Mourning the silence

Ingenious 19th C ear-trumpet disguised in a fan. antiquescientifica.com/

Ingenious 19th C French ear-trumpet disguised in a fan. From antiquescientifica.com

For five years, I have lived in world of muffled sounds and no silence. It turns out that I have tinnitus, and I have hearing loss in my right ear; for the past week I have been wearing a hearing aid, and I officially have a disability.

I am in a strange space, of acceptance, of anger, of fear. And whilst it may seem that my ability to hear has nothing at all to do with writing, I must, I feel, write something.

Five years ago, I went to a gig. I stood too near the speakers. I was used to getting tinnitus after a gig, but it’d go within a day or two – a week at the most. But this tinnitus was worse. It was incredibly loud, and my ear felt sore. I brushed my teeth in the dark because the noise of the bathroom fan, which comes on automatically with the light, made my ear ache. Time went by. The tinnitus went a little quieter, but it just wouldn’t go. I was recording music and playing gigs myself, all the while trying to hear over the tinnitus in my right ear. I taught myself the bass, because it didn’t seem to annoy the tinnitus as much as my normal guitar – the gleeful jangle of my twelve-string made the tinnitus whistle and sing. It was horrible.

My left ear seemed fine, though. I muddled along, as one must, making sure my left ear was pointing towards people during conversations, meetings at work, occasional trips to the pub. I often said “Pardon?” and if I still couldn’t hear what they said the second time, I’d just nod and smile. If I answered the phone and held it to my right ear, I couldn’t make out anything at all, just a muffled voice like the adults in Snoopy, so hey, I’ll hold the phone to my left ear – at least I can still hear with that one. It was the tinnitus, I couldn’t hear over it, there was no cure for it, it was my fault and I’d just have to suffer it.

There were times when it infuriated me. When I couldn’t sleep anyway and the tinnitus was there, roaring or screeching or whistling, to make sure I was never alone, never left to silence. Sometimes, I’d pause while knitting and stare at the needle, and think to myself, “Oh god, how I’d love to shove this needle down my ear canal and just be done with it!” I’d imagine the blood running down my neck and the relief I’d feel. But it was ridiculous – stabbing myself in the ear for tinnitus, the itch I couldn’t scratch.

Earlier this year, something changed. I’m not sure exactly what, but rather than fudge the issue, I decided to be up front. If I needed someone to repeat something, I’d say, “Sorry, I can’t hear very well in my right ear.” I was owning it; I was taking charge of my blasted ear. Then one day, I was having an ad hoc meeting with my boss. We stopped off in the student café in the library, a noisy, echoey space of many conversations and scraping chair-legs on parquet.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch – I’ve gone a bit deaf in my right ear.”

My boss, perhaps because outside work she’s a musician, looked horrified. “Have you been to the doctor?”

I hadn’t. But it was my boss’ shocked reaction which meant I finally sought medical help. I was starting to realise just how much of a problem I had.

The GP looked in my ear and couldn’t see anything, so I was sent to an audiologist at the hospital. First I was sat in a listening booth, strangely like something from a recording studio with its acoustic tiles on the walls and random pieces of audio equipment. But with that institutional vibe that makes it feel like you’ve accidentally travelled to the 1970s. I did the bloop-beep hearing test I remember from childhood, with an added test where I had to listen for the bloop-bleeps over a rushing noise like traffic heard from a bridge over the motorway. There were moments when I looked through the window of the booth at the technician, and wondered why he wasn’t playing any sounds.

And then the verdict came in. I have hearing loss in my right ear. The audiologist quizzed me about my tinnitus, and said I needed an MRI for the unlikely-yet-possible eventuality that there’s something going on in my ear that they can spot.1)A neuroma on the auditory nerve. He turned his back to me for a moment to type something on his PC, and asked me a question. All I could hear was mumbling, so I said, “Sorry?”

He turned to me and asked “Would you like a hearing aid for your right ear?”

My only reaction was laughter. Relieved laughter. I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say – I’d just found out I had lost some of my hearing, to the point that I was being prescribed a hearing aid, but instead I laughed because thank God2)Or audiology – there was actually something that could be done after all. No, it’s not a treatment, it can’t be fixed, but it can be ameliorated.

Opinion varies depending who I speak to. The audiologist I saw said the tinnitus was as a result of my hearing loss – the whistling, buzz, humming etc etc etc is in fact the sound of my inner ear. Normally we don’t hear it but hearing loss means sound from the outside world is lost and can’t disguise it; all that racket from inside my head runs riot. Another audiologist said that tinnitus doesn’t always accompany hearing loss. So who knows.

But in my case, wearing the hearing aid has, after five years, almost silenced the tinnitus. For five years, the only time I couldn’t hear it was when I was dreaming – now, wearing the hearing aid, it’s barely audible. When I take it off to go to bed, of course, it now seems even more irritating, but I know that come morning I’ll have the aid back on and the tinnitus will recede again. It doesn’t infuriate me like it used to because I now have a way of controlling it. And did you know, tinnitus is worse if you’re angry or depressed, so getting angry or depressed about tinnitus only makes the damn racket worse.

The precise sort of hearing loss I have is called “cookie-bite”3)There are lots of diagrams on Google Image Search – it looks like a chunk taken out of the hearing chart. No, I’m not deaf from eating too many biscuits. – I can hear low and high sounds normally, but the mid-tones, which is where human speech falls, has been lost at normal speaking volume. If you were stood in front of me shouting, then I’d hear you fine. And in the left ear, I’ve lost the mid-tones at whispering volume. I hope the left ear doesn’t get any worse….

Apparently cookie-bite isn’t congruent with noise damage, which is odd when I think back to the tinnitus beginning with that terrible gig. In fact, cookie-bite is usually genetic. I remember my grandma – my mum’s mum – wearing hearing aids, but I thought that was geriatric hearing loss (which means losing high tones first). But apparently not – a phone call to my mum (with the phone held to my left ear, of course) has revealed that my grandma and her sister both struggled with their hearing for years, well before the age of geriatric hearing loss. They just didn’t seek help because they didn’t want to wear hearing aids. Their father’s mother (my great-great-grandmother, who worked at Broadmoor before becoming a cook in various posh houses in Hampstead) was, as my mum puts it, “as deaf as a post.” Perhaps their father had hearing problems too – but he died in his forties of TB and as he’d lied about his age and ended up in the trenches of WW1 aged just 14, any hearing loss he had may either have been ignored or attributed to artillery bombardments. And I also wonder if, having grown up around someone who had hearing loss, going “Eh? What? Pardon?” seemed quite normal to me, hence why I just got on with it. My mum has been doing it for years too, which also makes me think she has cookie-bite too but it’s not been diagnosed.

In a way, it doesn’t really matter. Did it come from me standing too near to a loud speaker? Or did the tinnitus come from noise damage and the cookie-bite hearing loss was always there waiting in the wings for me from the moment I was conceived? The wonders of faulty genes.

In case you were wondering, too, hearing aids aren’t like spectacles. Earlier this year, I was getting headaches and things were a tad blurry, so I headed to the optician, found out my vision had changed and got new glasses. No more headaches, no more blurriness – when I’m wearing my specs, the world is clear and sharp.

Not so with hearing loss. It’s gone, it’s lost, all the hearing aid can do is amplify sounds so they’re loud enough for me to hear. Very cleverly, the graphic equaliser inside the hearing aid can be tweaked to follow the results of my hearing test, so the tones I can still hear – high and low – aren’t amplified, but the ones I’ve lost are. It sounds tinny and metallic – it’s certainly not a natural sound, it’s not what I remember from the days when my hearing wasn’t banjaxed. Echoey rooms with background noise are still a problem, but in a different way. However, it hides most of the tinnitus (blissful!) and I can have a conversation with someone without having to say “Eh? What? Pardon?” over and over again.

So there isn’t really a neat conclusion to all this waffle. I just wanted to write about it. Sometimes I feel angry, but knowing that my hearing loss is probably genetic and not my own stupid fault, I find it easier to accept. And there’s no point in being angry – it’s wasted energy that cannot go anywhere and won’t fix anything. It’s done – it’s lost. And as one of the audiologists said about my tinnitus, I must mourn the silence. Losing part of your body’s ability pitches you into bereavement, and it’s frightening – it’s why I lived in denial of it for so long and tried to get by without facing up to what had happened.

But I’m glad I did seek help. Even though the tinnitus will never be turned off completely, even though I’ll only know silence in my sleep, even though I have hearing loss, there are still so many other things that I can do. And damn it, I will.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. A neuroma on the auditory nerve.
2. Or audiology
3. There are lots of diagrams on Google Image Search – it looks like a chunk taken out of the hearing chart. No, I’m not deaf from eating too many biscuits.