I can already hear the mixed cacophony of voices coming from the meeting room as I stand in the hallway, hearing several conversations going on at once. I hear each voice and each conversation distinctly. I can’t filter any of the voices out. Each one is very prominent, pounding in my head as if my ears were the punching bag. So loud. My breath hitches as a heaviness in my chest forms. This meeting is going to be rough on both my ears and my sanity.
I put my hand in my pocket and feel the foam ear plugs tucked away there. I spend a minute wondering if I’m brave enough to go into that room without them in my ears. I sigh. Putting them in would mean all those voices would be quieter, but it would still be a muffled, garbled, mess of sound that would create a feeling of me being inside a fishbowl while someone jackhammers around it. Oh, and don’t forget that on top of all that distorted sound, the screaming high-pitched ring of my tinnitus would be at the forefront. I always hear my tinnitus at its worst when I’m plugged, and it’s a sound that I can’t get away from, the kind that makes you shriek in agony. It’s so horribly unbearable. I decide to leave the ear plugs out and venture into the meeting room.
I thought I was braced for the full impact of sound, but I was wrong. I’m hit with all the noise like a blast of frigid, ice-cold air. My ears are full of pain. My head expands. It feels like it’s going to burst. I feel like I immediately want to run away. My heart is pounding with anxiety. I hate this. But they need me in this meeting. I keep my poker face on.
“FOOD’S HERE!” someone screams coming up from behind me. I’m sure they weren’t screaming, but to me they were. They unceremoniously dump all the paper-wrapped sandwiches in the middle of the table. I hear each one thump loudly against the table while all that paper explodes in crinkly noises before it settles down. My eardrums do a flip flop in my head, so very tuned-in to the sound the sandwiches just made. I stare at those sandwiches, wondering how sandwiches can make so much noise. No one else in the room noticed that the sandwiches made so much noise. No one even gives it a thought. It makes me feel crazy.
But then mayhem ensues. Everyone grabs a sandwich and AT THE SAME TIME begins tearing apart the paper to get to their lunch. It’s like Christmas morning, everyone ripping open their gifts with such flair and lively effort. The sound of the paper ripping in stereo from ten different sandwiches is completely torturous for me. My poker face is still in place, but all I want to do is yell at everyone to STOP DOING THAT! JUST STOP! PLEASE STOP! STOP THIS MADNESS! But, for me to yell would add another layer of sound, and I can’t bear that. And it would make me seem crazy. VERY crazy. I feel so alone in my torture as I sit there and wait for all the paper to be thrown away and for it to stop moving, even as it dies a slow death in the garbage can in the other corner of the room away from me.
I take a deep breath. I’m strong. I can get through this. But inside I feel like crying. I want to escape and be alone in the quiet.
I am the only one in the room with this secret. The secret of what it’s like to have super hearing. No one knows what it’s truly like. If they knew, they wouldn’t have ripped the paper like that.
They know I have “sensitive hearing.” But do they know I can hear the buzz of light bulbs as loudly as fireworks? Do they know I can hear literally THOUSANDS of birds insanely chirping away within a mile radius when I go outside? Do they know the water coming out of the sink sounds like Niagara Falls? Do they know their voices hurt me? Even when I try to explain, I realize- No. No, they don’t know.
“Hey, Kim, let me know if this is on too loud,” the leader says as he starts the dial tone of the speaker phone to call our client. The sound of the dial tone carries me away into another worldly dimension. I’m not able to keep my poker face and I give the noticeable tell by squeezing my eyes shut in pain. “Oh, sorry,” they say, as they turn it down ONLY ONE notch. I reach out and turn it down eight more notches.
Someone coughs and clears their throat. I jump. Unexpected sounds hit me like lightning.
Our client comes on the phone. “Hello, is everyone there?” Their voice booms and echoes throughout the room, bouncing off the walls and reverberating into my ears in numerous shock waves. Voices through speakers are a whole other level of pain.
“I can’t hear them,” someone on my team says. “Turn it up.”
“Me either,” someone else sneers.
The leader agrees and turns it back up through the eight notches that I had turned it down. When a super-hearing person is in a room with hard-of-hearing people, guess who wins out?
The meeting goes on and I end up having to put in my ear plugs. And then what I feared becomes true…for an hour-long meeting I’m in a fishbowl with someone jackhammering around me while I have no choice but to listen to the loudest, most obnoxious, highest-pitched EEEEEEEEEEEEE of my tinnitus that you can’t even begin to imagine. I doubt you’d even be able to withstand it. But I’m strong. Poker faced. Even though I’m crying inside from the overwhelming pain.
This is life with hyperacusis. It makes you feel so alone. It makes you feel crazy. It steers you away from people and things and places you used to enjoy. It will ruin your mental health if you let it. You have to fight daily to stay positive and learn to control your emotions. You are the only person experiencing it, and people will go about their ways of doing things without a thought or clue of how it affects you. They will never fully understand.