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Higgins: Surrounded By Sound

Every moment of every day, we are surrounded by sound. Right now, for example, there’s the sound of my voice, of course, but there’s also a slight hiss and fizz around it. There's the pizzicato pop of the last drop of milk falling into a cup of coffee, or the articulated clatter of teeth zipping up a raincoat.

Until a few months ago, I'd forgotten how vivid our soundscape can be. I have Meniere’s Disease, a disorder of the inner ear that results in tinnitus, vertigo, hearing loss and, often, deafness. It’s one of those frustrating conditions that has no determined cause and no cure.

Tinnitus kicked in first. A persistent roaring in my right ear hounded me everywhere. I’d be out at a restaurant and find myself straining to hear what people were saying. I figured it would pass, but a sudden series of debilitating vertigo attacks frightened me into action. “Meniere’s,” the doctor said, after crossing every other possibility off the list. It affects hundreds of thousands of Americans, but I’d never heard of it.

I soon became a veritable vertigo aficionado. One day I’d turn my head slightly and wind up on the floor, the room whipping around me like the most un-fun carnival ride ever. Then, maybe a month later, I’d sense it from far off, like truck wheels somewhere well down a wet road, getting louder and louder while all I could do was wait for it to arrive - wondering if it would last for hours or days or only a moment. Every day held the promise of new and freshly unpleasant adventure.

But Meniere’s is an unpredictable disease. Recently, surprising me as well as my doctor, my hearing has improved, while the attacks have diminished in frequency. I’m convinced that something shifted when I finally stopped considering my symptoms as things that happened to me, and instead thought of them as part of me. The spinning is always in my head. Sometimes it erupts into the open and the world turns over and I go tumbling along with it. Other times, it’s just a faint tremor, barely there at all.

Emboldened by this unexpected resurgence of hope, I was fitted for a hearing aid. Fingers brushing fabric, shoes scraping on the floor, the rustle and hush of pages turning in a book, even the startling sound of my own voice. My hearing now has a remarkably textured, almost 3-D quality, restoring a level of ambient detail to my life that I once took for granted - but never will again.

Darren Higgins is a writer and editor living in Waterbury Center who writes about topics including fatherhood, history, literature, and the environment.
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