White Noise

Static. White Noise. They say it’s good for you. Your brain can tune out all the distracting noises of the world and instead just focus on the one important thing of the moment.

I always enjoyed static, the mindless noise that suffocates all others. Most people try to make the world of cars and people disappear behind a veil of music but for me white noise was always more efficient. Turn it on and, after the few moments that your mind takes to adjust, everything unimportant fades into the distance. Without the constant disturbances your head feels light and clear and your thoughts can flow freely. Music never did that for me.

A few times friends asked me whether it was damaging my hearing to listen to white noise all day. Of course, they were exaggerating. I only had my ears filled with static whenever I was alone or wanted to be and feel alone. Static was my escape from the world.

Still, their doubts were justified. My doctor said it was okay as long as I gave my brain a break every few hours. Without a break the brain might adjust to the background noise; it might get addicted to the background noise.

I followed his advice and made sure that I unplugged my headphones at least every few hours. They felt so much like part of my body that I sometimes forgot to pull the cables out of my ears, but usually I did. I think I never silenced the world with white noise for more than four or five hours at a time.

At least not until my seizure.

I’m not actually sure whether it was a seizure. It could have been a miniature stroke or anything else that is strong enough to make an adult human unconscious. They never found what it was.

But that’s not important. What is important is that I was alone at the time. I was on the bed of my rented one-room apartment with a book in my hand and white noise in my ears.

I saw my hands cramp. The book fell. Then everything went black.

If not for my brother I think I might have died. He wanted to visit. He rang the doorbell. He called my phone. Then, after half a day, he called the police.

They found me on the bed. My body was lying sideways, with my head pushed against the wall. I had a crust of saliva around my mouth and a crust of blood around my ears.

My brother said that, in the hospital, I woke up screaming.

When the blackness faded away it was replaced first by pain and then by noise. Pain and noise. That has been my life for the last six months.

Even for my friends it took a while until they understood that I’m not just rude. They still stare at the headphones when I meet them, but they have adjusted. They know that I can hear them through the noise – and they know that I can’t hear them anymore without my headphones.

With strangers it is more difficult. Shopkeepers and waitresses always look as if they want to stab me for my rudeness. Making new friends has become hard; most think that I am trying to make some odd fashion statement. I gave up on dating.

But the social implications are not what bothers me. I never was the person that is upset about an evening alone at home.

What bothers me are the noises I hear in the rare moments without white noise to drown them out.

My doctor says that those three days without a break made my brain “get used” to the white noise. He says it is like an addiction. My brain is accustomed to hearing a constant level of buzzing background – and it reacts strongly when the background noise is taken away.

Whenever I pull the headphones out of my ears the first thing I feel is disorientation, as if I am suddenly falling off a cliff. Then the noises start to scream in my ears.

Without the white noise my brain seems to amplify all noises it registers. The doctor says that when I take the white noise away my brain is trying to find a new level of background noise. He says we all have our natural threshold as to which noises we notice and which we don’t. I destroyed that threshold.

I don’t mean to say that I can hear more than other people. My hearing has not magically improved by being damaged. But now, whenever the white noise is pulled from my ears, my brain does not know anymore what is background and what is not.

My ears hear the same things as they always did, but now my brain consciously registers noises that before were swallowed by mental filters.

What used to be background noise seems now, without white noise, as loud as a person speaking right into my ear.

I hear a roaring sound, the fused sound waves of many sources – the natural white noise that we all have learned not to notice.

But there are other noises too. They sound clunky and pale like music amplified through cheap loudspeakers, but still they are there and they are real.

I can hear car noises that I would never have noticed before. Despite the thick walls I can hear my neighbors sweeping the floor or watching TV or having sex. I can hear cars three streets away. I hear my own heartbeat and the blood pushing through my arms.

I got used to those noises. Despite the screaming level I would be able to live with them.

What I can’t live with are the voices.

First I thought they are just distant noises, like all the others. But no matter where I go, no matter how deep I am in a forest or under water or how many layers of noise blockers are meant to keep them out – I can always hear them. Sometimes more, sometimes less. They vary with the environment; they are not just in my head.

As said they are clunky. Sometimes it is hard to even tell whether they are male or female. Still I can recognize what they say.

They speak about things to do. They discuss what should happen next.

“The cup should fall.”

“His knee should hit the table.”

“Her spine should ache.”

They don’t always talk about me, although they do that too.

I never noticed how many seemingly random events surround me. How the water drips or the cup shakes slightly when it is placed back no the table. How the paper falls into the bin or flies past.

There are at least two of these voices around everybody. There are at least five or six around every newborn.

I think the newborns are not yet fully adjusted to the background noise. Sometimes, when the voices argue too loudly, the newborns wake up. They scream.

With two or three years children seem to have adjusted. They all don’t notice anymore, even when the voices hiss and curse.

I always thought it was good and bad luck – the open shoe laces and ripping grocery bags. The random wind that destroys the hair style. The tripping.

But when I free my ears from the boundaries of the white noise I now hear that luck is not random. The voices and their owners decide minutes ahead of time who will trip and who will miss the bus and who will not notice the approaching cars.

Some of the voices seem to like the people they are attached to. I saw a boy, he was maybe four or five, that walked without attention and still kept his ice cream in one hand and his feet straight on the floor. Minutes before she got out of her chair I knew that the voices would keep a woman’s stroller from rolling down the slanted street even as she forgot to apply the breaks.

But I also heard the other side. Two or three voices, hissing and laughing from their throats while they plan the next mishap. There was a man in a ripped suit. He ran only by me for a moment, but the voices had been there long before. I had heard them discuss that he would trip and fall and break his arm.

And I heard another group of voices, seven or eight, nearly in hysterics. They were ahead of a little girl of maybe six or seven years. Her dress got stuck on a tree branch; her paper money was blown from her hand.

But I didn’t worry about her because of the dress or the money. I heard them discuss in which way best to kill her. Whether to drown her or to hurl her in front of a car.

While they discussed the girl tipped her head to the side and waved at me. I must have stared at her. I waved back and she, shyly, ran after her mother.

The voices followed her.

“A fire,” said one of the voices. “I like to hear her scream.”

“A good idea,” said another. “We just need to make sure that her mother will see -”

The rest I didn’t hear.

At the beginning, when I still thought they were just in my head, the voices that follow me were gentle most of the time. But they get more angry whenever I talk about them, whenever I mention them.

I can hear them scream, right now. I can hear them argue that it can’t be that I know. I know that they want to break my chair to punish me.

Still, I can only hear. I can’t see them. I can’t touch them. And whatever they want to do – I can’t stop them.

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