A Brief History of People Finding Weird Shit in Their Ears
Worst. Google search. Ever.
Illustration by Hiller Goodspeed.
Sound has an uncanny ability to enter the subconscious as we sleep, to execute flawless non-sequiturs in real dream-time. Like I often do, I was dreaming about skateboarding. Nearly 20 years on a board has led it to permeate most areas of my life. Here I was falling. Bailing. Eating shit, but having a great time. My body a fluid thing as it wrapped itself around the hand railings I was attempting and failing to grind. I could jump down 20 stairs, Ragdoll to the concrete below, explode in a puddle of plasma, and T-1000 myself back into form. After an especially gruesome reconstruction, I heard scratching. Like a dog at the door. Slow at first, then frantic. It was coming from my skateboard, claw marks etching themselves into its maple belly as it wobbled supine on the ground, the jagged grooves getting louder, deeper, until I could feel them—I shot out of bed, back into consciousness. Something was scratching at me.
I was trying to put out a fire in my brain, slapping at my head as I ran to the bathroom. Whatever it was was on me, in me. I used q-tips, flushed my ear out with the tub tap. The immediate hysteria I’d woken up into made each movement fast forward, every decision on how to deal with whatever was happening, do and/or die. When I finally relaxed, confirmed as best as I could that whatever had been doing the scratching was either gone, or hopefully never there, I went back to sleep. The bedside clock beaming a green 5 AM.
At 7:30 AM my alarm went off. I lifted my head from the pillow and watched it fall. Its silver, spindly body shooting out my ear like it had reached the end of a particularly dry, volatile waterslide. I backhanded the silverfish from my bed onto the floor, the both of us still for a moment—shocked, trying to make sense of what was happening to us. I grabbed Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy from my nightstand and bludgeoned the insect, which exploded into a powdery smear across a glowing blurb from the Boston Globe.
This living creature had been in my head for at least two-and-a-half hours. I felt dizzy. It could have done any manner of evil things in there in that time. Laid eggs, pissed its name into a drift of earwax, penned a fascist manifesto at sextuple speed using all of its limbs.
I went under the tub tap again. Scraped out my ear canal with cotton swabs until it hurt—inspecting each end for whatever a silverfish egg might look like. “I’ve heard of it happening, but never seen it myself,” the doctor at a walk-in clinic would later tell me, after confirming that I was not harbouring any orphan larvae. Then he told me to put diluted oil of oregano into my ear next time to flush it out—next time? Concerned, I Googled the regularity of people finding bugs in their ears. In my near-panic state, I found a SELF article that quoted Benjamin McGrew, M.D., an associate professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s department of otolaryngology, who stated that “We see this about four to five times a year in our clinic.” Which was not what I needed to read in that moment. The rest of the search results were a complete, goddamn horror show. Listicle after listicle detailed inch-long cockroaches, centipedes, June bugs, and other skittering critters setting up camp in unsuspecting folk’s orifices.
In 2012 a 92-year-old woman, who had been living with severe Alzheimer's in a nursing home, was found to have fifty-seven maggots writhing inside of her, an enlarged ear canal from a surgery decades earlier providing a cozy home.
“It’s a picture I will never, ever get out of my mind—ever,” her daughter told CBS Chicago, remembering “hearing her scream as they were taking the maggots out of her ear.”
As I continued searching, coming across videos and jpegs, I could barely look at without recoiling, it became clear that most of these experiences, of people’s ears becoming unsought havens for leggy little beings, were so heinous they seemed like works of fantasy. Surreal, nightmarish. Most happening while in a dream state. A local Denver TV station regaled a ghoulish story of 12-year-old Wade Sholte from Parker, Colorado, who had a moth crawl into his ear as he slept. He and his family were unable to get it out.
“I was in pain. It was hurting so much,” the boy said. “Every time it moved it hit my eardrum.”
They took him to the emergency room where doctors removed it with tweezers, alive. It proceeded to escape “and started flying around” the room, thumping its furry little wings, like jagged cutouts of a decorative rug, in protest.
None of my findings assuaged the worries of my ear becoming a timeshare for other insects. A few of the stories I found even seemed like ledes to creepier Aesop’s fables. The parents of a 16-month-old in China finding a dandelion had taken root in their child’s ear, Huffington Post reported. Fully grown, it filled her ear canal and had to be surgically removed—a lesson in there somewhere—probably about climate change.
A young boy in London claimed for years that the Tooth Fairy had jammed a baby tooth he’d lost into his ear. They even took him to specialists but no-one believed, CBS News reported. Eventually, after being diagnosed with a condition called "mucopurulent rhinorrhea," where a thick, unrelenting mucus oozes from the nose, doctors took a CT scan and inadvertently found it—the tooth.
Then there was the diamond. A photo I’d traced back to an outdated medical journal showed the sparkling, cut stone, the size of a pinky finger-nail, lodged deep in someone’s ear. There was no explanation of how it got there, leaving me to assume the gaps in context:
Diamond thief tries to conceal diamond thievery?
Fun, “quirky,” marriage proposal gone wrong?
Inadvisable Adornment of The Canal?
It was strange to see something generally understood as a symbol of beauty and status, shoved into a dank, fleshy hole. This was likely not its planned destination, but it was there for a purpose, however ill-judged in that moment. That made me think about the other ear intruders, what lead them to fly, crawl, and grow where they did.
All of the listicles I’d frightened myself with painted them as enemies, assailants, aberrations from the safe human norm. But the dandelion seed was just acting by design, sprouting wherever it could. The fly that landed in the old woman’s ear was just looking for a safe, dark place to lay its eggs—as did the silverfish that wormed its way into mine.
Further research revealed that the silverfish being there was probably the finale to an intricate, three-act mating ritual. Beginning with the tiny lovers standing bug-face to bug-face, antennae quivering and rubbing against one another, as they slowly retreat and return to touch antenna—a teasing foreplay. Then the female chases the male around whatever sink or attic they may be in, in a heated, sexy game of cat and mouse. All before they stand in front of each other again, taking in the sight of their partner. A romantic appreciation. He vibrates his tail against her and lays a sperm capsule that she then brings inside of herself, fertilizing her eggs. Beautiful. Gross. I doubt it was her number one choice, but in retrospect, it’s kind of flattering that after all of that ceremony, she would choose me as their nursery. RIP.
For a few days after, I dreamt about the silverfish. It crashed my dreams. I’d wake up in a familiar state of shock, brushing at my head, trying to expel whatever ghosts might be crawling on me, in me. After reading up on them, getting a better understanding of the shimmering insects, and putting down some cedar shavings as a repellent, those dreams eventually stopped.
When I see the silverfish now, occasionally in my bathtub or darting across the floor, I still turn them to dust. With my thumb and forefinger covered with Kleenex I pop them out of existence. However, I realize now that it’s not their fault. Yes, it’s poor decision making on their part to be seen, to be near me, to burrow into my ear—but I know that it’s not malicious. I’m just in their way.
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