One of the challenges of hearing loss is understanding and interpreting the noises we hear through our devices. Sometimes the sound is speech, only too fast or too muffled to understand. Other times it is the hum of a refrigerator or the call of a bird we haven’t heard before. One time the doorbell rang on the TV and I rose from my chair to go and open the front door. My family got a kick out of that one. We have to laugh at the inevitable mishearings and misunderstandings — they are just a normal part of living with hearing loss.
But recently there was a noise that nobody could identify. A high-pitched Tink, intermittently breaking the silence of my home. Sometimes it would repeat itself. Tink – pause – Tink Tink. Because my high-pitch hearing is my best, I am sensitive to shrill noises like this. This Tink was driving me crazy.
Every few moments: Tink. Silence. Tink Tink Tink.
A New Addition to My Tinnitus Repertoire?
I feared that this was a new addition to my tinnitus repertoire. Normally my tinnitus sounds like the hum of a fluorescent lightbulb. I am lucky that regular meditation helps me keep it mostly under control. Sometimes my tinnitus takes other forms, usually after prolonged exposure to a repetitive sound like a bathroom fan or heavy rain. Those bouts are harder for me to ignore.
My tinnitus flares up seasonally, worsening in the winter when the temperatures drop. This reaction is fairly common. A 2015 study by European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology found that Google searches for tinnitus spike in the winter. The logical conclusion — more people suffer from tinnitus in colder weather. It seemed reasonable that the approaching polar vortex might be causing a spike in my own tinnitus.
But other people in my family could hear the sound too — so that wasn’t it. I was relieved.
The Search Continued
Even though they could hear it, my family was not bothered by the noise as much as I was. It seemed to fade into the plethora of New York City sounds like sirens and expanding heating pipes. But I couldn’t seem to let it go. I wore noise-cancelling headphones during the day to block it out, but this wasn’t going to work when I was sleeping.
Before bed, we searched and searched. Was it a dying lightbulb? A loose ceiling fixture? The heating unit expanding and contracting? The neighbors upstairs or downstairs? We gave up and turned off the lights to go to sleep.
The first night did not go well. While most people remove their hearing aids to sleep, I do not. I wear extended wear hearing aids for up to eight weeks at a time, in part to block the annoying buzz of my tinnitus by bringing in ambient sounds.
Each time I would drift off to sleep — Tink — I was awakened by the noise.
Hearing Loss Keeps Me Attentive to Unfamiliar Sounds
Why couldn’t I acclimate to the sound — my family had — and move on, like when I go nose blind to a strong odor after a few minutes? I think it is because of my hearing loss.
My body has been trained to jump to attention anytime there is an unexpected sound — just in case it is something important. Because I don’t always know where a sound originates or what it is, I feel the need to attend to it immediately — in case there is danger. It is hard to turn this reflex off, even when I understand the noise is more of a distraction than a hazard.
After a few days of frustration, the answer became clear. It was the polar vortex after all — creating the sound of the wind whipping through the A/C units. Thankfully it should only last a few more days.
Readers, does an unexplained sound drive you crazy?