On tinnitus

by Tom Albrighton 13 November 2013 Uncategorised

One of the best things about Twitter is that it shows you how lucky you are. I follow people who’ve been victims of violence, people who care for disabled children, people with mental-health problems, people who don’t have long to live. I’d take my problems over theirs any day.

So this isn’t a plea for sympathy. At least, not disproportionate sympathy. By all means sympathise a bit, but first go and sympathise with those who really deserve it. All this is, really, is a diary entry.

I have developed tinnitus. No, I didn’t get it by listening to heavy rock at high volume for years on end. I got it by repeatedly jumping into Beccles Lido one day last summer. My right ear got blocked up and started ringing. The blockage gradually went away, but the ringing didn’t, or hasn’t yet anyway. The doctors speculate I sustained a barotrauma, and tinnitus is the result.

Tinnitus manifests itself in different ways for different people. I have three symptoms.

First, I can’t hear high frequencies very well in my right ear. That’s OK most of the time, but it makes it very hard to discern speech when there’s ambient noise. If we’re speaking in the pub and I’m staring fixedly at your face, it’s not necessarily because I find you attractive; I may also be trying to lip-read. In group conversations, it’s often easier to retreat inside my own head and look from face to face as other people speak, like a hopeful dog awaiting a scrap.

My ears also play little tricks like making people’s voices, or parts of recorded music, sound like they’re coming from somewhere else. This is more disconcerting than anything, leaving me frowning and darting my eyes from side to side like a 1970s Action Man, trying to work out what the hell’s going on.

Second, certain noises, particularly splashing, tapping or clattering, sound incredibly harsh, almost painful. Flushing the toilet, of all things, induces a brief wince. Doing the washing up now involves running the gauntlet of myriad percussive clacks and boinks. As I type this on the beloved ‘clicky’ keyboard that I use for work, the sound of the keys is unbearably piercing.

Asking people to be quiet is as tiresome as asking them to repeat things, and rarely works for very long anyway – or, if they’re children, not at all. So most of the time I just don’t bother.

Last but by no means least, there’s a constant high-pitched tone in my right ear. This sound file is a pretty good approximation. Imagine this going on for ever, rather than for ten seconds, and you’re there.

The ear-sound changes over time. At best, it’s a subtle whine like that sometimes emitted by electronic equipment; we once had a camera flash gun that made a similar noise. At worst, if provoked by loud noises, it’s more like the shriek of a whistling kettle, if anyone remembers those.

There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the ear-sound’s variations in intensity. Instinctively, I put my hand over my ear to block it out, but it’s inside. At bedtime I listen to an iPhone app that plays the sound of rain or ocean waves into my right ear, masking the noise. If I wake up in the night, the ear-sound is always there, never sleeping.

The ear-sound is, by far, the hardest thing to get used to. I’ve never appreciated silence so much now I may never hear it again. I work alone and I need quiet to concentrate. Now, the quieter my surroundings, the more inner noise I can hear. So the ideal environment – the one that lets me forget tinnitus for a while – is one with gentle ambient noise that doesn’t make it impossible to hear speech.

There’s nothing much to be done about all this. There is no treatment for tinnitus; you just have to learn to live with it. Sometimes it gets better, and sometimes it doesn’t. Apparently, the best way to deal with it at a cognitive level is to ‘make friends’ with it, after which you can tolerate it, much as you might tolerate an endlessly whining child.

Happily, because of the link between the condition and loud rock music, there’s no shortage of celebrity tinnitus role models. Tactfully passing over Queen’s Roger Taylor and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, I’ve selected Paddy MacAloon of Prefab Sprout as mine.

Paddy has suffered since the late 1990s – and, cruelly, he’s also had to deal with eczema and a detached retina.

I was driven mad by it, this loud roar in my right ear. January the 23rd 2006, it collapsed. Music was split into different bits. The Beatles’ ‘Getting Better’, it had the notes that George Harrison’s playing, plus Chinese music happening at the same time. Scary stuff.

If you’d been standing over there, turning paper, it’d be nails down a blackboard. I couldn’t sleep. I tried putting a heater, a fan, next to my head, to cover up the noise in my head. A nightmare.

[The doctor was] maybe a little more matter-of-fact than he needed to be. He said, ‘People kill themselves with tinnitus.’ And I understood why you might just do away with yourself. There’s no refuge.
Interview with The Independent, 6 September 2009

Tinnitus is inevitably subjective: no-one else can hear what what’s in your head. Having said that, I’ve no doubt that Paddy’s condition is far worse than mine. I can put up with most noise, I can listen to music and I can sleep. I’m not suicidal, just a bit fed up.

Also, while I do miss silence, I’m profoundly grateful that I can still hear music, albeit with the 10KHz turned right down on the right channel. In fact, listening through headphones is the only time I’m free of my symptoms. I hope I never get to the stage where I can’t hear The Beatles properly.

At one stage, when the interview quoted above was given, it seemed unlikely that Paddy McAloon would ever make another record. But his condition settled down and, this year, he released Crimson/Red, a tour round Paddy’s usual themes of youth, age, love, faith and art.

The record is moving enough in itself, but doubly so when you consider that its creator probably sang these beautiful songs with his beautiful voice buzzing stupidly, painfully inside his head, like an angry wasp that can never escape. If he can get through his tinnitus, I can get through mine.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,