One night, in mid-March, I went to bed and found I could not sleep. I lay awake, overly aware of my heartbeat, trying to remember my last cup of coffee, nervous that if I did not get to sleep soon, I might never rest again. My pulse counterproductively increased in time with the building anxiety. Gradually I became aware of a sound, a beeping, in my left ear that was preventing me from drifting off. I increased the tempo of my bedside fan and fell asleep to the reliable rhythm of its plastic blades.
I woke the next morning and switched off the fan. The beeping had become a distinct chirping. It is a sound I now know well.
For nearly six months, I have heard in my left ear a ringing, a little cymbal, a tinny bell, that persists through night and day, and flares up into micro-crescendo just when I think it has finally outsung itself. Sometimes, it sounds like rustling leaves. Once, it was a typewriter. At the moment, it is a cricket in heat, rubbing its wings together with purpose and verve.
No one can say what the sound is or why it suddenly developed one night when I was sleeping alone at home, my husband away at a conference. I hadn’t been exposed to loud noises or machinery; I had no trauma, no history of autoimmune disease. The medical consensus (offered by a Berkeley nurse practitioner and a smugly unhelpful otolaryngologist) is that I must be losing hearing in my left ear. A nerve has somehow been damaged and is now dying, and this is its swan song: fits and chirps and a persistent, if unpredictable, tone.
According to Wikipedia, tinnitus is “the perception of sound within the human ear in the absence of corresponding external sound.” Mine is subjective, not objective, which means that if you were to come up close to my head and place your ear against mine, you would hear nothing, while the crickets unseen continue their mating calls. The sounds are literally “in my head.” Meanwhile, I continue to hear everything around me just fine, so if I’m losing hearing, it is by minor degrees, with disproportionate fanfare from my hyperactive nerves.
We are all varying degrees of body-conscious. Some of us—whose livelihoods are not explicitly dependent on our physical aspects—go through life aware of, but not fixated on, the flesh body we bathe, the figure in the mirror. We may scrutinize the swell of our muscles in the gym, but it is not an overwhelming preoccupation. We are aware of our bodies; we know we have ears, fingers, belly buttons. But they do not command us. They do not talk to us. If I am engrossed in work, the last thing I think about is my physical body. In graduate school, my father once forgot to feed his during a marathon research session—forgot, until he fainted among friends.
Of course, to anticipate the critic of mind-body dualism, the mind, too, is in and of the body. We think, read, and write from and with our bodies. All cerebral work is embodied, as is all human experience. Fair enough. My point here is not philosophical, but observational, anecdotal.
I have always imagined that the likes of models and athletes must be more attuned to their bodily matter than the rest of us. Watching the Olympics this summer has reinforced this sense. I’m not referring to the window dressing of makeup and tracksuits, but the elemental stuff of eyelashes, toenails, freckles, fat. The Olympian profoundly inhabits her every cell. I, by contrast, have lived my life in relative ignorance of the transformations in the physical stuff of me. Sometimes, I am a little heavier, hungrier. Sometimes, I have dull pain in a knee.
When the dead cells of my hair grow long, I have them cut. I move around the world in a body without thinking much about its inner processes, and I generally expect it to fulfill the tasks I set it to.
Although as a child I imagined myself a future oncologist (I had absorbed the predominant aspirations of my parents’ immigrant generation), I have since moved into the bloodless world of word processing and library carrels, and I have become squeamish about bodies and their secret lives. When the “Bodies” exhibition came to town, I recoiled from the skeletal and muscular systems, the tar-blackened cross-sections of lungs, and stretched intestines on display: all fascinating in theory, but I was viscerally disturbed.
Now, tinnitus has taken me into my body in uncomfortable and illuminating ways. I have an ear that is not tethered to the rest of me, for inside it, nerves are dying, early and already. What else might go, or will, and when? What else is happening inside that bag of skin that makes possible everything I am, and do?
I have moved deeper into myself, into the nerves that reside under the skin I scald with hot water washing dishes. I have started running, stretching, and moving more mindfully, pushing other parts of my body to compensate for the mysterious, premature aging of my left ear. I have moved into the tongue that flicks the corner of a chipped front incisor. I will never get that corner of tooth back; it, too, will be jagged until I die.
It is hard not to be over-serious about tinnitus. “Hearing things” occasions drama. In the early weeks, I struggled to come to terms with non-stop sound as my new normal. Now, having adjusted to it, like an acquired scar, I try to attend to what it’s telling me. It is part of the story of this body I schlep about, like the gray hair I spied the other day at my temple. It grounds me in particle physics, like the eyes which track these words through light and screen and this, my first of many pairs of glasses.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.