It started as the sound of a good night, bridging the gap between returning home and the inevitable onset of a hangover. A little buzzing which sounded like it started when the aux cable was pulled out of the decks after the final track was played but then found itself between my ears where it stayed until the morning.
Waking up in recovery mode after a less than premium sleep, the buzzing had more or less subsided and the search for food with a side of caffeine began.
Rinse and repeat.
Then about four years ago, I noticed the buzzing wasn’t really ever going away and the realisation set in that it was forever going to be me, myself and I accompanied by tinnitus.
I was 30 at the time and working in the audio industry creating, producing and managing podcasts and a life which revolved around live music and clubbing, and this was pretty terrifying. To have a condition which when you Google it is met with the internet’s equivalent of a shoulder shrug accompanied by ‘you need to get on with it’.
With no cure…
For a week or so I wasn’t really sure what to do. I didn’t tell anyone because of a mixture of embarrassment, not wanting to worry people who cared for me - and also a feeling that it was a sign of getting old. I booked an appointment with a hearing specialist who confirmed what I feared and who didn’t turn around with a new pill which would solve it in seven-to-ten days.
After an initial, inevitable period of introspection, looking back at times where I stood as close to club speakers as possible and wondered whether that was sensible, I realised it’s far from a death sentence.
It’s thought as many as 10-25% of adults have tinnitus in one form or another - potentially a quarter of the planet. If that’s true, and it’s not seen as an international crisis, it can’t be that bad? People must be able to handle it? And this isn’t going to control my life.
I began to read more online blogs and testimonials from people who had it, and stats which gave me comfort that this was quite normal. I went for a hearing test, referred by the specialist, and despite having an underlying buzz it turned out it wasn’t affecting what I could pick up and the results were actually quite strong.
Deep breath. Pause. Move forward.
Before going any further, it was a wakeup call - and my tinnitus wasn’t something I wanted to test to see how far I could push it. I immediately sought ear protection and now carry them with me at all times in a capsule with my keys so if I enter an environment with loud music - planned or not - I can look after my hearing.
I also realised the music volume in my headphones wasn’t directly connected to my enjoyment of it.
What is the experience of tinnitus? Well, most of the time - nothing. After waking up to the radio, there is always some noise in the background - kettle boiling, shower running, work colleagues chatting, traffic and so on. These sounds mask tinnitus and indeed one of the most common treatments for the condition is to try and mirror this with sound generators. They pulsate out anything from waves to waterfalls - which is much more welcoming than the sound of a trapped fly in your head.
Occasionally, when environmental noises drop - or there’s a dramatic moment in a film and silence is playing a key character - I can notice it. But it is often something I have to try and seek out to notice and find.
It’s forgettable, and quickly the sound becomes something familiar and normal.
Falling asleep is unsurprisingly when it can be its most irritating - if you let it.
I remember reading the experience of someone else with tinnitus who wrote about embracing it and thinking of it as your friend. Turning the thought of it being a constant annoyance on its head so it’s a constant companion.
This is much easier said than done but in a slightly sadistic way perhaps, if I am struggling to fall asleep and my tinnitus is there, I remember memories and stories of festivals, gigs and clubs, ultimately the root cause of all of it, but also the scenes for many incredible days and nights which have brought me immeasurable joy.
Again, I wish I could turn the clock back and have taken a bit more care of my ears at the time - especially given that my experience of live music now isn’t hampered at all by wearing ear plugs - but turning a negative into a positive has worked for me, and I’m lucky that I sleep quite well despite the noise of basslines, laughs and tales which will never go away.
Will works in content marketing, specialising in audio and social media and has suffered from persistent tinnitus since 2019. Based in London, UK he regularly attends live music, and clubs while also playing rugby - all of which could have contributed to the problem.