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When Everyday Sound Becomes Torture

Illustration by Katie Scott

"Every sound hurts my ears," Jason DiEmilio wrote just before washing down dozens of hoarded pills with beer in the bathtub of his Harlem apartment in October 2006. "The sound of flipping this page is too loud for me. It sends pain through my ears and brain."

DiEmilio, 36 when he took his life, was the victim of a rare acoustic trauma called hyperacusis, which flip-flops the usual effects of excessive noise by grossly intensifying the loudness of sound rather than causing hearing loss. Researchers who have dedicated their lives to studying the vast and unique intricacies of the ear have no idea what causes this or how to relieve it. DiEmilio is not the first — or the last — to suffer this bizarre malady, but given his symptoms, the way they materialized, and the way he coped with them and the way he didn't, he may as well have been patient zero.

For DiEmilio, this entailed withstanding a roasted-alive kind of torture, overcome by a gradual accretion of toxic noise that submerged him for years in intractable pain so severe and debilitating that death was preferable. The irony was not lost on him — between 1996 and 2001, he released four atonal, ambient drone-rock albums and a handful of singles and EPs under the name Azusa Plane. He reveled in abrasive, confrontational cacophony.

"Oh my gosh, it's so loud, just banging, and Jason would put his head inside the drum during the act," says DiEmilio's aunt, Carol Roosevelt, who, along with his grandparents, reared him in suburban Philadelphia.

"It sounded

like an airplane landing," says his friend Michael Chaiken.

Courtesy of Barbra DiEmilio

Jason DiEmilio onstage with Azusa Plane in his usual uniform, a white T-shirt and wide-wale corduroys.

After one show, DiEmilio started complaining he couldn't hear properly. His ears rang, but the ringing always went away, until one day it didn't. He complained of an unpleasant fullness, a pressure in his ears. He later joined a more traditional rock band, Mazarin, and while playing with them during a European tour in early 2002, he felt something happen inside his ear — something pulled, or snapped, or broke. Within two years, DiEmilio was wearing earplugs to buffer the pain, which he described as knives or screwdrivers stabbing his ears. Soon, it was difficult to listen to music at all.

There were so many doctors, so many — none of whom found anything wrong. He saw ear-nose-throat doctors, neurologists, audiologists, psychiatrists, dentists. He underwent MRIs (jarringly loud themselves), scans, blood tests. He was given a mouth guard for his jaw. He tried sound therapy, which involved listening to soothing, low-volume noise. He found brief relief with acupuncture and painkillers, but improvement never lasted, and the confusion and skepticism of the medical community added insult.

"Could I have a traumatic brain injury from playing loud music in a band?" he wrote on the message board of the Hyperacusis Network five months before his death. There, he found people who were similarly afflicted and felt, at last, that he wasn't alone and wasn't crazy. Except that his condition was worse than most.

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