The Sound of Silence: Tinnitus

It’s as much a physical wrench as psychological agony when you find yourself head in hands weeping or utterly lost curled in an embryonic ball of complete despair. There are many ways that life can remind us of our own fragile mortality, and the need for a little love, support and understanding.

Tinnitus-1aIn April 2009 at the age of 44, I awoke with a loud high pitched ringing in my ears, perhaps like the sound of a rapidly spinning circular saw combined with a high frequency continuous electronic tone. You could also compare it to the buzzing in your ears as you leave a rock concert. Although in most cases it will dissipate and vanish over a few minutes or hours. Maybe you can remember the feeling of being able to hear others talk and laugh after the show, or the noise of car engines as they roll out of the car park, but all slightly dimmed and muffled by the interference of the buzzing noise in your head. Certainly by the next day it will normally have gone.

Sadly in my case, I’m approaching my fourth anniversary of living with a continuous unremitting high-pitched drone in my ears. It doesn’t deviate, it doesn’t get louder, and it doesn’t get quieter. It hasn’t affected my hearing directly; it’s just that everything I hear is accompanied by this directionless internal high-pitched drone. Some environments which are tiled and reflective or have hard floors are a challenge, and I’m now very sensitive to sharp noises, like the clattering of cutlery or crockery in a cafe. In fact if I’m in any environment where there are multiple voices and much background noise, I will often have to concentrate hard to filter out the background to concentrate on a single voice speaking directly to me. I’ve even found myself craning my neck inadvertently like that of a dog when you call it’s name repeatedly, and it looks at you with head tilted slightly to one side thinking, yes I can hear you, why do you keep saying my name. I know I’m a good boy!

Tinnitus-4The first day of this continuous piercing noise of mine was merely annoying and confusing, as I had no concept of its source. I hadn’t been to any concerts recently, I hadn’t exposed myself to any loud bangs, I hadn’t blasted my brain through excessive iPod use. I couldn’t even say that I was suffering any levels of stress beyond that which we all suffer when we’re self employed and carving out a little niche.

The second day of the buzzing was now beginning to concern me, and I mean really distress me. What was annoying 24 hours previously was now the focus of my every waking thought, as I realised it wasn’t going away as I’d blithely expected. I used cotton buds to clean my ears, I bought liquid eardrops. I opened and closed my jaw while holding my ear lobes and pulling, in the vain hope that it may just be some blockage or other physical cause. I thought perhaps it was trapped water after a recent visit to the pool in the gym.  I even leaned forward every couple of hours, tilting my head over my shoulder and yanked vigorously on my ear lobes as if to open my ears and shake my head like a mad thing, hoping some tiny droplet of water would be released and I would be returned to silence. Had I an audience, It would have looked ridiculous.

Tinnitus-3The third day was the realisation that it was time to urgently see my GP, and get this noise source identified, diagnosed and hopefully halted. I managed to get an appointment within two hours, as opposed to the usual four days. My GP examined my ear canals with his otoscope, tapped a tuning fork a couple of times and presented it to my left and right ear, but he was ultimately non committal on a cause. He did of course do what all GP’s do when stabbing in the dark; he prescribed me a seven day course of antibiotics, just in case it was a bacterial infection. If only!  At my insistence he also referred me to a specialist ‘Audiologist’. Even on this third day my increasing despair and anxiety was tempered with the hope that the specialist would reassure me and remedy the problem. I had an appointment to be seen at the Rivers Hospital in Hertfordshire in ten days time. In the meantime, I wasn’t hopeful about the antibiotics, but I did want them to work.

It was also on this third day having seen my GP and filled my prescription that the possibility of Tinnitus crossed my mind. Believe it or not I actually dismissed the thought initially, thinking I couldn’t possibly have that, it would be too awful to contemplate. It came to mind that only one week earlier, I had seen an item on breakfast TV, where an otherwise fit and healthy guy in his mid thirties was being interviewed about coping with Tinnitus. I remember looking into his eyes as he spoke thinking that must be unbearable, how can you cope? To never know silence again. As the thought drifted across my mind upon leaving the pharmacist, I tried to suppress it in order to remain hopeful and positive. As if that would make a difference.

Tinnitus-2It’s a funny thing hope. In the Greek myth, Pandora’s curiosity to see what was in the box gifted to her by Zeus, caused her to release into the world all disease, poverty, suffering and pain but this was finally followed by the release of the last thing in the box, hope. As without hope how can we bear the worst that life can throw at us. It’s sustaining and a comfort when all seems lost and you find yourself at your lowest ebb. Although, strangely when hope is finally gone there is however a kind of accepting of ones fate. Acceptance is as one gets older the route to much happiness. Why stress over that which you cannot change. I can say that now, but I couldn’t four years ago.

Each day in my early experience of this condition was worse than the last, as the noise in my head was not dissipating and it was evident that the antibiotics were having no effect. What was happening to me was that my increasing anxiety over the terror that this noise was never to leave me was in fact making it worse. The distress and permanence of the droning had caused me to focus upon it more and more, as it was so blatant and unavoidable. All I wanted was for it to stop and give me some peace. Of course the more anxious I became the more prevalent the noise. It’s hard to describe, but my thoughts of hope, which focused upon switching off the tone, was altering my perception of the level of the noise. Although it was in reality no louder, it appeared to be getting louder because of my increasing stress at the thought of it never leaving me. It was and is a vicious and cruel cycle of despair.

My eventual appointment with the specialist ‘Audiologist’ merely confirmed that my hearing itself was fine but that I did indeed appear to have Tinnitus, characterised by a continuous high pitched tone. I was told it was incurable but that occasionally some people, perhaps 1 in 10 see an improvement during their lifetime. The condition can take many forms and have many cruel variations, sometimes accompanied by clicks and bangs and other unexplained auditory surprises. I occasionally have momentary episodes of extreme volume causing acute pain deep in my ears. I try to suppress it by blocking my outer ear canal with my middle finger and pressing it shut. Although you have to remember that Tinnitus is a function of the auditory part of your brain and not actually your ears. Stands to reason really. Duh!

Tinnitus-5I was given only two fundamental pieces of guidance, investigate meditation and relaxation techniques, and buy a device to play the sound of spring rain when sleeping at night. My wife was kind enough to buy a versatile multi function radio from the website of the good people at ‘Action on Hearing Loss’ (Previously known as RNID), which has selectable Tinnitus sound inhibitors, such as fan sounds, pink noise and rain sounds etc. It depends upon which frequency your Tinnitus operates. Apparently high pitch Tinnitus is suppressed to some extent by rain sounds. In those early days before diagnosis and in the first weeks and months that followed I went through untold agonies at the prospect of never being free of this appalling condition. Silence is one of the most precious things we can find in this bleeping ‘always on’ digital cacophony of 21st century life.

Initially, I couldn’t sleep due to the internal noise, or if I turned in my sleep and awoke I couldn’t get back to sleep. I have to add that Tinnitus is perceived much more loudly when your tired or stressed. I couldn’t find any peace I was miserable and desperately unhappy. The other notable point about Tinnitus is that it’s invisible; you can’t hear it, unless you have it. So when you try to explain how much distress your feeling it’s very hard to sympathise with a sufferer, as there’s nothing an observer can physically perceive themselves. There are no scars, wounds, or limping, no missing limbs or crutches, and there are no outward screams of despair. It’s a terrible irony that Tinnitus sufferers live with their horrific noise affliction in the sound of silence. You can’t go about handing out little cards saying, by the way I have a permanent screaming ringing tone in my head, please make allowances.

Tinnitus is a chronic pain like any other, and that’s when all said and done what it is. It’s a relentless unremitting unforgiving cold dark pain. It becomes familiar and part of your existence, and is deeply upsetting sometimes, and simply omnipresent the rest of the time. Imagine if you can, a close and distressing noise with no off switch, then move it inside your head. It defies credible description.

Tinnitus-6It’s astounding what we can become used to whenever life deals us a bad hand. It can also have a surprising upside. This outwardly silent but inner pain of mine, or indeed any pain you may have, forges your character, and makes you much more resilient, and shapes your world view. It makes you perhaps a little more enlightened than most. What I mean by that is that you realize what is important in life is not winning an argument, or a project, or a promotion, or profit, but knowing that our fragility is our common humanity.  We all hurt sometimes, but without the setbacks and difficulties we will not grow and develop stronger bonds.

One thing my four year experience with Tinnitus has reminded me is that we all suffer daily in one form or another but there is a commonly held conceit in business and in the workplace that everything is OK, when it manifestly is not. People are only ill or off their best at home, unseen. People always function 100% effectively firing on all cylinders at work. Well I have developed fully functioning prototype industrial quality ‘Titanium Bullshit Detectors’ (Patent Pending), and this may surprise some folks out there selling workplace satisfaction surveys, with interactive statistical features and graphic results, or purveyors of surveys showing 15% more creativity can be achieved through 30% more collaboration and 42% more innovation. Nobody at the coalface really cares about statistics, seriously they don’t, just make believe for a moment that their human and ask them?

‘The Sound of Silence’ courtesy of ‘Simon & Garfunkel’…

4 thoughts on “The Sound of Silence: Tinnitus

  1. really well written Adrian, and glad you are experiencing a positive side to it. Be interesting to see if mindfulness or meditation have any effect.

  2. A very good job of describing the experience of tinnitus. I’ve grown used to mine, which is just a high pitched whine (like background post concert ringing). My mother has far more variety of noises and volumes – she talks to hers as a means of assimilating its presence. Good luck.

  3. Congratulations on writing about tinnitus in such an accurate and frank way. I have tinnitus too and hearing loss. Like you it just started one day, 18 moths ago. I do think more needs to be done to recognise the needs of those with hearing impairment when it comes to the design of interior environments, especially restaurants and cafes which can be a nightmare with so many harsh reflective surfaces. There are lots of fellow sufferers in the real estate, design and worksplace worlds. Perhaps we should start a club!

  4. My Tinnitus started in 1987, I was originally told by the GP that it was caused by High Blood Pressure Tablets I was taking, and I would have to learn to live with the condition, I have done just that.

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