I wish for a silent Christmas

I have suffered from tinnitus for 25 years and I wish I could know peace and quiet once again.

A Christmas tree carousel is pictured on the Graslin place as part of Christmas holiday season, in Nantes, France, December 8, 2022. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
A Christmas tree carousel is pictured on the Graslin place as part of Christmas holiday season, in Nantes, France, December 8, 2022 [Reuters/Stephane Mahe]

It is that time when columnists, like me, are asked to put down their mallets, reflect on the past year and ponder the next.

The aim, I suppose, is to try to share with readers a morsel of wisdom that columnists are expected to possess without using a blunt club to make the point.

Sometimes, year-end columns veer into the confessional and sentimentality – a practice that I have tried to avoid as a writer since the best columns tend to look outward, not inward.

I have made an exception with this, my final column of 2022. I have decided, reluctantly, to write, in part, about myself, because my experience may have universal resonance or meaning.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the value and necessity of silence. As ever, the world is a roaring, tumultuous place. The past 12 months have, sadly, been no exception. We have been obliged, yet again, to experience the distressing and depressing refrain of anger, discord and war.

We need the soothing balm that only silence can offer.

But this year, like every other year for the past 25 years, I have not known silence. Instead, beyond the rancorous hurly-burly of life, I have braved a high-pitched hissing or buzzing in my ears and head.

I suffer from the horror called tinnitus. Perhaps you do too.

Our suffering is invisible to outsiders. Only people who hear the piercing symphony can understand that the suffering is real and relentless. That is why people who, as a result of misfortune or self-inflicted wounds, live with the constant cacophony are known as members of the tinnitus “community”.

Every day, I hear the familiar hissing and buzzing from the moment I wake to when I dip into sleep. It has been this way for a long, often debilitating, while.

Tinnitus has tested me. It has tested my ability to write. It has tested my ability to teach. It has tested my family. It has tested my stamina and resilience. It has tested my will.

I am not alone. Tinnitus is the other epidemic of our unsettling times. Millions of people across the globe endure tinnitus. Many millions more will, given the damaging decibels they are exposed to by choice or circumstance.

Some, like me, hear hissing and buzzing. Others hear the sound of crickets, cicadas, small explosions, even the clicking of typewriters. Some hear one sound or a devil’s brew of noises in one ear. Others, like me, in both.

On occasion, the noises morph into a sphere of sound wrapped around the head like an acoustic ball on fire. It is a frightening sensation that rattles the mind and soul.

Noise is the enemy. Noise becomes synonymous with danger. The world is a loud place. It is becoming louder. We are assaulted by noise. Everywhere. At home. In the street. In shops. In theatres. In restaurants. At sporting events. Even in restrooms. Noise. Noise. Noise.

The deluge of noise is, I suspect, supposed to make us feel the excitement and thrill of life. It is an affirmation that we are alive. The noise is meant, as well, to drown out thoughts of loneliness, sadness and inadequacy that quiet contemplation is apt to produce.

Whatever the motive, that noise is damaging. It is damaging to our hearing. That damage has consequences. One of them can be catastrophic tinnitus. Anyone, at any age, can become a sufferer. Tinnitus is indiscriminate.

Many people pipe noise into their ears with little, white devices without realising that they are on the dead-end road to joining the tinnitus “community”. Once the noises begin, there is no turning back. There is no cure, no caplet that stops the noises. There is no instant elixir.

And when you lose silence, you can lose hope. You can’t think. You can’t concentrate. Worse, you can’t sleep. Without sleep, life becomes harder and disorienting. You take pills and other concoctions to try to sleep and keep the creeping despair at bay.

You wonder if it will be possible to think, concentrate or sleep again. You wonder if you will ever be able to escape the noise that inhabits your ears and head. You wonder if joy is still possible.

There are days, even months, when the hissing and buzzing become louder for no reason. You search in vain for the triggers. You ask: What have I done? Why have the noises changed? The doctors and scientists you prevail upon for answers shrug. They don’t know because there are so many unknowns about tinnitus. Tinnitus is an enigma.

That’s what happened to me beginning in mid-August. The scalding noises in my ears and head began to overwhelm me once more. I tried, as best as I could, to avoid slipping back into the pit.

I had climbed out of the pit before. The tinnitus would recede like a wave. I had trained myself not to dread the noises, but to accept them. I thought I had tamed the tinnitus. In the tinnitus “community”, this happy, difficult-to-achieve state is known as “habituation”.

I was wrong.

Slowly, inevitably, my mind tuned back into the din over the summer and well into the fall. The anxiety and fear quickly followed. The emergency brake wasn’t working.

So, I hurried back to the kind, patient doctors in Toronto, Buffalo and Tempe, Arizona, who had guided me out of the pit before. They reassured me. They told me that this “crisis” would pass. They told me to meditate, to search for distractions, to use sound to “mask” the tinnitus.

None of it worked. I thought I had lost the battle. My anxiety and fear deepened.

Then, I reached out to a counsellor in Florida who knew all about tinnitus, having suffered from tinnitus for decades himself.

He taught me to lean into the noises, rather than push them away. It is a novel, almost revolutionary approach to conquering the noises.

Within weeks, the noises began to lose their power and potency. The despondency lifted. My wife regained her husband, my children their father, my students their teacher.

I still don’t know silence, but I have rediscovered a fragile calm and happiness.

My wish for readers is to recapture the clarity of silence, to remember the pleasure of stillness amid the jarring noises that surround us all to one degree or another.

My wish for people suffering from tinnitus is that we soon stop being a “community”. There is hope on the not-so-distant horizon. Doctors and scientists are busy developing treatments for this sinister condition that will, one day, allow us to know the delight and tonic of silence.

Until then, I pray you can find quiet and peace.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.