When we first moved to the house, more than half a year ago, every noise set me on edge. Cars revving. Dogs barking. Children shouting. Leaf blowers blowing. Even the steps of pigeons on the roof reverberated in my ears like the clanging of gongs.
And when there was no sound, my mind invented some. I have stood in my silent closet, looking around for the source of the music that played faintly around the corners of my hearing, only to realize that there was no music at all.
I never used to be sensitive to noise, at least not outside the range of normal. As a child, I found the echo of late-night train whistles to be soothing, not disturbing. I have lived in a variety of dorm rooms with a variety of roommates, and while not all of those experiences were necessarily pleasant, noise levels were never a major issue. Heck, for three semesters in college, my window looked directly across an alley to a popular fraternity. I slept fine. Getting homework done was never a problem.
Life in the apartment began as a death by a thousand cuts. There were the neighbors who left their TV on talk shows all day, the sound of not-quite-understood words spilling over into our workspace / dining room. There were the other neighbors who watched TV while going to bed, apparently clueless of the fact that they shared a wall with our bedroom and that we might, perhaps, also be trying to go to sleep. There was the fact the slam of any door reverberated through the whole building.
There were occasional barking dogs, and sometimes there were dogs who would bark for hours, left alone on patios. There was the woman who would let her toddler grandchild yell and shriek outside our windows with only the barest attempt at redirection. There were the pre-teens who bounced basketballs off the walls, who stomped up and down the stairs, and whose preferred gathering spot was a few feet from our front door. And then there were the neighbors who bought fancy new bass speakers because it somehow never occurred to them that enjoying loud bass on a nightly basis might not be the best idea in an apartment setting. (Those were the same neighbors who, upon moving out, decided that the best time to move their bed was at 11 p.m.—and that the best way to do it was by dropping the mattress off the balcony immediately above our bedroom.)
You can’t really complain about these things, because then you’re That Neighbor Who Complains. TV noise carries through walls; it just does. Dogs bark. Children play. The neighbors with the fancy new speaker system turned it down when the apartment manager finally bothered to pass on our message about it. The kid bouncing the basketball moved on when asked politely.
It got into my head, though. Instead of getting used to the noise and tuning it out, my brain began to expect it and go looking for it. It hoarded and guarded its quiet time, never knowing when it would next be interrupted by a bang or a bark or the irregular mumble of a TV. It grew protective and angry and paranoid.
It would’ve just been another fact of life, something I would have had to learn to cope with, if it hadn’t been for the last set of upstairs neighbors. I’ve written about them before—they were one of the major factors contributing to my postpartum depression, and to my husband’s. Their thuds and bangs and bumps and stomps never stopped, not even at night. It sounded like they were rearranging furniture on a daily basis. Even earplugs couldn’t keep out the sound. We woke when they woke, which was somewhere around 5:30 in the morning.
We left that apartment, at the cost of a buy-out fee of two months’ rent, with two months left on the lease. The manager was puzzled—why not just keep living there for those two months, since we had to pay the rent anyway? We couldn’t. It was driving us literally insane.
I no longer hear phantom music. Loud music, though—real music, thumping and bumping with bass—still triggers a fight-or-flight reaction. Blood pressure rises. Anxiety spikes. Make it stop make it stop make it stop. The memory of when the noises never stopped brings on the fear that they never will again.
It does stop, though.
And every day that goes by in a house with solid walls and normal, pleasant neighbors, I get a little bit more normal again.