Tinnitus and me

When I was a child, I assumed everyone had the same ailments as me – though that’s the wrong word, as I didn’t consider them to be ailments. They were more like the price you paid for owning a body. So I thought everyone got breathless after climbing the stairs, everyone struggled to see the blackboard from the back of the class, everyone got a bit confused where the concepts of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ were concerned, and everyone had persistent ringing in their ears. And this was even before I got to the confusion swamps of puberty.

As it turned out, most people didn’t have those experiences. The breathlessness was asthma, which was managed with inhalers before disappearing completely in my mid-teens (around the same time as I started smoking – apparently many asthmatics have that experience). The misty blackboard was down to mild short-sightedness, easily cured by glasses. The blue and green issues were colour-blindness – I can still remember being told I could never be a fighter pilot when the colour vision tester came to school. But the last one hung around. I just always thought people had a high-pitched drone working away in their ears. I sort of thought of it as the sound of my brain working. Turns out that’s exactly what it is, though not in a good way.

About five years ago, that noise in my ears became steadily and dramatically worse. Actually, in one ear only, the left one. At the same time, I lost a bit of hearing in that ear, then a bit more, then a lot more. Conversations in crowded environments became difficult (but hadn’t they always been a bit difficult? Where was the boundary?), and I went to my GP, who confirmed I’d lost a bit of hearing (though not enough to warrant a National Health Service hearing aid) and sent me for an MRI scan to check nothing more sinister was going on. He never said what that sinister something might be, but I assumed he was talking Tumours and possibly Cancer, capitalised and scary.

The MRI showed – well, nothing. No scary bits, and no explanation for the ear-noise and deafness either. I went to a private hearing clinic and got myself a hearing aid for my left ear, which I wore sporadically, and shifted the balance on all my headphones well over to the left. This, it seemed, would be the new normal. The noise was tinnitus, I was told, and it was just my brain compensating for the weakening audio signals from my ear (oh, great, overthinking again).

It wasn’t a particularly nice new normal, because sometimes the noise can feel deafening. It isn’t really ‘ringing’ either. It’s more like a chord held down at the right hand end of a keyboard – I like to think of it as an A-minor, because I like A-minor, and I’ve learned that the best way to deal with tinnitus is to turn it into something more positive, because the grim reality of losing your hearing and having the gap replaced by your brain making random sounds is pretty depressing. I read somewhere that the number one treatment for tinnitus is antidepressants. This is one of the lousiest things I have ever read.

My tinnitus has a quantum quality. If my brain is busy – if I’m talking, or listening to music on headphones, or basically thinking hard about something, or anything, I can go whole hours without noticing it. But then you do notice it, and it wrenches into reality like a superpositioned electron. The noise, the noise, the fucking noise. The worst times are bedtime (though it doesn’t keep me awake, thankfully), watching low-interest TV, or eating without talking. At those times, it can even become scary, the thought that you’re going to have to live with this droning squeal forever. You begin to think you can never switch off your brain, that you need to keep the damn thing distracted somehow, like I’m doing now, every word and phrase a brick in the wall. The best thing for keeping it away, I’ve found, is a pair of Airpods Pro and a podcast. Maybe that’s how I should live now.

But then, occasionally, it goes away. Not completely, but mostly. And the hearing comes back. It’s happened to me twice now, the second time lasting months. Why this happens, I do not quite know. I do have cranial osteopathy once a month because that works for some people. I take gingko biloba, because that works for others. I take multivitamins, just because. Are any of these working? All I can say is something worked, and then something stopped working, because three months ago the tinnitus came back. But I have to keep on doing those things, because maybe one of them will work again.

Normal medicine seems helpless in the face of this. Despite several doctor visits, and a second MRI scan, I’m no closer to discovering what is causing this distressed soprano buzz. I think the best thing for me is to go back to my younger belief – that everyone hears these noises, and that the frown you occasionally see on a stranger’s face is because they have just, despite themselves, noticed the sodding ringing again.

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