A Yearning for the Sound of Silence: Noise Sensitivity After Brain Injury

The dog is barking at the excitement of the visitors. The front door slams. The kids talk to each other in their naturally higher pitched voices – something that would normally be sweet but unfortunately there is nothing sweet about this. The screaming starts. Now there’s crying. “It’s so loud in here,” I say out loud. I don’t know if it was louder than a whisper to myself but even the sound of my own voice hurts my head. It’s hard to discern how loud I’m talking when there are so many noises in the environment on top of the ringing in my ears.

I walk up to my room, close the bedroom door and turn my white noise machine on, hoping it will somehow cancel out some of the noise. I feel threatened by the noise but in my rational mind I think about how silly this is. The noise machine isn’t doing anything so I go into my closet and close the door. Maybe this will be a safe space. The ringing becomes so loud. I can hear my heartbeat – I picture the ventricles of my heart filling up with blood and pumping it out of the vessels with every loud thump in my head.

There is a vent on the wall in my closet. The air conditioning turns on; I can hear it flowing through the vents so I can pinpoint the exact flow of it just like the flow of my blood with each heartbeat. Systole. Here it comes rushing out next to me through the closet vent, blowing directly onto my body. I’m shivering because I am so cold. The vents make a crinkling and crunching sound as it passes through the house, eventually making its way to my vent where it whooshes out in a fury.

A new sound emerges almost every second it seems, startling me, making my body jolt. The front door slams every five minutes. Even if I can predict when the slamming will occur, it startles me. The voices – the many voices – penetrate directly into my brain. Kids talking normally and kids screaming. Adults talking in normal voices but it sounds like they are shouting. I hear laughter. This should be joyous and happy to hear laughter but instead, it is excruciating. Voices with the inflection of excitement penetrate further. Why are the vents crinkling so much? My noise machine is going in my bedroom but it isn’t actually doing anything except using up electricity. All rational thought has left me.

I’m lying on my closet floor, tears streaming down my face as I hold my ears. My brain is in rebellion as I don’t even consciously make the connection that I am staring with eyes wide open at the wall, not blinking at all. Meanwhile, my ears are zoning into the madness, picking up every little sound. I made a little pillow for my head out of a yoga towel that was laying on the floor in the closet. I am so overwhelmed that attempting to add some sort of comfort is not on my radar. A pillow and a blanket would’ve been nice.

How do I make it stop? I want to rip my ears off. I’m sweating. I must be in fight or flight, and I so desperately want to fly away to a place in silence. I wonder what silence feels like anymore. Every additional sound is hammering my brain. I attempt to meditate and focus on my breathing but every second I am startled and distracted by a noise. The front door slams. A car drives by outside as I hear its engine rev. The deep voices and higher voices in conversation penetrate the walls. It seems as though the walls are made of paper. The ear plugs make the ringing worse, causing me to feel even more insane. Why can’t I just flip the switch to off? The ringing is so intense – it’s system overload.

I want to be normal and want to be a part of it but I can’t. I’m alone again because I can’t handle it and I’m reminded that I’m still not me. And I’m still not like everyone else. Never in my life have I wanted to be so much like everyone else more than I do right now. I’m drowning in noise. I turn to my usual solace – music. But the music mixed with everything else makes it worse so I have to turn it off. The combination of sounds is just too much. How many movements are left in this horrendous, excruciating symphony?

I’m shaking. I’m anxious. I wish for just one second the noise would stop. The air conditioning turned off. Oh, now I hear my noise machine. Why is the ringing getting louder? Someone must be tapping their foot on the wall or on the counter because I hear a repetitive tapping over and over. A pantry door opens. It is so squeaky and feels like someone must be opening the side of my skull like a door, peering into the mess in my brain.

Dishes are being stacked in the pantry. Oh my god, that hurts. It’s like the dishes are being stacked directly onto my brain. My brain is reverberating. I’m faced with the same question I’ve faced in many situations past – can anyone hear this? I feel insane by it because pre-injury I wouldn’t have noticed the many little sounds I’m hearing now or be affected by such normal and innocent sounds. Of course, no one’s noticing the noise. Except me.

Someone’s blasting music in their car – I wonder if it’s a teen with a sub-woofer because I can hear and feel the bass thumping outside the house on the street. The air conditioning is coming back on…only a matter of seconds before the crunching of the vent starts. There it is. I know the burst of freezing cold air on my body is impending and it will bring goosebumps and shivering. But I can’t help but continue to lie here paralyzed.

I picture the air movement. It takes a turn through the vent. It’s coming up. The gush of freezing air has arrived, blowing directly onto my cold, limp body. I just figured it out – it sounds identical to the rain pounding the gutters and windowpane in a really bad storm. That was always something I loved about storms but not anymore and this is a storm in my brain that I don’t want to be a part of.

Having no concept of time, I realize I have been lying on my closet floor for two and a half hours. I wish there were a volume dial for the sounds of the world. For just a moment, I wish I could turn it down and put the world on stop.

I miss the sound of silence.

2 thoughts on “A Yearning for the Sound of Silence: Noise Sensitivity After Brain Injury

  1. My noise sensitivity is so bad since my TBI. I have earplugs and noise canceling headphones and often have to go to a quiet room and lay in silence. It’s so crazy how too much noise and create so much with a brain injury and really change how you fell and respond.

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