I had a nervous breakdown earlier this year. Not the kind when your cable freezes just as The Price Is Right is about to reveal the winner of the “Showcase Showdown,” causing you to snap your head sideways and shriek to your pet cat, “Omigod, omigod, omigod, I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown!” I’m talking about the real thing, the kind that you can’t believe is real because it’s so real. The kind that sparks suicidal thoughts not because you actually want to or plan to end your life but because you realize that the life you had already ended and your new life feels like death as you fight to wrap your senses around a future devoid of sense because you can’t but can but can’t but can but can’t but can and finally do comprehend that things will never be the way they were. That kind of nervous breakdown.
I was a mess, sobbing, hyperventilating, pacing back and forth in my studio apartment for hours each day. I’d call friends for emotional support but could barely sputter through my tears. Is this really happening? It’s really happening. Totally surreal. I’d never felt worse.
I haven’t told many people about this because many people would not care, while others would fail at pretending to care. But I mention this here because a good number of confidants replied in ways that were well-meaning but lacked meaning.
First, some background: At the end of January, I developed searing tinnitus, commonly known as ringing in the ear. In my case, it sounds more like a billion chirping crickets and cicadas mixed with the high pitch that many tube TVs emit. Think this combined with this.
Now listen again with the volume raised. Now imagine the piercing never going away. Now imagine explaining and coming to grips with a noise blaring only in your head. I hope you can only imagine.
Since its onset, the noise has screeched throughout the night, every night, and while some days are better than others, I have many that make life completely suck. Plus, sitting in silence is now impossible, because I forgot what silence is and because doing so only exacerbates the condition.
Yes, I’ve been to numerous specialists. No, there’s no cure. The only effective treatment is habituation. As if! Hence, the nervous breakdown.
There’s more. I’m also afflicted with hyperacusis, which often accompanies tinnitus. It’s an oversensitivity to everyday noise—not in the sense that I find nails on a chalkboard and Selena Gomez annoying; rather, my brain now misperceives many sounds as much louder than they are. The mere clanking of dishes, flushing of a toilet, shutting of a cabinet door, and many other common noises sometimes feel like deafening decibels. Then there are the passing fire trucks and ambulances, which trigger all sorts of painful emergencies in my head.
I used to enjoy going to bars and clubs. I still like going out—I just rarely do now. Recently, I had to leave a restaurant because it was too noisy, not for everyone, just for me.
And so, I never leave home without ear plugs, but they have limitations and drawbacks. Sometimes avoiding certain situations is more practical than dealing with their shortcomings. (Try sticking two pieces of foam in your ears and then eating China Fun‘s vegetable dumplings. You’ll see what I mean.) As the saying goes, if it’s not one thing, it’s…
…just one other, actually. All this ties into a further ailment I concurrently developed—TMD, or temporomandibular joint disorder. Put differently, my jaw joints are screwed up, causing daily headaches and orofacial pains. As I’m typing this, my head is throbbing. It’s probably throbbing as you’re reading this.
Words of Discomfort
My goal here isn’t to gain sympathy (though you should be sympathetic). First, while my tinnitus and hyperacusis haven’t improved (and likely never will), I’m coping much better. More importantly, I’m writing about this because I’m merely one of multitudes who suffer through all sorts of tribulations and trauma. And what I’ve discovered to be most interesting are a few of the “supportive” remarks I’ve heard:
- “It could be worse.” I know you mean well, but shut up. Just shut up! Would it make you feel better if I told you, while you were grieving for the loss of, I don’t know, your arm after a car accident, “Hey, look on the bright side. At least you’ve got three other limbs”? I know and you know that things could be worse, but that does nothing to cheer up either of us. Guess what? Things could also be better. I find no solace in ignoring one fact for the other. I’m a logical person who recognizes that the glass is half full and half empty. Stop trying to spike it with your Kool-aid.
- “It will get better.” Because you don’t know that for sure, a tragic implication lurks: If this is the best comment you can offer and if things don’t improve, then I’m screwed. So I guess I’m screwed.
- “Everything happens for a reason.” Remember when you suggested that it could be worse? It just got worse with that remark. Should your mother get raped, please be sure to tell her that there must be a reason for that. When she’s rightly offended, maybe explain that she shouldn’t have been sporting that tight tube top.
- “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Of course! While studying the Torah in Hebrew school, how did I miss the prophecy about Vadim’s ear getting all messed up? Or is this in the New Testament? Did the goyim know this would happen to me? Again, shut up and shalom.
Certainly, I recognize that such comments, even the last two, come with good intentions. I appreciated everyone’s attempts at kindness. (I did not appreciate the “it can’t really be that bad” rebuttals.) Fundamentally, though, they are all logically flawed and useless, at least for me.
So what are effective words of comfort?
There aren’t any. Most times, what a deeply distressed person needs most is for pain and anguish to be recognized, and to feel validated. The best way you can help is also the simplest—just listen. Don’t believe your upset friend when he tells you that he’s calling for advice. He isn’t. He just wants to be heard.
This is perhaps the best response I got from a friend: “I care about you lots and want you to know I’m here to listen and help in any way I can.” That was nice.
UPDATE: I failed to add another comment, a close cousin to “everything happens for a reason”: “This will make you stronger.” Good to know. Who wants to start the Change.org petition to create International Adolph Hitler Day to celebrate the many ways he’s empowered millions of people?