Sorting Through the Noise

I called in sick today. Since we’re working from home and I can technically work from bed, I could have been somewhat effective. But I felt all head-coldy and hadn’t slept more than a few hours the past couple of nights, so I figured I might as well take the PTO that I am privileged to have and rest up. It’s that self-care the kids are always talking about. Well, it was the best decision–I stayed in bed most of the day with my cats and didn’t do much but complete my daily Spanish lesson on Duolingo and half of my exercise routine and watch a whole bunch of The Man in the High Castle. Only one thing (other than my head cold) was a blemish on the day: noise.

Since sensory hypersensitivity is one of the common, classic autism traits, it seems a perfect time to dig into my experience with sound a little. It’s one sense I definitely have an issue with, and one I’ve come to terms with in some ways and am wholly powerless against in others.

There’s always a ringing in my ears from medication-induced tinnitus, made worse when I lose sleep, and I do have sensitive hearing, but today was some next-level nonsense. People in the alley just outside my window were doing some very clumsy carpentry. Every once in a while, it sounded like a bucket would tip over or something would clatter, and I’d tense up even though it was all happening out there. Also, my partner took the day off because he had a doctor’s appointment but then he spent the rest of the day with me (he usually works in his office on the opposite end of the apartment), and every time he coughed or dropped something it was like daggers in my ears. Not his fault, of course, but intention has no effect on how a sound feels once it reaches my head.

As sensitive as my ears are–this head cold just makes me more aware of it–it makes me consider how and why I love living in the city, why do this to myself, because I really do love it. I’ve tried living in smaller cities like Long Beach and Portland, but I had to get back to Chicago (and I loved living in New York). People complain that cities are so noisy, but I think generally speaking, that noise is different to the noise that is bothersome to me. I mean yes, there is a lot of noise: traffic noise, sirens, arguments, fireworks or gunshots or both…but they all come together as this river flowing past me that has nothing to do with me. I can ignore that noise. I have a harder time relaxing completely or sleeping when I’m camping.

Much like I can be effectively invisible on a crowded sidewalk, I am removed from the mass of noise in a city. I don’t quite know how to make sense of it, but I think that I’m good at keeping a bubble around myself. If I can assume none of the noise has anything to do with me, then I can block it out. Out on the streets of Chicago or New York, even if I hear someone yell “Michele,” I’m most likely going to ignore it. It’s probably meant for a different Michele. In a place with less than thousands of people around me, there’s a better chance that I’m the Michele they’re looking for, so I have to let that in. At home, I have to assume that every noise can affect me and most of it is trying to. That’s the noise that makes me anxious.

Certain noises bother me more than others and are sometimes flat-out painful, and when there are multiple noises it can be overwhelming. Higher pitches like wood contacting wood, silverware on a plate, or the whir of a handheld vacuum can cause me to shudder or duck out of the way (even though there’s nothing to duck out of the way from). I also seem to be able to hear higher-pitched noises from farther away than I’d expect. Since I live in a cluster of apartments very close to one another, it seems at least once a day someone’s smoke detector goes off and it is super annoying. Years ago, I worked in an office where there was a pool table a few desks away from me, and every time someone struck a ball it felt like a personal attack. But my cat whining, an adult voice, or most music doesn’t usually bother me. Even the sound of my upstairs neighbors, one of whom (we’re not sure which) we refer to as Li’l Zilla because of their stomping, is comically annoying but doesn’t cause me panic or pain.

It’s gotten worse over the years, perhaps along with the tinnitus. I should probably see an ENT about it, in case there is anything physical I can do to lessen the discomfort. I can’t stop taking my medication–it’s methotrextate for my rheumatoid arthritis–but who knows? Not me. And then I suppose I’ll see how it relates to my neurodivergence and anxiety and see what tools are available to me from that angle. At least I have my hearing, as troublesome as it can sometimes be.

I have been experimenting with noise generators, like myNoise, playing with the levels to offset the ringing and keep out some of the household sounds. I’ve got the app on my phone and really like the way you can adjust it to suit you, especially if you’re like me and everyone’s go-to, the sound of a fan running, is actually distracting. I am now shopping headphones and earbuds. I have very nice headphones but they’re over the ear and feel physically heavy. When I’m wearing my glasses, the stems kinda get smushed by the ear cups. I’m not bothered by things in my ears, but earbuds tend to let in a lot of outside noise. I guess I’ll keep shopping because all these options come with price tags, some way more cringeworthy than others.

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