May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

Actor William Shatner was walking on the beach in Malibu about eight years ago with his second wife, Marcy Lafferty, when he noticed a change in the sound of the surf. Somewhere in that familiar hiss of the retreating waves, he heard something new. “The ocean sounds louder than usual. Does it to you?” the puzzled Shatner asked. “No,” replied Lafferty.

Although Shatner, 66—who for more than three decades, on TV and in movies, played the role of Star Trek’s unflappable Capt. James T. Kirk—did not realize it at the time, he had just had his first experience of tinnitus, a hissing or ringing in the ears that eventually made him desperate enough to contemplate suicide.

Medical authorities estimate that 10 to 12 million people suffer from severe tinnitus, which can be triggered by loud noises, medication (some antibiotics, high doses of aspirin and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax) or sometimes simply by aging. While the condition cannot be cured, there are several medical strategies that can make it more tolerable.

For Shatner, relief eventually came in January 1996 in the form of hearing-aid-like devices prescribed by Dr. Pawel Jastreboff of the University of Maryland Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Center in Baltimore. By feeding so-called white noise into the brain, they train it to treat the sounds of tinnitus as mere background noise, to be ignored the way city dwellers ignore traffic sounds. Now a spokesman and fundraiser for the American Tinnitus Association and the Baltimore Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Center, Shatner spoke to reporter Jeff Schnaufer about his long struggle with tinnitus.

TINNITUS CREPT UP ON ME. AT first the hissing noise was sufficiently low, so I could kind of forget it. What caused it? I don’t really know. Leonard Nimoy, who also has the problem, reminded me that there had been an explosion on the Star Trek movie set. We both got this ringing in the ears. My ringing is in my left ear, and his ringing is in his right ear.

People who go to rock concerts will come away with their heads ringing, and the next day it goes away. What would happen if it didn’t go away? That’s what tinnitus is like. About 80 percent of people with tinnitus have what I have—the sound of a radio station left on with nothing on it. There’s no pain—this is a noise. It seems to be high-pitched static deep inside your head.

It gets worse when there is silence, at night and in the morning. And that’s when it drags on you. It can be frightening, and my terror came from two things: One is the sound itself. The other is that it is going to get worse, and you’re never going to be able to sleep or concentrate again.

My first instinct was, “I’ve got to run away from this.” I threw myself into work, taking on as many projects as I could handle. And that helped somewhat. I happen to be able to focus, to concentrate my attention. If I’m on a set learning lines, I don’t hear what’s going on. But over a period of five or six years, the sound got louder.

I remember seeing the family doctor first, several years ago, and him saying, “Hey, I have it too.” I asked him, “What have you done?” He said, “There’s nothing you can do. You have to live with it.” I thought to myself, “I don’t know whether I can.”

I began to look around for help. The House Ear Institute here in Los Angeles is one of the top institutes in the world. And Dr. John House himself has tinnitus. So we sat in his office with tears in our eyes—him commiserating with me, and me realizing I would never have a silent night again.

Looking back over the course of this condition, I realize I made one bad mistake. There was a moment on the set of the Tek War TV movie in Toronto, about four years ago, when they were firing explosions and handing out earplugs, and I said, “I don’t need them.”

I have since learned that loud sounds and the process of aging are two of the major causative factors in tinnitus. Other factors that can cause ringing in the ears are various medications and some antibiotics, but a traumatic event to the ears—an explosion, loud music, rifle shots in the military—is the most common cause.

Leonard Nimoy’s tinnitus is less severe than mine. He has gotten used to it. My son-in-law has it too. Although I found my tinnitus getting worse, I didn’t speak about it for years. You are almost embarrassed by the whole thing. Only when you find a community of like people are you able to come out. But the more you talk about it, the more you hear about it.

Over the years I tried herbal remedies. I tried eardrops. I bought masking devices to avoid the silence, and tapes and records of soothing sounds—Japanese music, running water. And inside my house is a little waterfall. The sound of the water is very soothing.

Getting through the nights—that was always the worst. Sometimes I paced the halls. I often turned to writing, reading and exercise, and fatigued myself to sleep. I’d have the television on all night. It affected my marriage; if one person needs noise and the other person is sensitive to it, it can lead to separation. [Shatner and Marcy Lafferty filed for divorce last year.] I could not sleep without sound. In my darkest moments I thought to myself, “Will it be this way for the rest of my life, the way I am tormented by it now?” I began to think, “What are the ways to take my life? How does one kill oneself?” I went so far as to start making plans.

Then, last year, my son-in-law suggested I consult Dr. Jastreboff. His concept is to feed broad-based white noise into the ear and habituate the brain into hearing but not listening to it. There’s something comforting about it, like hearing rain on the roof or traffic in the background but not listening to it.

Three months into the treatment, I felt so good that I took the devices out. Dr. Jastreboff told me I took them out too soon—he said it would take a year or two for them to work for me—so I’m using them again. And I’ve become more accustomed to this hissing. My anxiety has left me. My ability to deal with the noise I’m hearing is more or less 80 percent there. I’ve got tinnitus, but it doesn’t affect me in my general life. Certainly it doesn’t affect my work. I hear it most when going to sleep and waking up—and that’s everybody’s complaint.

When I found he had helped me, I offered to help raise funds for the American Tinnitus Association, the University of Maryland and Dr. Jastreboff. I got a list of people who have tinnitus, and I began to call all over the United States raising money for research. David Letterman, for instance, has tinnitus. Many musicians have it.

I have been told horror stories of people who won’t come out of the house. They hear the noise too acutely. Recently I made a call to somebody in California who had promised Dr. Jastreboff money, and when I called, his wife answered and said he was dead. He had committed suicide because of tinnitus.

That’s why I’m speaking out: to show that help is available. There’s no cure at the moment, but there is help. Don’t despair.

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