In My Own Words: Music and noise

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I have a music rotation on Youtube that I listen to while I’m working. For most people, that wouldn’t sound like anything special, but as someone who couldn’t listen to music for 15 years, it feels amazing. But I’m not always successful in hearing music as music: for example, when I’m in certain aisles in my local grocery story, I hear music that is so irritating that I want yell at them to turn that awful noise off. OK, sometimes even the music I’m listening to on my computer or CD player sounds like awful noise and I switch it off. One reason for that is that sometimes I need to know what song I am listening to before I can hear it as a real melody, not just noise. Other times, I can tell something is music, but I can’t hear the melody so it sounds unpleasant. Once in awhile, though, I pause to listen to a song that feels like the equivalent of pure joy. Then music feels like an unbelievable blessing. Those songs touch my heart/soul/mind in ways that really can’t be put into words. 

The sense of gratitude I have for the technology – for my cochlear implant – that allows me to hear music feels so immense that it can still bring tears to my eyes. But there is another aspect to the joys of technology I haven’t written about. That’s because the problem is generally under control. This past year, I had a flare-up after taking some medicine when the damaged nerve in my back/leg was irritated. (That nerve problem was caused by a herniated disc years ago and by the time the doctors discovered what was wrong, the damage was permanent.) 

I have tinnitus. That’s a fancy name for ear ringing, also know as auditory hallucinations. It means you hear sounds that don’t exist outside your brain. Hearing aids and my CI keep generally keep that under control. When they are off – when I can’t hear sound from the world around me – my world is not silent. Rather, it is filled with irritating, awful noise. At times, I’ve heard three or more different sounds/pitches together, fighting with each other to be the most prominent. Sometimes the sounds resemble speech, but just unclear enough for me not to be able to make out the words. Other times, they are like a recording that’s stuck: the same few sounds repeat over and over and over again. 

My experience with tinnitus began in 1973, my first year of college. During those early years, I found it difficult to cope with the noise. Just think of a sound that irritates you and imagine never being able to escape it. I’ve read that some people die by suicide just to stop the noise. I can understand that: I remember once calling my mother during those first years and crying because I felt unable to get through the day. Fortunately, soon after that I went to a doctor who put me on my first restrictive diet, one that helped, although it did not stop the ear ringing. 

What did make a difference was the hearing aids I received when I could no longer hear speech. (Note, with two hearing aids I could only hear sounds, but not understand them. I was still dependent on lip reading to know what someone was saying. Well, there are times I still depend on lip reading even with my CI.) If it gets too quiet (meaning there is no sound around me), I sometimes still hear the ear ringing, even when I’m wearing my devices. But after reading a book about relaxing into the noise, rather than fighting it, things became easier. It was not a perfect solution, but it’s been a help. 

Many people take their hearing for granted until (like many friends my age are now discovering) being able to hear well is no longer guaranteed. I try to appreciate on a regular basis what I’ve regained: the fact I can hear sounds that were beyond my grasp for so many long years. While I still can’t listen to all the music I once did, I am so grateful for the songs that bring me joy. It’s my hope that I never take this blessing for granted.