By Jane Prawda
It was a crisp fall day when I was confronted by a catastrophic blast that changed my mental health, and life, forever. The violent noise caused permanent ear damage―and finding the right treatment has been a constant battle.
Auditory experts agree an untreated hearing condition can cause psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety. At the time of the noise trauma, I had already been living with depression for decades, since age 17, making my particular circumstances quite difficult and emotionally devastating.
On that day I will never forget, I was alone on the sidewalk of Manhattan’s Upper East Side walking home. I had no warning when, suddenly, I heard a tremendous explosion at one of the notoriously noisy construction sites on Second Avenue. At the time, New York City was enlarging the “Q” subway line by more than 30 blocks, a project that left us residents subject to years of dangerous noise.
Without a place to turn for help following the blast, I continued walking home. By evening, in the silence of my apartment, I could hear a faint twinkling sound in my ears: tinnitus.
It wasn’t surprising that the tinnitus quickly worsened my mental wellbeing. Frightened by the ringing in my ears, I phoned my psychiatrist. He prescribed an anti-anxiety medication.
The tinnitus soon went away, but then months later it returned. Was I experiencing lingering effects of the blast, or was it the medication provoking these disturbing sounds? With their latest re-emergence, the sounds had become louder. I was scared and felt empty inside.
I went from clinician to clinician trying all sorts of new remedies, including lipoflavinoids, neurofeedback, acupuncture, and tinnitus retraining therapy, and found no relief. The constant ringing brought me to the verge of suicide―prevented by my younger brother. He understood my agony, and I am grateful for his empathy.
In 2014 I began an experimental treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which uses highly-focused pulsed magnetic waves to stimulate nerve cells in the area of the brain that is thought to control mood. With the first treatment, the objective was to relieve tinnitus. Subsequent treatments were to relieve depression. Unfortunately, the one instance of the procedure was performed incorrectly, which not only worsened my hearing 30 dB, a mild hearing loss, but made the ringing present 24/7. It also caused transitory hyperacusis which, thankfully, I no longer live with today.
I was warned before the procedure that there was a slight chance I would lose hearing, but not that my tinnitus would become more persistent. With all symptoms worsened, I felt I’d arrived at another dead end and remained desperate for a solution.
Following the TMS treatments, I developed neuroplasticity, the brain’s formation of neural connections to adjust to injury. My audiologist believes neuroplasticity is what caused the hyperacusis to disappear and the tinnitus to subside considerably.
The tinnitus has come and gone according to my stress levels, at times even completely disappearing. With the help of my psychiatrist, I no longer struggle with depression. I’ve come to accept that a cure does not yet exist for tinnitus, so I cope in the best ways I can. Listening to the sounds of birds in the early morning, ocean waves, and babbling brooks using Resound Relief iPhone app always brought me great comfort.
I’ve also adapted to my mild hearing loss. I inform people I meet that I have a hearing loss and to face me when they speak; that works for me.
Through all the trauma I consider myself to be a survivor, as I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. It is there I draw my strengths.
Jane Prawda MA, OTR, MS/Ed has been published for her expertise in occupational therapy, including Surviving 9/11: Impact and Experiences of Occupational Therapy Practitioners. She lives in New York City.