Before my brain injury, my entire life had a soundtrack. Now, I’m basically allergic to sound.
A few months into my brain injury, my neighbor got a new cat. This new cat quickly became my nemesis.
Or maybe the cat wasn’t new, but I never noticed him before a car accident bashed my head into a queasy daze and sound began to make me feel physically ill. Now I was spending long, silent stretches at home, trying to recover, and suddenly here was this cat: roaming the courtyard at all hours, warbling some deranged song.
I have never heard another cat make a noise like this, an excruciating belch of sonic violence somewhere between a yowl, a bleat, and a moan. It’s the kind of gurgling cry — oohahhoh — that you might hear for half a second on Top 40 radio, the sexy yelp of a diva out of breath mid-verse, but when repeated over and over, at odd intervals, when you are desperate for quiet, this timbre becomes torture. More than one friend has suggested it is the sound of the cat mating, but I have peeked past the blackout curtains shielding my tender brain from the late afternoon sunshine, and I have cracked the back door at two in the morning, driven from slumber to confirm with my own eyes, and I know the truth: there is no feline fuckfest, here. This is just a demon creature, a black and white ball of fur whose “Who, me?” nonchalance shall not distract from the obvious fact that he was sent here to destroy me.
It wasn’t easy for me to accept that in order to heal my concussion, I had to seal myself off from the world. In the wake of the accident, I was so confused and so sick that I could barely parse what was making me feel better and what was making me feel worse. I knew that everything I heard was now louder and somehow warped, like I’d plugged a cord into the wrong input, but I spent three months perpetually assuming I’d feel fine in just a couple more days. So as much as possible, I continued my cacophonous existence: Netflix in the evenings, This American Life while I cooked, and Spotify for every other waking moment.
But the weeks passed, and instead of getting better, I’d enter a noisy room and feel my stomach slosh, my head erupt. All summer, I was running out of restaurants and stores and parties and conferences, seeking solace from the painful din and dissonance. Indoors was worse than outdoors; I imagined sound waves had developed sharpened edges, knifing me repeatedly as they bounced around a room. An hour of sensory overload led to a week of internal pandemonium: headaches, insomnia, nausea, tinnitus, fatigue, tears, rage, disorientation. Later, doctors would find the pressure in my ears was three or four times higher than normal.
I started to recognize the cumulative effect of lesser crimes like listening to music or looking at a lit screen, which didn’t always feel horrible right away but chipped away at my well-being, like I was losing health points in a video game. I eventually understood, through harrowing repetition, that in order to feel anywhere near okay, I needed to avoid certain things as much as possible: sugar, light, stress, concentrating, and most of all, sound.
So I cut all unnecessary audio from my life — music, movies, television, podcasts, Instagram, public places, rooms with more than four people — and I barricaded myself in my home in search of sweet, sweet silence. It was during this time, over the past 10 months, that I began to find myself taunted, day and night, by this stupid cat.
It’s hard to like something when it makes you feel sick.
I am pretty sure this particular cat is named “Cat,” because I often hear a woman’s voice calling him inside, with a plaintive: “Cat? Cat?” I believe she is the same (unseen, fence-sharing) neighbor who spent several days in 2016 loudly complaining about how her friends had staged some kind of intervention — but I live in the back corner unit of a courtyard, at the intersection of several properties, so it’s hard to say for certain.
My relationship with the other cats that frequent the courtyard is usually one of respectful distance: I don’t bother them, and they don’t bother me. We might nod in passing, as I walk down the central path to check my mailbox and the tabby lounges derisively among the succulents, but that’s all. If the Siamese wanders up my steps on a hot day when the door is open, I will firmly shut it in his face. I’m allergic, so this is about as good as it gets with me and cats. It’s hard to like something when it makes you feel sick.
The cat named Cat was not the only ambient nuisance, once I turned everything else off. I became obsessed last summer with what I deemed a “mystery noise” — a terrifying and irregular croak that sounded like a porcupine rubbing against a washboard. I set about capturing said mystery noise on my voice memo app with the zeal of a Bigfoot truther. (Took me until October.) Probably it was just someone’s air conditioner, but in my distressed and cognitively impaired state, the imprecise thrashings haunted me. I also grew to categorically despise the construction site down the street, the guy who honks “La Cucaracha” every day around 10:45 a.m., the ruhowwwuhruhowwwuh of my neighbor’s bathroom fan, and whatever bird is out there trilling nine syllables in a row, in bursts of three, again and again, like the woodblock tune Satan puts on repeat during your descent into hell. (I nabbed a voice memo of that last one, too.)
I became so sensitive to volume that it’s like I am attuned to a dimension no one else knows about. Friends take me to deafening tea shops they’d assured me were “so quiet!” and I immediately turn to leave. I wince at sounds I’d never quite heard before: the clatter of droplets hitting the shower curtain, the shriek of a metal fork against a ceramic bowl. Background noise has become foreground noise. One night, in spite of earplugs that boasted a 33-decibel noise reduction rating, I heard a gushing so loud I was convinced a tsunami had made landfall in Santa Monica. When it stopped, I realized it was just water moving through the pipes in the wall.
Every beeping truck moving in reverse, every posse of clubgoers drunkenly rattling down the street on a Saturday night, every crying baby passing by in a stroller sends searing pain through my head, inflaming my nervous system for hours. The brain injury has caused me to experience sound as an assault.
Before the car accident, my auditory landscape was profoundly different. I am the kind of person who has been meticulously soundtracking my daily activities since childhood. The worst possible punishment as a kid was when my parents would take away my tapes. My Discman eased the miseries of high school; my iPod shuffle alleviated the isolation of living in rural Japan. When I was a teacher in my mid-twenties, the school librarian sometimes poked her head into my classroom, cross with my teenage students for blasting Alt-J or Frank Ocean, only to find out, no, that was me.
In the absence of other stimuli, I’ve come to feel intimately familiar with the contents of my own mind.
Then, on a backpacking trip in 2017, I had no access to recorded music for two full weeks and discovered that decades of incessant exposure had trained my brain to simply expect music, whenever I am awake. And if I wasn’t going to play that music, on a stereo or a computer or a portable device, my mind would play music for me — a phenomenon I called the braidio (brain + radio). This meant, somewhat unfortunately for my backpacking compatriots, and for anyone who has been kind enough to come visit in the past year, that if no music is playing, I will invariably start to vocalize whatever ditty is playing in my head, on the braidio.
Please note: I cannot carry a tune. I do not enjoy the sound of myself singing, and I doubt anyone else does, either. Maybe Cat the cat is just as pissed at me, for all the off-key, out-of-season Christmas carols. I wouldn’t blame him. And it’s not as though I’m singing aloud to myself intentionally, choosing an album I like and belting my favorite singles. It’s that I’m going about my business, say, making coffee in the morning, when I hear myself singing under my breath, and think, “What’s that?” A few bars later, I recognize the theme song to Charles in Charge. It’s like a radio is on, all the time, but the radio is me.
I’ve spent nearly a year with the braidio on, now. I see “groceries” on my to-do list and hear Jhené Aiko croon, “He gotta eat the booty like groceries.” I sit on the couch, blindfolded, trying to will my headache away by doing absolutely nothing, and up comes the Wizard of Oz’s brainless Scarecrow, with “I could while away the hours.” Some of this is fun: when you’ve hardly listened to music in months, and harmonies feel nauseatingly discordant, that instrumental Jeopardy! melody slaps. But some of it is maddening: at one point the Bob Seger song “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” got lodged in some neuronal nook and refused to leave. Shit got dark. Same with The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping.” There’s no real escape from a song stuck in your head when you can’t put anything else on.
In the absence of other stimuli, I’ve come to feel intimately familiar with the contents of my own mind. It’s like I’ve taken a break from the hurried tumult of being an adult to return to the solitude of childhood, when everything I knew could be counted and lined up in neat rows. Or maybe I’m previewing old age, when new experiences tend to ebb and you’re left to wander the faulty corridors of your memories. I’m struck by what comes to the fore, out of nowhere: a refrain the boys used to sing on the bus, in elementary school (“I’m a piece of cheese, yeah yeah yeah!”); a bland track from an early Jock Jams CD (“No no limits, we’ll reach for the sky!”); songs from Sesame Streetand The Simpsons; Weird Al B-sides; the Can Can.
As lyrics vault through time, demanding the careful, repeated attention of my entertainment-starved 32-year-old self, epiphanies about a song’s underlying meaning have become common. “White Christmas” is definitely racist. Britney Spears’ “Toy Soldier” is definitely offensive to soldiers. Benny is definitely the hero of Rent. Kanye’s psychic was totally right about him marrying a woman with a huge ass. And fuck that Bagel Bites commercial: You can eat pizza any time, regardless of whether it’s on a bagel.
I worry that eventually my feelings for music will start to resemble my feelings for cats: an emotional dislike driven by a physical discomfort.
But the thing that’s been hardest, in a year when I’ve spent way too many hours scrubbing the stove and serenading myself with the Nicki Minaj verse on the “Flawless” remix, is the fear of where this is all going, and how it will impact me. I worry that eventually my feelings for music will start to resemble my feelings for cats: an emotional dislike driven by a physical discomfort. Music has taken on a funhouse-mirror quality for me. It’s not the balm it once was. Before the headache comes, now, I cringe in anticipation. I was flipping through a book of photographs recently, and landed on an image of Niagara Falls. My body tensed, expecting the thunderous crash of 3,160 tons of water hitting the river. It was unbearable. I couldn’t look. I turned the page.
This is why the cat named Cat unnerves me, in addition to his otherworldly mewling. He reminds me that pain has consequences. Sure, I hate him because he is irritating, and because his awful wails make my insides burble, but I also hate him because of all the other cats that came before him: the ones at my piano teacher’s house in first grade, who left me all itchy and bleary-eyed; the one in that damp, centuries-old house in Penzance, whose room the AirBnB host accidentally directed me to sleep in one very sneezy night several years back. We avoid the things that make us ill, and for good reason. But what if that distaste lingers, once you get better? The pressure in my ears is basically normal, now, and I can tolerate much more noise than I could even a few months ago. Still, my progress is glacial, and my body won’t soon forget this past year. Even as my health has improved, sound remains my greatest weakness, the defining allergy that controls my life. I’m not sure when I’ll feel comfortable turning on Hamilton while I brush my teeth, again, or whether I’ll even enjoy it, when I can. Until then, I’ll stick to the braidio.