‘The only noise I ever hear is a ringing inside my ear’

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A series on true experiences

ILLNESS

I WAS ON the phone when I first got the hint that something was wrong with my left ear. I could not hear clearly. My family and I believed that it would be something minor like ear wax.

The doctor told me I would need surgery for my hearing to be restored. I wondered how my family would react. I had always prided myself on my good health. The news of my hearing loss and the impending surgery shook me.

Illustration: Samia Singh

For the surgery, the hair surrounding my left ear was shaved, which made me look awkward. Little did I know this was to be the first in a series of embarrassments. Though I didn’t notice any change, an audiogram after the surgery indicated an improvement in my hearing.

As days went by, I was struggling to hear. And it gradually got worse. My doctor compared test results from before and after the surgery and insisted that there was a marginal improvement. In anger and despair, I stopped consulting him.

Two years later, I sensed a faint ringing inside my operated ear. It persisted throughout the evening, and when I went to bed, it became more pronounced in the silence of the night. I waited patiently for it to disappear.

In the morning, I realised that my mind wasn’t playing tricks and rushed to a nearby doctor. He carried out a test and declared that my operated ear was as good as dead. I had something call tinnitus. I walked home shell-shocked.

Medical science was yet to find a cure for tinnitus. For two years, I had been coping with hearing loss and then I had to put up with something more irritating for the rest of my life. It’s not life-threatening, but depression and suicidal tendencies are common among sufferers.

The days that followed were agonising. I took tranquilisers and anti-depressants to stop myself from going insane. In the pin-drop silence of the night, I would lie awake struggling to shut out the ringing. My ear bellowed relentlessly and the sound showed no sign of abating.

The ringing would vary with intensity and tone, depending on the state of my mind. When I was calm, the ringing was like the sound of the sea, but in times of stress, my ear would whistle and screech like a pressure cooker blowing its lid off.

I had lost my hearing too. Listening became a painstaking exercise — at times, I would simply nod my head, without making head or tail of what I had heard. Keeping mum was sensible to avoid embarrassment. The ringing held a complete sway over me and my life was beginning to fall apart. I gave up the tranquilisers before I got hooked. I plunged into work and stood up to my shortcomings. During my most trying moments, I took to yoga and meditation, which helped me retain some mental balance.

Remaining calm and cheerful has become my mantra. It was an important moment when I realised that the ringing in my ears was going to stay with me till the end. Why not accept it and make it my companion?

Ten years have passed. I had a flourishing computer manufacturing business. These days, I have cut down my hours due to communication problems and to avoid stress.

Writing and photography have given me solace. I am now a freelance photojournalist. Besides, I have begun to impart training in photography to hearing impaired students from Sanskardham Vidyalaya for Hearing Impaired in Mumbai and opened a Facebook page where people with similar impairment can interact. My mission in life is to train such people in photography. I have done several photo documentaries and have published articles on social issues. I have come a long way since the ringing started, leading a simple, limited, and cerebral life. I keep my ringing to myself.

Rajen Nair is 52. He is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Mumbai.

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