The washing machine in my ear, and an empty boat

Over a period of about six months in 2022, I was nearing the brink of insanity; I would go to bed every single evening and hear a washing machine running in a neighbouring apartment.

My partner couldn’t hear anything, and I didn’t want to point it out in fear of ruining her sleep, so it was up to me to pinpoint where it came from. This turned out to be difficult, since the sound would disappear when I stood up, leading me to believe that it had just finished a cycle.

Was it the above apartment, the one below, or even one of the apartments across the hall? I didn’t know how well vibration from a washing machine running its most intense cycles could carry through floors, ceilings or walls.

Part of what kept me awake, in addition to the sound itself, was the sheer inconsideration of someone doing something like this every night, not caring how their habits could affect neighbours.

The more days, weeks and months that passed, the more sleep deprived, irritated and angry I became. The more countermeasures that failed , the more desperate I became too.

One evening while sitting up late with two good friends at one of their places, I also heard a washing machine, and commented on this. They thought it strange, probed as to what direction I heard it, and told me to say when I heard it. They, like myself, enjoy solving problems, and after listening in silence for a while the conclusion was that none of them could hear anything.

This is when one of them recalled having heard of a thing called “Low Frequency Tinnitus”, and the description from the first article I found about it, made all the pieces fall into place:

Low-frequency tinnitus noises sound like the two lowest octaves on a piano. It’s often perceived as a deep droning, murmuring, or rumbling noise.

Because of the way its sounds and the uncertainty of the noise’s origins, it’s one of the tinnitus with the strongest effect on tinnitus patients.

Low-frequency tinnitus isn’t just annoying; some tinnitus patients have described it as a noise that can drive someone crazy or even make them question their sanity.

This became a real turning point, as knowing that there wasn’t any malicious or inconsiderate neighbour, and that the sound was just in my head, I stopped expecting to hear it, and my sleep went back to normal. Knowledge helped, where every single countermeasure[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10] had failed.

It’s ironic, because I’ve been aware of, and often referenced the 2nd paragraph of “The Empty Boat” by Chuang Tzu for many years:

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

Yet for all my anger, annoyance, and sleep deprivation[11], the boat I had been shouting at truly was empty.

Thanks and further discussion

Thank you for reading, and huge thanks to @bearfjellstad and @kb_tensor for feedback. I can be reached at <firstname> There’s also a discussion on Hacker News.

  1. Sleeping with earplugs (duh). This only made it worse, which I rationalised as being because low-frequency sounds like a washing machine makes, better carries through walls/floors. In hindsight, a big red flag, as the foam earplugs I used are excellent at blocking low-frequency sounds. ↩︎

  2. Sleeping in another room. This sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, most likely because of a different sleeping position. I’d still hear the washing machine sometimes, which I explained to myself as being because the vibrations maybe just carry that well? Also a big red flag, especially considering that the direction that the sound came from would be somewhat inconsistent with where I thought it came from when lying in bed. ↩︎

  3. Put rubber anti-vibration dampers meant for washing machines on the feet of the bed, thinking that if it works for the source, it should work for the thing receiving the vibration too. I’m not really sure if this makes sense at all. They’re still on. ↩︎

  4. Lying on various floors in our apartment trying to confirm whether or not the sounds came from the downstairs apartment. This was one of the things that seemed like the best evidence at the time - I heard the washing machine running, and thought I could even hear some talking. For the longest time my theory was that some kind of criminal activity was going on, since honestly, who would do something like this every single night - ALL night? In hindsight I’ve realised that you simply hear a lot of noises if you put your ear straight onto the bedroom floor or bathroom tiles, both from your own head and from the buildings insides. ↩︎

  5. Trying to stand on a chair, and putting a glass against the ceiling in an attempt to hear the washing machine. This was clunky, and I don’t think I trusted the results I got, which most likely were that I didn’t hear anything at all. ↩︎

  6. Printing out tiny notes with a friendly reminder saying that noises like loud music and washing machines aren’t allowed after 22:00 where we live, and putting one in every single mailbox in our entrance. Given that I believed something criminal was going on, I thought a good option would be to blast a friendly reminder to everyone, so that I could avoid direct conflict while at the same time hopefully having a good shot at getting the message to them. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  7. After mailbox delivery[6:1] failed, I also tried taping the message to every single door in their floor, hoping again that they’d get the message while not feeling too targeted. The note on their door never got removed, so I did this myself some days later. ↩︎ ↩︎

  8. Seeing as no friendly notes[6:2][7:1] worked, I resorted to ringing and knocking on the door of the downstairs apartment, many times during different times of the day and evening, on many different days. No one ever opened the door, and newspapers were piling up outside it. This only confirmed my theory about criminal activity, as they were obviously only there during nighttime and didn’t care for news (?!) I’ve since realised that there most likely weren’t anyone living in the apartment during this period, so that explains it. I like to believe that even criminals would’ve removed a taped note to the door, if only to keep up appearances. ↩︎

  9. Getting dressed, putting on shoes, and walking the hallways in the middle of the night, putting my ear against the walls of the upstairs and downstairs apartments, trying to hear something. I never did, though, yet I managed to rationalise this too by thinking that it was just finished or something similar. Also major red flag. ↩︎

  10. Taping a note to the door of my upstairs neighbour, after being almost certain (certainly desperate at least) that I’d heard the washing machine the night before. This led to him posting a very friendly message on the Facebook group for our condo, where he said he had barely been home the previous weeks, certainly not run any washing machine, and asked if the person who had taped it to his door could contact him to avoid any bad vibes. I immediately went upstairs and talked to him, apologised, and explained the situation, and he dispelled any doubts about it potentially being him. He later let me know exactly when he was running the washing machine so that I could compare the sounds, and it was wildly different. A super-friendly and considerate guy, definitely not my antagonist. ↩︎

  11. Looking back, it seems absolutely ludicrous how I didn’t realise something was off, but logic certainly does dissipate when lacking sleep. ↩︎