I hear birds all the time. And electric wires, idling trucks, bells clanging, sirens wailing.
Starting our fourth decade: Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously online for 30 years

Drawing of the parts of the ear
The human ear is fairly rugged on the outside but delicate on the inside. Extremely loud sounds can damage the delicate portions.

Sounds that won't go away, Part 1

February 23, 2014

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2014, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2014, The Post-Standard

We were at the park. My wife wanted to know if I heard the birds.

I just stared at her. I suppose I was tired of reminding her.

I hear birds all the time. And electric wires, idling trucks, bells clanging, sirens wailing. I hear crickets and cicadas constantly. It's all very loud, so loud it's hard to hear anything else.

Some of you know exactly what I am about to say. I have a lot in common with others.

I have tinnitus. Experts in hearing say 20 percent of Americans suffer from it.

Tinnitus -- with the accent on the first syllable, not the second, for some inscrutable reason -- is not a disease. It's a condition, a handicap. Nobody hands out handicapped stickers for my windshield or gives me favored seating at a concert. Tinnitus is a handicap nobody pays attention to. Nobody, of course, except those who have it. They can hardly ignore it. It's driven some to suicide.

Tinnitus is what used to be called "ringing in the ears." If that's all it was, nothing more than ringing sounds, tinnitus sufferers would ease up a bit. In reality, tinnitus is the sensation of all sorts of sounds, many of them very loud. They are sounds that don't exist for anyone else. They're sometimes called sounds that are in your head, but they seem to be in your ears, too.

I've found I can't be absolutely sure if what I hear at any particular moment is real or self-generated. That's a huge problem in terms of safety, personal relationships and shopping. I've even lost friends because they figured I was ignoring them.

Tinnitus can be caused by damage to your hearing apparatus from a single extraordinarily loud sound or by prolonged exposure to a lot of really loud sounds. It can also result from infection or illness.

It's incurable. That's usually the first thing doctors tell you. Later on, they might slip out a few hints about research into what happens when a hole is drilled into your skull and electricity or turpentine or maybe peanut butter is sent into your brain. Or something like that. Or they'll say coffee makes it worse, or you should stop eating M&Ms or abalone fins. Who knows? All that matters is that you have it forever.

My date with the sounds I can't control took place in 1967. I can't tell you the exact day or even the month. I was in a jungle forest along the Cambodian border in South Vietnam with a company of American troops who were chasing a bunch of North Vietnamese soldiers.

I was a war correspondent. I was paying no attention at all to anything dangerous. I was taking pictures.

An artillery shell whistled and exploded in the middle of the guys I was with. One of my companions was killed instantly and some of the others were badly wounded. I was lucky; I was hurled sideways into a tree maybe 15 yards away. I heard two guys screaming for a medic and saw nothing but brown air everywhere. It was the dirt from the crater where the shell had hit, choking all of us until it finally settled.

What I remember most about that day wasn't the chaos of screaming and dying. It was the sound of the explosion. I still hear it, as loud as ever. But now it won't let me go.

Next: When medical science can't help, technology offers hope.