my hand when I draw, something that resembles music, something that heals me. I crave healing vibrations inside of colors. The color orange and the color ultramarine, in particular, help me. They vibrate within me the way music used to. In my dream, Image’s music appeared as the only alternative to the gray veil of my damaged silence. But from one splash of orange on a white canvas, new configurations fluctuate and morph with the changing light of the hours of the day, the seasons. I feel nourished by them in a healing way. I want to bathe inside the color orange and feel it vibrate through the pores of my skin instead of through my ears. Luminous oily vibrations that heal my bones. 

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