A couple of years ago I began to notice that I was quickly losing any ability to tolerate noise, particularly in restaurants. I had read that as we age we lose the ability to filter out extraneous sound, but what I was experiencing didn’t appear to be an ordinary reaction to noise. Many of my friends, like me, are middle-aged, and while noisy places might annoy them, they didn’t experience the irritability–or, occasionally, the pain–that I did. If I commented about a place being noisy my friends might agree, but they rarely commented about the sound level unless I pointed out that the space was particularly loud. For the last few years I felt edgy and uncomfortable in loud spaces and would actively look for restaurants that were relatively quiet or had quieter corners. One Sunday last year I met up with friends for brunch at an exceptionally noisy restaurant. I became so uncomfortable and irritable about the competing layers of noise that I knew I had to do something. First, I had to find out what was wrong.
I ran a few internet searches and came up with two possible answers: (1) hyper sensitive hearing and (2) hyperacusis. I knew that I had acute hearing from childhood–I routinely could hear things that others could not–so hyper sensitive hearing seemed like the logical answer. That said, although I was always sensitive to sound I didn’t used to find it irritating or sometimes painful. So I scheduled an appointment to see an otolaryngologist (ears, nose, and throat doctor or ENT) and have a hearing test. On the day of my appointment I got my answer: hyperacusis.
Hyperacusis, essentially, is an oversensitivity to certain frequencies and ranges of environmental sound that most people find to be normal. Severe hyperacusis is rare, but there is a “lesser version” that affects musicians. I was an amateur musician in high school and in my early 20s, and the symptoms I presented suggested that I had the lesser form. It turns out that the irritability I experienced in loud places, particularly restaurants, is typical. In fact, after my doctor told me that I had hyperacusis he added, “no, you aren’t neurotic.” I know why he said that. I had written off occasional ear pain and general grumpiness when in loud spaces, assuming that it was due to sensitive hearing, my general disdain for gratuitous noise, and, frankly, age. But I was wrong. And when I joined my friends for that brunch at the exceptionally loud restaurant, I knew that there was something more going on and that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal.
One reason why I didn’t immediately suspect that I had a hearing issue was due to luck: unlike a majority of people diagnosed with hyperacusis, I don’t have tinnitus. My case is relatively mild, which is a very good thing as there is limited treatment and, from what I’ve read, no cure. Rather, the only thing I can do is protect my hearing by limiting my exposure to damaging noise. My doctor advised me not to attend concerts where there are electric musical instruments, and he prescribed musicians’ ear plugs that reduce noise levels by 25 decibels. Taking affirmative action is particularly important as I live and work in New York City.
And so this blog has been created to catalog places in New York City that can be enjoyed quietly and without discomfort. My hope is that those of us who have hyperacusis or hyper sensitive hearing or who simply want to find a quiet place in the city to read, think, or have a conversation can share our finds and maybe raise some awareness about the daily assault on everyone’s ears. To that end, keep an eye on the map on the right, as it will be updated over time with public spaces, restaurants, bars, and retail spaces that are pockets of quiet in the city that never sleeps…or whispers.