06/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tinnitus: the Noisy Affliction We Are Too Quiet About

In a recent article here on the Huffington Post titled Moral Confusion in the Name of "Science," burgeoning neuroscientist Sam Harris defended and elaborated upon his recent TED talk on the possibility that science -- objective observations and the attendant inferences we logically make based on the data gathered from those observations -- has much to tell us about what is moral and immoral, right and wrong. Sam is a great guy: he wrote The End of Faith, a book that everyone should read -- no, that everyone must read. In the Huff article, Sam says,

Science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want -- and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of the mind.

But what interested me even more was this brief aside:

It is, for instance, true to say that I am experiencing tinnitus (ringing in my ears) at this moment. This is a subjective fact about me. I am not lying about it. I have been to an otologist and had the associated hearing loss in the upper frequencies in my right ear confirmed. There is simply no question that I can speak about my tinnitus in the spirit of scientific objectivity.

I have had tinnitus for about thirty years. Sam, it seems, has it only in his right ear; I am blessed with the full stereo effect, although sometimes the balance knob does boost the sound in my right channel. Sure, tinnitus is subjective, in that another person can't hear it. But its reality is a scientific fact nonetheless. Thank you, Sam, for making it clear that we tinnitus sufferers are not nuts; it's not "all in our heads" -- well, it is actually, but you Huffers know what I mean.

The website of the American Tinnitus Association informs us:

The ATA estimates that over 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree. Of these, about 12 million have severe enough tinnitus to seek medical attention. And about two million patients are so seriously debilitated that they cannot function on a "normal," day-to-day basis.

So tinnitus is a big problem. But it's kind of like masturbation: Millions experience it, but almost nobody talks about it. So Sam, I salute you for talking about it. It is important that people in the public eye, respected people, people whom knowledgeable folks actually listen to, mention that they suffer from this ungodly affliction. (And I choose the word "ungodly" for a purpose, for no intelligent designer that is not a deranged harpy would ever dream up such a scourge as tinnitus.) Hearing people like Sam Harris speaking about this really helps the rest of us cope.

For years, I felt as if I were among an obscure minority who had to put up with this relentless ringing. I remember being really scared one day about 25 years ago after reading an article in which a guy said that one day he woke up and there was an air-raid siren blaring inside his left ear. The biggest fear of someone like me is that one day the tinnitus will get really bad and no longer be manageable. Hell, I have even thought about suicide (well, maybe not seriously, but images of potential ultimate remedies kept creeping inside my skull: jumping off a roof, swallowing a full bottle of aspirin, buying a gun and then secreting myself in an abandoned garage on the outskirts of town, where the bang and its aftermath would cause the least distress for other people).

My having tinnitus is my own damned fault: too much rock and roll when I was in my twenties. I was the lead singer and songwriter for a quasi-punk band called The Pencils. (Years ago I wrote a short story about this.) Unfortunate for me and my cohorts, but probably the opposite for millions of music lovers, Pencilmania never happened. Hence I toil as a community college teacher and tenacious blogger.

But that's not the whole story. The aforementioned intelligent designer of this vast universe apparently loves me so much that she decided in her infinite wisdom to complement my tinnitus with a pretty strong dose of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). One time at a party, my good friend Bruce blew up and popped a paper bag to the delight of a small horde of kids prancing around him in his kitchen. My ears were nearby, and the ringing immediately flamed a dozen notches. So for weeks I obsessed: Why did I stand so close to that kitchen? Why hadn't I put my earplugs in? They are always in my pocket; I carry them as a penitent carries a rosary or a little boy in a Ray Bradbury story totes his lucky rabbit's foot. Sometimes I torment myself like this: How close was I to that stereo speaker when Pete Townshend (another tinnitus victim) hit that screaming high note? Has that one moment of supreme loudness caused a permanent increase in the intensity of my inner noise?

Then one day I read somewhere that William Shatner has it. I thought, in a brief descent into puerile rumination, Captain Kirk has tinnitus? Hey, I'm in pretty good company. And then, more maturely, I considered that Shatner also has an ongoing career. He's coping with this demon in his ears. And later I learned that David Letterman suffers too, and he's on TV almost every night. He's living his life and saying "Up yours" to his tinnitus. Maybe I can -- and should -- do the same. And now I know that Sam Harris has it. I am truly in excellent company.

Coping with tinnitus is an ongoing struggle with many illuminated peaks and darkened abysses. Sometimes I dare to think that maybe, just maybe, the ringing will subside. Perhaps I am the rarest of scientific anomalies and will be given an eleventh-hour reprieve. Maybe the f*ing noise is going away for good! This irrational optimism rears its head when days go by and I scarcely notice a diminished whistling. But then I awake one dismal morning, and realize it's not to be. The infernal fiend, that stubborn bastard, is screaming away once more.