My daughter has brought me a present home from school. I have a fever and am coughing up fluorescent green lumps. I am stuck in bed, sweating for all the wrong reasons. Antibiotics are prescribed, but I am no better by the end of the seven-day course and the doctor puts me on a stronger one. At the end of ten days I am weak and hallucinating. I haven’t eaten. I have several different noises in my head and ears.
The white noise is a constant hissing irritation in both ears. It isn’t too bad during the day, and I notice it most at night when the house is quiet. There is also a periodic high-pitched tone that I have had for years. It never lasts for long, since I can control it by focussing my concentration on it and breathing, so it does not really bother me. These two are inconveniences, but there is also another vibration which is altogether more malignant. Between my ears, in the centre of my head, is a deep, relentless monotone, like the buzzing of an old fridge. It comes and goes. Sometimes it wakes me in the middle of the night, and I lie awake for hours waiting for sleep to come. It feels as if every blood vessel in my brain is pulsating. It tortures me and I cannot tune it out.
I have been consigned to my house for two weeks, but the chest infection is away now and I have been eating; my strength is returning. As I begin to return to society and interact with other people I notice another legacy of the illness that has not been apparent in my enforced solitude: everything has become unreal. An invisible curtain has been pulled across in front of me, separating me from the world. I feel as if I am going crazy; people speak to me and I stare at them like specimens on a microscope slide, answering them distractedly. I have become dislocated, shut off from the world I used to know, observing life as though it is happening in another room, to somebody else. Within days my old life is fading into memory, and I am becoming used to life in the bubble.
The GP tells me I have Labyrinthitis, and it will go away in two to four weeks, maybe a little longer. What I am feeling is normal and it will pass. This reassures me. He gives me a prescription for anti-nausea tablets but mercifully I do not have the spins. Nor am I nauseous. After a few more days I return to work in Andytown. I find it difficult to relate to my clients. Their life stories, tales of hardship, love, death and success, are not real. I do not care. I get away with making vaguely inappropriate comments, attracting laughter and the occasional raised eyebrow. I have to concentrate very hard so as to not let something offensive slip out.
So life goes on. After three months the noises have not dissipated, and the disconnection becomes normality. In France, during my holidays, I have to ask my stepfather to drive a little faster, because the diesel engine is uncomfortably vibrating on the same frequency as the noise in my head. I see a consultant neurologist. He tells me that the MRI scan has revealed nothing sinister. My brain has learned to adjust to life inside the bubble, and even though I know that the world changed in June, by October I feel as though I have always been this way. It no longer disturbs me. Some months later I see another consultant, who informs me that I never had Labyrinthitis, and that the noises are tinnitus. I need to relax more.
I am still vaguely aware of the bubble’s presence, aware that life was different once, but I can no longer remember what it was like. I have learned to care about the world outside again, and although I don’t hear as well as I used to, I function normally – apart from one thing. The illness has left me a truly precious gift. It is a residue of the initial disconnectedness that my brain has lovingly kept and nurtured for me: I am no longer afraid. Those niggling voices of self-doubt which whispered in my ear for years have been drowned out by a wash of white noise. I am thankful.