Slowly, inexorably, I’m going deaf. Not Beethoven deaf. Not yet, anyway. But most days my aural world is a muddy porridge of sound that makes it necessary to read lips as well as listen intently, especially in crowded places. Sometimes it’s best to simply smile sagely and nod, and hope I’m not agreeing to something illegal.
My particular kind of hearing loss is called tinnitus (TIN-ih-tuss), from the Latin tinnire – to ring or tinkle. It affects about ten per cent of us in all sorts of annoying ways. For me the high notes are going – doorbells, telephones, even some voices are replaced by a sort of permanent dial tone. That’s not so bad. Some people with tinnitus hear jets taking off. Others hear glass breaking or hums or clapping or a susurrus of sounds almost like words.
Exposure to loud noise could be one of the causes of tinnitus. Maybe it happened during that Cream concert at the Fillmore ballroom, where the towering Peavey speakers dwarfed the musicians on stage and rattled my breastbone even at the back of the hall. Maybe it’s a result of spending 30 years as a broadcaster wearing headphones. It could be caused by high blood pressure, ear infections, allergies or an underactive thyroid. And it’s exacerbated by many things, including most over-the-counter painkillers, which could explain why it affects people more as they age.
Neil Young, Rush Limbaugh, Barbara Streisand and David Letterman all suffer from tinnitus. Hearing aids don’t help – they simply magnify what’s already there. The only treatment amounts to retraining the brain so that it tunes out the ringing, banging or buzzing and replaces it with a sort of imagined white noise. Audiologist and researcher Max A. Goldstein says with tinnitus, “…the patient is literally listening to old age sneaking up on him.” Or her. Some studies claim it affects men more than women; others that it affects women more than men.
One of the few benefits of going deaf should be that the cacophonous urban soundtrack would dim somewhat. Not so. In fact everything seems to be louder, but muddier. Maybe there’s just more of it.
Happily, there are still grace notes. Shrieks of delight from toddlers at the daycare next door. A skateboard rattling along the brick path. Two guys walking, talking and bouncing basketballs. A robin singing his heart out in the Linden tree. My wife making the wind chimes ring to say she's home. All this I can still hear.
But please be patient with me and other geezers you may know. We’re not ignoring you. Well, we might be, but we just may not be able to hear you because of that jet taking off between our ears.