Tinnitus: the gift that never stops giving. Ever.

In Arbitrary Guff by All This Running Around1 Comment

A little warning: it’s not exactly rare for me to swear on this blog, but as this post might (I hope) get found by people not familiar with my writing then please take it as read that there are some words you probably won’t hear your nan say. Unless she works down the docks.

It is August 1992. I am in a large field somewhere in the Leicestershire countryside with about 20,000 gurning ravers. I am not gurning, because myself and my friends are apparently the only people for miles around not to have taken up the offer of overpriced ecstasy from the ubiquitous rat-like drug dealers. I am, however, having a good time and dancing like a prick, which was mandatory back then. Dawn arrives and everyone is still going strong. To celebrate the position of the sun’s appearance in the sky relative to the earth’s orbit, the MC does what an early-90s rave MC does best: he tells everyone to ‘blow your fucking whistle’. Several thousand idiots duly oblige.

I’m somewhere in that lot.

The sound is awful. It’s like a form of torture. No-one, no sane human being could derive pleasure from hearing the sound made by thousands of whistles being blown simultaneously. I look around to see if anyone else is grimacing, but no. I am apparently the only person in the vicinity not to be enjoying this ebullient and drug fuelled display of twats blowing whistles. I don’t want to be a stick in the mud by putting my hands over my ears, so I don’t. After about three or four seconds, my ears, presumably in cahoots with the little bit of my brain marked ‘common sense’, decide to take over. That is, they shut down. Completely. It’s like my head is slowly forced underwater as the sound gradually subsides. It’s not an unpleasant experience; it’s nice not to be hearing this awful racket. But then a moment of panic as it hits me that I’ve actually gone deaf.

I sit down. My friend Paul bends over and says something to me, but obviously I can’t hear him. I give him the thumbs up and smile. I think this is the first time in my life that I ever bluffed my way out of a conversation. If you can’t hear but don’t want to admit you can’t hear, just smile and give a vague, but positive response. Then hope that the person you’re speaking to hasn’t said, “my wife has just left me and I only have six months to live” or something similar.

I was lucky. After a few minutes, my hearing started to return. Half an hour later, the incident was forgotten. (The benefits of a) youth and b) being a youth in the days before any minor medical or physical incident is immediately followed by frantic Googling and self diagnosis of imminent paralysis and death.)

The rave finished. We made it back to Paul’s turd-brown Metro. Up all night. Knackered. I stretched out on the back seat and attempted to sleep as Paul tried to get us out of the car park. As I closed my eyes, I realised that there was a high pitched buzzing sound in my ears. It’s been there ever since.

Let’s fast forward through my late teens and early 20s. Clubs. A lot of clubs. To cap things off, I was an aspiring DJ as well, so there were plenty of parties, plenty of nights where I’d have the headphones on for hours. There were two further instances of me losing my hearing altogether, both when I’d have been about 22 or so. I was doing irreversible damage to my hearing, and I can’t really explain why I didn’t seem to care. I’ve thought about it a lot. We cannot (and should not) rule out the notion that I was a stupid fucking prick. But I also think that I was in denial about my tinnitus, and would therefore seek out the loudest part of the club to… What? Prove that I could take the volume? Prove to whom? The ‘stupid fucking prick’ theory remains compelling.

After university, I worked on building sites. One day, we needed to use a concrete skip – those big metal containers that cranes lift to pour concrete up high. It hadn’t been cleaned out after the last pour, so there was a load of cured concrete inside. Meaning someone had to get in there and break it out. With a jackhammer. I can’t remember the name of the guy who was volunteered for the job. But I can remember the look on his face when he climbed out of the skip after only about 20 seconds. The noise was too much, which I suppose is to be expected when you’re using a jackhammer inside a metal box. He refused to go back in without ear protection. Sensible chap.

Building site humour is made for situations like this, and he was duly ripped to pieces. I saw my opportunity. Got in there. Did it. Proved myself to the boys. Went deaf. I had to feign illness that day in order to get out of a company night out. I was shitting myself, certain that I’d finally gone too far. I promised myself that I wouldn’t do stupid shit like this again, that I had to start looking after my ears. Consider this: it took me several years of abusing my hearing and four, FOUR instances where it shut off completely, for me to actually think “hmm, perhaps I’d better start taking this seriously”. I can’t explain it, but I’ve only got myself to blame. That’s for sure.

Still I didn’t want to admit that I actually had a problem with my hearing. It wasn’t until a friend told me that he also had it that I began to accept the situation. By this point, I’d had tinnitus for a decade. I’d never seen a doctor about it, and always just assumed that it was something I’d have to live with. At least I got that part right.

I am lucky, though. Apart from the occasional scary experience, I’ve dealt with it well. Despite the fact that the ringing is constant and VERY FUCKING LOUD, it doesn’t stop me sleeping. I know people that have spoken to psychiatrists about the effect their tinnitus has on them, but I’ve genuinely never felt the need. I can cope with the ringing. It’s the other stuff that becomes a gigantic ball ache.

When I was 25, I moved into a flat with my girlfriend. I’d been with her from even before that rave back in 1992. I don’t think she’d ever really realised how severe the tinnitus was, but it came into focus pretty bloody sharply after living together for a few months. She persuaded me to see my GP, have a hearing test and just generally see what (if anything) could be done. (She is like this: fiercely logical and methodical. The opposite of me, basically.)

So eventually, I caved in. I booked an appointment and saw the doc. (Unsurprising, as this is generally how the process works.) She asked me some questions about my lifestyle, and I decided to be brutally honest. She gave me a complete bollocking. As I sat there, I remember thinking “yes, this would have been useful about eight years ago”. Would it, though? Knowing me and the cocky little cunt I was, I’d have probably got up and walked out. To make matters worse, once she’d finished bollocking me, the volume of her voice dropped to a level that was barely audible. The fact I was then forced to say pardon after everything she said seemed only to enrage her further. She gave me a hearing test. It is reasonable to say that I did not perform very well. The hearing in my left ear she estimated at around 40% of what it should be for someone of my age, my right ear about 60%. I cheerfully pointed out that this basically gave me one decent ear between the pair of them. She said, “or to put it another way, you are half deaf”.

Up until this point, I’d only really thought about the tinnitus itself, the actual ringing in my ears. I’d always assumed that it was the tinnitus that made it difficult for me to hear, but actually it was masking some pretty serious hearing loss. Which isn’t all that surprising when you think about it, but it was to me at the time.

The doctor gave me something about hearing aids, but this was never going to happen. This is the late 90s, back when hearing aids were not some cool little thing you could put in and control via an app on your phone. They were like having a huge brown plastic trumpet strapped to the side of your head. No way. I’d manage.

(I met this doctor again, many years later. At the time, I was running workshops and tutorials in DJing for kids, and she brought her son along. She stayed for the session, the first part of which was a safety talk about tinnitus and how easy it is to damage your hearing AND THAT’S PRETTY IRONIC ISN’T IT. I don’t think she remembered me, and I didn’t remind her in case she started telling me off again.)

From the time of that doctor’s appointment in 2000 to now, I’ve had a completely normal life. My tinnitus and general all round ear knack hasn’t stopped me from doing anything. I buy high quality ear plugs that I use at concerts, but I find that if I’m just sensible about not putting exposing myself to loud volumes, it’s manageable. I couldn’t honestly tell you if the situation has got worse in the ensuing 17 years. I don’t think it has, but I’ve no way of measuring it because, frankly, that doctor’s appointment put me off ever speaking to one about it ever again. I know that that’s a stupid attitude (plus ça change) but the fact is that, for now at least, my problem isn’t treatable. There are certain things you can do (or not do) to alleviate or minimise tinnitus, and I’ve tried them all. What I can say is that, for me, lack of sleep is the big one. I’m a real night owl, and I’ve paid for that many times over the years. My tinnitus will be noticeably more severe if I’ve only had a few hours kip compared to what it’s like generally. So, er… If there’s anything useful to be found in this post, that’s it. Get some sleep. You can’t buy advice like this.

Living with tinnitus and hearing loss isn’t always easy. In terms of my day to day life, I can struggle at times. If I’m somewhere like a pub, where there is a lot of general background noise, it can be very difficult. Louder venues don’t tend to be as much of a problem as people naturally tend to project their voices a bit more. But generally speaking, if I’m talking to someone with a normal, clear voice then it’s fine. But the mumblers… Agh.

Let’s be clear about this: mumbling should be punishable by death. Okay, perhaps that’s a bit severe. Maybe by pinching really hard. Mumblers do two things to people like me. The first thing is they make you feel stupid because there’s no way that you can effectively converse with them. The true mumbler will respond to your polite request to speak up a bit by saying sorry, then mumbling. This is not so much of a problem if you know the mumbler, since you can generally resort to a bit of verbal abuse. But if it’s the first time you’ve met the mumbler, there’s usually a bit of paranoia. Is this person mumbling? Is it just me? Is my hearing getting worse? It’s happened many times that I’ve worried about my inability to hear someone, only for my wife (or someone) to later say that couldn’t hear a bloody word either. Mumblers: have a word with yourselves. But don’t mumble while you’re doing it or you won’t be able to hear HAHA.

But the worst, the absolute worst place to have tinnitus is in a car. For some reason, I find that the engine noise almost perfectly counteracts speech. I can hear that someone is speaking without any difficulty – I just can’t pick out the words. This has resulted in a few embarrassing journeys with people, where I am constantly trying to guess the gist of what’s being said and what a reasonable response might be. Anyone with any form of hearing loss will be familiar with this. Because there comes a point when you just can’t bear to say “pardon?” anymore. It’s tiring, it grinds you down. So you look for the signs, the inflection, the expression and… you have a guess. Over time, you get quite good at it. But you can never relax because every now and then you will have an exchange like this.

Person: [says something unintelligible] You: “Mmm.”
Person: [says something else, whilst looking at you with an incredulous expression] You: “Really?”
Person: “Really what?”

Now you are aware that you have fucked up. You had hoped that the ‘really?’ would serve as confirmation of your agreement as to the absurdity of whatever the hell it was they just said. But you have misjudged it. You now only have two options. Ignore the ‘really what?’, give a small laugh and change the subject. Or you can say, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”. Either response will probably be met with a look that veers between confusion and ‘are you taking the piss?’.

And let us talk a little about the different reactions that that a hearing problem can elicit from people. I have a few friends who have always found it amusing to give me stick about it. This was never really a problem until one little incident just over a year ago. Five of us were in the car for a night out. It was difficult to pick out what was being said. There were a couple of exchanges, a bit of piss taking. I told them just to assume that it was pretty much pointless speaking to me until we were out of the car, which prompted a bit more piss taking. And for the first time, I thought “you know what? Fuck this. Don’t need it.” It was the first time I’d really felt like taking someone to task about it. I didn’t though. Perhaps I should have.

Some people will, in effort to be helpful, speak to you as if you are recovering from a massive debilitating brain injury. Others will speak with exaggerated clarity, as if demonstrating the correct elocution to a student. But most people just won’t do anything. Telling them that you have tinnitus and/or hearing loss may provoke a sympathetic reaction, but it won’t translate into any meaningful effort to make it easier for you to understand them. I don’t know why this is, only that the past 25 years have taught me that it absolutely, definitely IS.

One in ten people in the UK has tinnitus. I don’t have the figures (meaning: I haven’t researched this post at all, obviously) but I would imagine that a chunk of those are elderly. Tinnitus is an unwelcome side effect of ageing for some. But that leaves hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of adults living with what is a preventable condition. So the next time someone tells you that they suffer from tinnitus, think about that use of the word ‘suffer’. Because make no mistake, it is a colossal pain in the arse. As I’ve said, I’ve dealt with it in my own way. But for many people, it’s a huge burden. Talk to them about it, and don’t assume that their case is the same as mine. Everyone’s tinnitus is different and affects them in different ways.

And if you don’t have it, please look after your hearing. Don’t sit with your headphones on for hours on end. Don’t dance in front of the speakers (this was a particular favourite of mind, DUUURR). Buy some decent ear plugs for just in case. Not the orange foam ones, you can buy decent plugs that only block out certain damaging ranges of frequency. (I’ll link some below.) I had a pair that enabled me to still hear the music at a gig AND speak to the person next to me. Unfortunately they didn’t make it back from Glastonbury last year, meaning I’ll be buying another pair before making my way down to Worthy Farm in June.

That’s worth mentioning, actually. I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to help out at the John Peel stage at Glastonbury, looking after press enquiries and photographers. It’s a lovely gig, really just a few hours of watching bands from the pit, plus it allows you some nice perks: namely that the camping and toilets in the backstage area are a lot more pleasant than the terrifying scenes you’ll witness out on site. But the sound! Bloody hell. It’s a rule for anyone working in that environment to wear ear plugs. But I was standing there last year watching Fatboy Slim from the side of the stage and looking at the audience. They were going mental, it was great. And Jesus, any one of them could have been me in 1992. It was loud, ball-bustingly loud – although my lug protection and the fact I was behind the speakers meant I was fine. But those kids in the front row… I wanted to grab a fistful ear plugs and hand them out. Perhaps I should have done, but they’d have said no. Probably would have thought I was some stupid old fart. It’s exactly what I would have thought at their age. (Also, I am a stupid, albeit impossibly attractive and kind, old fart.)

You are not indestructible.

Sorry for the length of this, and the fact that it’s a bit of a departure from the usual subjects. As you will have gleaned, I am by no means an expert in tinnitus or hearing loss generally. If you’re struggling with it, go and see someone. Don’t be an idiot like me and wait years before you act. I hope it doesn’t read like a lecture, but it would really mean something to me if this post gave cause to someone to think about their hearing. I know it’s hard; for me it was impossible. But if you’re ever in a situation where you think things are just a bit TOO loud… Go. Leave. It’s not worth it. Trust me on this.

Leave a comment, discount it all as the babbling crap of an imbecile. To be honest I’m surprised you’ve made it to the end. Bye!

British Tinnitus Association: https://www.tinnitus.org.uk/

V-Moda Fadersthese are the ear plugs I use, there’s loads of other types but I can vouch for how good the V-Moda ones are. Fifteen quid. Get ’em bought.