4. The storm and the calm after

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On the Sunday after the breakdown, for the first time in fourteen years, I experienced silence.

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, then you’re not familiar with the concept of chronic tinnitus: a constant ringing, humming, or buzzing in your ears that never, never goes away. I’ve had chronic tinnitus for fourteen years—actually, I have several tinnitus components, of different frequencies and intensities, which fight with each other over who gets to be the loudest.

It was 2006, about the same time of year—late spring—when it started. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Doctors prescribed medication, but it didn’t help at all. I was stressed about my studies, depressed, suffering from phobias and a sense of overwhelming self-loathing (is there a name for that condition?) but I lived in Greece, where mental health issues are still brushed off with your typical macho shrug and get-over-it attitude. I didn’t get a lot of help. My parents tried, but they didn’t understand my problems at all, approaching them with cold hard logic, which you definitely cannot apply to phobias. They eventually sent me to a psychologist who was used to working with young children, and whose approach was “you’ll do this, because I’m telling you to.” Needless to say, it didn’t work.

My solution to all my mental health problems was to get a PhD scholarship and move to Germany, the land of peace and Ordnung. After years of introspection and self-therapy in this safe environment (and some real therapy, with a real person, of the certified kind), I’m proud to say that I’ve come a long way. Still, the tinnitus remains. But hey, that’s faulty wiring, right? Tinnitus is not psychological—or so I thought until today.

About a month ago, a buzzing in my left ear started. It came and went, seemingly at random. It was different than my old friends, the other tinnitus components, and it drove me crazy: I felt it, it wasn’t a more or less discreet companion, like the gentle ringing and chiming that had been with me all those years. It was intrusive, disturbing. It kept me from sleeping. One physician told me he couldn’t do anything about it, that this was not an acute problem, and I could listen to some music to mask it—he’d give me a referral to an ENT doctor eventually. How this affected my mental health was all the same to him. I went to the ENT doctor anyway (thank heavens for the German health system which allows me to visit any doctor I want, as often as I want, no cost, no questions asked), who told me he couldn’t diagnose anything I was not experiencing at the time of the visit, and advised me to keep a record of the problem and drink lots of water.

Fast forward to two weeks later.

The intermittent buzzing was not intermittent anymore. Day and night it was there and getting worse. On that Thursday, as we were putting the kids to bed, I realized the buzzing was louder than ever and my heart was pounding. I just sat for a while, relaxed, but my pulse was still too quick, and the unease didn’t go away. My body felt off, like I was sick, and I knew something was seriously wrong. It finally dawned on me that a persistent buzzing in the ear could have a vascular cause.

I asked Urban to take the batteries out of our youngest one’s nightlight and put them in my blood pressure meter. The result was not reassuring. I got more stressed by the minute, and even though it was cold and dark and I only had pajamas on, I put on my shoes and told Urban I’m going for a drive—on second thought, a walk, who knew if I could drive in that condition. He said he’d wait for me.

That’s when I flipped out. Urban can’t really operate on little sleep.

“You’ll wait for me?” I shouted. “It’s late, you have to wake up early because the kids have school tomorrow, you’ll be cranky all day because you won’t have slept enough, and then I’ll have to pick up the pieces.” I was imagining the fights, the screaming, the slammed doors, and I was already hyperventilating. Tears were flowing—I have no idea why—but he gave me a big hug and promised he wouldn’t be cranky. I went for a walk.

I had my phone with me, and I was texting Dimitra during this whole episode. Outside, as I walked alone in some back streets in the night, the tears kept flowing. I don’t remember what I wrote to Dimitra, but somehow she knew it was serious. “You are having a panic attack,” she wrote to me. “Go back home. Tell Urban to call Markus”—our neighbor—“ and have him drive you to the hospital.”

I don’t know how she knew. The next day, she told me she’d seen it coming for a long time. But I’m stubborn, and I insist on doing everything, and Ι rarely take breaks. And that’s not even the real reason why this happened to me: the emotional strain had more to do with it than any physical activity.

I’ve told you Dimitra’s my guardian angel, right?

Dimitra insists on me taking Lorazepam during these first days, even though the very strict—and a little cruel, if you ask me—doctors sent me home with a blood pressure in the red and the warning not to take it—only for emergencies, they kept insisting, because a blood pressure under 180 is not dangerous for someone my age.

On the Saturday after the panic attack, I woke up with vertigo and a very, very loud ringing in the left ear. The buzzing was gone, but this new sound was nearly unbearable. At the same time, I was horribly sensitive to sound: just opening up the tap caused me to recoil. Everyone had to be very quiet—Urban was nice enough to warn me every time he wanted to turn on the coffee machine. I asked him to bring the kids to his mother, and when he returned, we tried to decide if we should visit another doctor.

I didn’t have the strength to explain the whole convoluted story to yet another non-specialist who’d only have the generic advice I’d already heard, so I drank water and waited to see what happens. The vertigo subsided quickly, and the tinnitus and sound sensitivity—it’s called hyperacusis: what a nice word, instantly understandable to Greek speakers—were less severe by the afternoon. At that point, I relented under Dimitra’s nagging, and I took a Lorazepam.

The symptoms disappeared a couple of hours later, and I enjoyed a good night’s sleep. On Sunday morning, I woke up with a normal, low-level tinnitus—lower than it had ever been in the past fourteen years. Not gone, mind you, but still, the difference was striking.

It was 5:30 a.m. when I went down to the kitchen. For the first time ever in this house, I could hear the buzzing of all appliances. I stepped out onto the patio and took in the early morning sounds: the chirping of the birds, the distant humming of the cars on the Autobahn.

It’s Sunday afternoon now, and although all my old tinnitus buddies are here with me, they’re chilled. Respectful. They don’t intrude at all.

Oh, my God. I have to tell my doctors. Is there a chance I can actually live like this?

2 thoughts on “4. The storm and the calm after

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