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When my daughter was a toddler, our house filled up with the usual noisy toys: rattling bears, whack-a-mole, beeping telephones. I delighted in her genius as she clanked and banged.
But later, a shift happened. I started hiding the noisemakers. I asked people to turn down the radio. I commandeered the remote. Mute! Bikers on Harleys inspired murder in my heart. I was not a sympathetic character.
I told my doctor about my aversion to noise. “Well, what do you want ME to do about it?” she replied. She suggested my nervous system was wired like a Jackson Pollock painting, and referred me to a neurologist.
The neurologist blew me off as if my visit were a personal affront. “YOU don’t have a neurological disorder,” she said in the tone a child might use to say “YOU’RE not the boss of me.”
I tried an ear-nose-and-throat guy. He pontificated in a woolly voice: “You have an overabundance of cilia in your inner ear. They act as miniature sound receptors. There is nothing to be done.”
The psychiatrist I went to next laughed at his own joke: “Are you telling me you have phonaphobia? Fear of telephones? Heh heh heh.”
He claimed I had a neurasthenic personality (me and Blanche DuBois). He prescribed Prozac. I woke up cheerful – until the neighbour’s leaf blower started.
A cranio-sacral therapist told me I must have suffered a blow to the head. “Yeah,” I recalled. “ a skater once crashed into me.”
“Hmmm.” He looked pensive. “Fixing this is tricky.” Meaning he didn’t have a clue. (At least he was nice about it.) He oscillated the fluid in my spinal cord; I was a human lava lamp. I left his clinic not-unpleasantly stoned, then passed out on a nearby lawn.
A naturopath in a salon with purple satin curtains told me there was a dissonance between the rhythms of my body and those of the outside world, and that I should jump on a trampoline. I was skeptical, but I jumped.
An acupuncturist informed me my chi was blocked. She pierced me in surprising places and cupped my back till the flesh rose like a tray of strawberry muffins.
I bought books like Too Loud Too Bright Too Fast Too Tight and The Highly Sensitive Person. I read that the human body hadn’t evolved as rapidly as the technological age, and that not all of us were able to adjust to the sounds of the electronic era. The solution? Wear ear plugs. I wore ear plugs up the yin yang, and my condition worsened. My world shrank. I stopped going to movies: Dolby Surround Sound. I stopped going to parties: Too much chatting. I avoided supermarkets: Too many cash registers. I stopped going to yoga: I couldn’t handle the collective “Ohhmmm.” During fireworks I covered my head with a pillow or wore construction-worker ear muffs. People thought I was nuts.
But I did offer some amusement. I became a parlour trick:
“Can you hear this?” Plink. “Yes, I can hear it.”
“Do you hear this?” Rustle. “Yes, I do hear it.”
“Is this the sound you hate?” Bleep. “Yes, that’s the one.”
“Does this bother you?” Keys jangled in my ears. “Does it hurt when I kick you?”
It’s a noisy world out there. Rap music, tweeting crosswalk signals, screeching bus brakes, blaring car alarms, ambulances. Okay, I’ll allow ambulances.
When first dates asked, “Soooooo, what kind of music do you like?” I replied “I don’t like music.” I didn’t get many second dates. Silence became my lover.
I contemplated having my eardrums removed, moving to Bella Coola, or suicide. Anything for some outer peace. A friend said, “There must be SOMETHING good about this hearing thing. Like you can really hear the music at a rock concert.” I looked at her like she was a donkey in a fruit salad.
Finally, after 10 years of searching for help in the years just pre-Internet, I saw yet another audiologist. “You have hyperacusis,” she stated. A name! A condition! “I can help you.”
I liquefied. When she tested my hearing, my discomfort level was 60 decibels (the noise of an air-conditioning unit 100 feet away).
“Was the onset of this sensitivity close to a traumatic event?” she asked. “Servicemen sometimes get this after listening carefully for enemy soldiers. Or victims of sexual assault listening for predators. Or mothers listening to the breathing of chronically ill children.” Hyper listening.
I thought back. Yes. It had started after a home invasion. I’d woken up with a hulk of a man hovering two feet from me. I screamed, and he ran. For months after that I would jump at noises: a mama bear protecting her cub.
The audiologist outfitted me with miniature sound generators resembling hearing aids that hummed pink noise. “These will recalibrate your amplification systems. The other thing is, don’t run from noise. Listen to it as intently as you can. Challenge it. That will take away its power.”
I was healed in six months. Retested, I was perfectly fine at 100 decibels (a jet taking off). I tossed my earplugs in the bin.
These days, other people ask me to turn down the stereo and not to hammer so enthusiastically when I dance flamenco. I feel sorry for dogs.
Carol Narod lives in Vancouver.