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How Noise Cancelling Headphones Helped Me Cope with Post-Concussion Symptoms

After I was hit by a truck, my brain needed silence. Here’s how I found it.

Illustration by Andrew Janik

It started with a hit-and-run on an industrial street in Brooklyn. I was biking without a helmet, when a pickup truck struck me at the intersection of Throop and Wallabout. My head hit the hood, then the asphalt, scrambling my brain. I woke up in a puddle of my own vomit, a paramedic yelling over me.

Can you hear me?

Things got worse from there. To this day, I still can’t conjure up a single memory from the first two weeks of December 2016. It was more serious than I was willing to admit. My mother flew from California to see for herself what had happened.

“I already noticed something was wrong when I talked to you on the phone. You would tell me what happened and then forget you told me a few minutes later,” she told me recently. “That’s what I remember—your reaction, your speech. You asked questions like a child. What are we having for dinner? And then when I would start cooking you’d be angry. You would scream at the sound of dishes clinking or the beep of the AC unit turning on and off.”

On my first visit with my neurologist, Dr. Gerald Smallberg, he asked me to take off my coat and shoes—a standard test for balance and dexterity unbeknownst to me.

“Oh, make myself comfortable,” I said as politely as I could manage.

I was suspicious. “She was somewhat anxious, but also had a sense of humor about questioning,” my medical report stated. My post-concussion vulnerability left me with what the doctors called a heightened state of activity: a devastating blend of anxiety, amnesia, vertigo, and hypersensitivity to light and sound.

How do the concussed cope in New York City? The sounds are relentless. My concussion made the city’s noise unbearable, a dangerous clattering of noises my doctor suggested I avoid. The city soundscape became crippling.

To make matters worse, my apartment in East Williamsburg overlooks the rumbling overpass of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, solidifying its place in the top five loudest neighborhoods in the Five Boroughs, according to City of New York data. Not even my apartment qualified as a safe, quiet, and dark space for my recovering brain. But how could I make it that?



Close your eyes and you can block out light. Closing your ears, however, isn’t so simple. Sound amplified my anxiety, post-concussion. What I wanted—what I needed—was a padded, soundproof personal safety room.

What I got were the Bose QuietComfort 35 over-ear wireless headphones.

The noise-cancelling circuitry uses microphones to capture incoming sounds and creates inverse waves that feed back into the headphones. It helped turn the rumbling, the screeching, and the sirens into the calm my brain needed. It buried me in a newfound silence. Because when you’ve been busy riding loud and high on the city as long as I have, it’s easy to not realize what you are taking in.

I fed the silence with the same fervor as I once used to fill it. I no longer turned on the TV for background noise or put on a playlist while cooking or painting. This newfound quiet—a quiet I so desperately needed and found inside of a pair of expensive headphones—was key to my recovery. The trick is to find your silence, and turn it on when you need it most.

This story is a part of The Goods™, a series about the stuff we have, the stuff we love, and the intersection between the two.

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