I didn’t listen to music until I was 27 years old. And even then, it wasn’t entirely by choice. It was suggested to me by one doctor and several Reddit users.
I had moved from Los Angeles to New York City one year earlier, and those 12 months had been some of the most miserable of my life. I had moved for a job that I didn’t love, but that seemed good for my career. I wasn’t a huge fan of my apartment or my neighborhood, but they were what I could afford — barely. I didn’t have many friends.
And then there was the subway.
For starters, I spent too much time on it: My commute was almost an hour and a half each way. That’s a lot of time to spend underground, away from daylight, crushed together with strangers, clutching germ-covered poles. Of all these indignities, though, I found the noise probably the most unbearable.
If you don’t want to see something, you close your eyes. If you don’t want to smell something, you plug your nose. Hearing things is different. It’s difficult to shut off your hearing completely.
I grew up in Los Angeles, with cars as my main form of transportation, so I had never encountered this before. I’d always been able to retreat to a car — mine, my parents’, a friend’s — to get some quiet for a few minutes. Transit could be a relaxing, solitary experience, traffic jams notwithstanding.
There is no such escape from the noise in New York. I’d be out all day running errands, pushing through crowds on the sidewalk, waiting in line to get inside Trader Joe’s, surrounded by people and their loud conversations. To get home, I’d have to descend into the subway and listen to whatever the person next to me was saying to her friend. Then I’d arrive at my apartment, where the downstairs neighbors played the same reggae songs on repeat until they went to bed around 1 a.m.
It was just a parade of noises, every minute, every hour, everywhere I went, all the time.
I have always been prone to anxiety, but after a few months in New York, I was starting to feel like I might be losing my mind. I felt angry constantly. I couldn’t control the physical reaction that I was having to the noise.
My whole body would tense, I would often start to sweat or feel short of breath, and twice I even broke out in hives. I had suffered from panic attacks years before, and this physical aversion to noise was beginning to feel eerily similar.
Naturally, I consulted the internet. There are Reddit forums about this, hundreds of people out there describing the exact things that I was feeling, particularly the rage.
I decided to consult an actual doctor.
She said that I seemed to have developed an intense hypersensitivity to sound, which is not unheard-of for people who are prone to anxiety.
She suggested something that I’m sure seems obvious to anyone reading this: headphones. Silencing the outside noise wasn’t an option, because people are going to make noise no matter what, and they have a right to. But instead of stopping it altogether, I could get some headphones and block out everyone else’s noise with my own.
I don’t know why this hadn’t occurred to me. Music had never been my No. 1, or even No. 3, solution for anything up to that point. I’d always turned to books and movies when I was aching for art to make me feel like I wasn’t alone in whatever was making me sad.
Many of my emotional woes during the year 2012 were worked out while I roamed the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. I drowned the sorrows of a preteen crush in an intense marathon reading of the first three Harry Potter books.
Music had always felt like extra noise that my life didn’t need. I’m a fairly introverted, introspective person, and I’ve never had a problem being alone with my thoughts in silence.
But I was miserable, and getting hives, so I gave the headphones-and-music thing a try.
And wow: music. Do people know about music? I’m humbled by the effect it has had on my life over the past three years. I feel like I’ve just entered my adolescent music phase, something that most people go through when they are adolescents. I’ll bring up a song or band to a friend and they’ll say, “Yeah, I loved that song … five years ago.” I’m making Spotify playlists with the same ferocity and dedication that others once devoted to mix CDs.
Most people discover music when they are kids, maybe pre-teenagers at the latest. You define a few band and genre preferences that will embarrass you several years down the line, then you hone your musical style as you move through life and experience your first heartache, your second heartache, a friend’s betrayal, your first kiss, moving away from home — the usual tragedies that are part of getting older.
Now when I think back to my two years in New York, it is all sound. Year 1 is made up of all of the noise from other people, sounds that I had no control over, that had me breaking out in hives and nearly in a fetal position in the shower, wondering what was wrong with me. The second year is filled with my own noise: not just music, but podcasts, stand-up comedy routines and audiobooks.
I remember the day after I bought my new headphones, when I first looked over at two people on the subway engaged in a very animated and seemingly loud conversation. All I could hear was Nora Ephron narrating one of her most hilarious essays in my ear.
It was almost euphoric for me in that moment to realize that I could exist in this confined space with other strangers but so easily escape them at the same time; I didn’t have to listen to their gossip, or their music, or their coughing, or their kid.
My second year in New York was full of other little moments that are now memorable and precious to me because of the noise, not in spite of it: the nights I made dinner while listening to the latest episodes of “Serial” or “Criminal”; that one Arcade Fire song I played on repeat the entire way home from work one day (all one and a half hours of my commute); the night I fell asleep listening to Françoise Hardy and woke up tangled in my Apple earbuds.
There was the long walk around Central Park spent listening to a podcast about the Brock Turner case (both I and the women on the podcast were nearly hysterical); that time I missed my subway stop because I was laughing so hard at Bill Bryson’s audiobook about Australia, and then instead of getting back on the subway I walked the two miles home so that I could finish listening (and laughing) to the whole thing.
I have since moved to a new city, still carless, and still dependent on the metro. I’ve never once left the apartment without my headphones; I consider them to be my armor. Those headphones and the music steaming through them have allowed me to build a little wall around myself when I need some space from strangers. They have given me control over the things I want to listen to and think about when I’m walking or riding from place to place.
Most important, I don’t break out in hives anymore. Now I just listen to them sometimes on Spotify.
Jackie DesForges lives in Paris and is writing her first novel.
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