by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A concerned daughter wrote,
My mother is 78. She has been very reclusive since her retirement about 15 years ago and has no contact with anyone other than me on the phone and one of my brothers. Along with her isolation, she has a bit of paranoia about sounds she says she hears in the walls. At one point she cut all the phone wires to stop the noise.
She definitely has hearing loss and several years ago specialists tried to get her to use a hearing aid but she rejected it during the trial period because she didn’t like the sound of her own voice. She blasts her TV which is evident whenever I call to talk with her so I know she can’t hear well.
In the last 6 or 7 months she began complaining about music blasting at all hours of the night. The music was so loud that she would be awake at 2:00 in the morning shaking and sweating from the stress. Eventually she started to believe that my brother was doing this to her remotely, and that he probably had put speakers in her attic and walls and makes the music go on whenever he wants to drive her crazy.
I live in a different state and primarily talk to her by phone. My brother does most of her shopping and brings her to doctors’ appointments when needed. He has been a very decent care giver.
We both started researching her situation and kept coming to articles on Musical Ear Syndrome. She has been resistant to believe this is possible until recently when I printed out pages from your website and sent them to her. I think I have her attention finally. I also ordered your book and I’m hoping she reads it and continues to believe that Musical Ear Syndrome (MES) is the explanation to her situation.
It would seem that she is a prime candidate for having MES. She is elderly, female, has had tinnitus, has hearing loss, is isolated, does not use her own voice much, and has been taking Elavil for over 25 years for depression.
I have suggested to her that she read out loud several times a day. I am trying to get her to take a walk around the block a couple of times a day as well so her ears hear different sounds. I think she also needs to see a specialist who can test her, convince her she is not going crazy, that my brother is not doing anything to her and find an appropriate course of action.
I’m sure you have plenty of emails like this and appreciate any advice you can give us. I will share your response with her.
I find it sad that your mother has largely withdrawn from life. Life is so much more exciting when you “join” the world rather than live apart from it.
I hear from numbers of daughters (and a few sons) telling me about their parents’ Musical Ear experiences. Some of their parents become what appears to be paranoid—but when you understand that they are responding to (phantom) sounds (which they believe to be real), you realize that those thoughts and actions are in fact logical and rational given what they believe they are hearing is true. Of course, from our point of view they may appear to be irrational—but then, we are not “hearing” what they are hearing.
The phantom music can be loud for some people—and because it seems so real, no wonder she was afraid about what was going on. That can give rise to further, and at times farfetched, scenarios such as when she began to believe that your brother put speakers in her attic and walls and played the music whenever he wanted to drive her crazy.
Of course your brother isn’t doing this. But I’ve received similar stories where the person blamed the landlord for supposedly doing similar things, or blamed her husband.
The reason for this is that the person is desperately searching for a rational reason why they are hearing these sounds. To them, the only alternative is to admit that they are crazy. Since they don’t want to admit that they are “losing it”, they come up with “rational” reasons to blame the phantom sounds on others.
The way to help people in this situation is to explain what MES is—that MES sounds, although truly phantom, are benign sounds. In other words, the person hearing these phantom sounds doesn’t have a mental problem, but rather has an auditory problem. You need to remind them that they are not crazy—that they are sane—even though they can hear phantom sounds.
Now that you have her attention, hopefully she will stop blaming your brother. You’ll know she has things firmly under control when she can say when she hears her phantom music, “my brain is fooling me again” and let it go at that. When this happens often the phantom sounds will begin to fade into the background. But even if they don’t, she won’t be afraid of them anymore.
Unfortunately, people that are depressed tend to focus more on such things. By worrying about them, she will just make the situation worse.
Your ideas of getting her to read out loud several times a day, and to walk around the block a couple of times a day are good ideas—both for her mental and physical health as well as to try to control the phantom sounds. I have found that more social interaction, focusing on the loves of you life and surrounding yourself with real sounds all help to bring MES under control.
There are a number of other tips in dealing with Musical Ear Syndrome in my book, “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.