After a loud gig or night out, tinnitus may visit fleetingly before releasing you back into silence with clear space for your thoughts. For me, there was a time when my tinnitus was constant. I imagined the relief felt by those whose tinnitus is silenced spontaneously as similar to that when your nose unblocks after a bad cold. That’s when you can finally breathe in that sweet air, filling your lungs properly again.
My first experience with tinnitus is one I’ll never forget. I was 18 years old, sitting in my living room eating breakfast and watching TV with my mum. I commented on the racket the birds outside were making. You can only imagine my puzzlement when my equally confused mum raised her eyebrow at me from across the room and replied, “Beth, what are you on about? It’s completely silent right now.”
This was obviously absurd. I was so sure she was wrong that I climbed up on the sofa and leaned on the windowsill to get a good look outside. I pointed to this talkative gang of birds she was clearly missing. We live on a riverbank and have a flowering cherry blossom tree right outside in our garden that a bird feeder is attached to. But when I looked out that day, there was no vision that matched the chirping acoustics resonating in my head. The tree branches were empty. How could a noise that was so distinct and so unmistakable be imagined?
I had never heard of tinnitus, so I initially assumed I was hallucinating. Or maybe I was having a Harry Potter parseltongue moment, but instead of snakes I was able to communicate with feathered creatures. My better judgement quickly eliminated the probabilities of both these options. My mum then told me about musicians who get a ringing in their ears called tinnitus. I had to admit that seemed like a more reasonable possibility.
A quick Google search brought me to the British Tinnitus Association (BTA). I read that “Some people may think the noise is coming from outside and hunt for it until they discover it’s actually inside them,” just as I had done. My discovery that I had tinnitus was one of the defining moments in making me address the fact that I had a hearing loss. It started me on this journey that I’ve been on for the last decade.
The BTA describes tinnitus as “the perception of noises in the head and/or ear which have no external source.” According to its website, when there is a change in the auditory system, “the amount of information being sent to the brain changes. The brain then responds to this change in levels by trying to get more information from the ear. Extra information you may get is the sound we call tinnitus. The tinnitus is therefore actually brain activity and not the ear itself.”
This extra information my brain was generously feeding me was not welcome. I met it with a whole lot of anxiety and episodes of insomnia. This new company I found myself with became an increasingly overwhelming disturbance to my once quiet headspace. I didn’t know how to deal with it at first.
Read more: Understanding Tinnitus with Dr. Ben, Aud.
Most people believe that tinnitus is simply a ringing in the ears, but it can take on many different sounds. As the BTA describes, “It may be low, medium or high-pitched and can be heard as a single noise or as multiple components.” Other common noises reported are humming, buzzing, whistling or even music and voices. The first time I experienced it, I heard birds. Soon after that, tinnitus began to feel like an irksome guest who had outstayed their welcome when all you want to do is get off to bed. It settled into a constant companionship that stayed for years. Most of the time it created the noise you hear when you put your ear to a sea shell, with an added whooshing sound and sometimes chirping crickets. But it can take on any noise.
“The first time I experienced it, I heard birds. Soon after that, tinnitus began to feel like an irksome guest who had outstayed their welcome when all you want to do is get off to bed.”
One time, when I was home from university for the summer staying at my mum’s, I heard a fire alarm going off. It sounded so realistic that I started checking every room in the house. Then I actually knocked on our neighbor’s door to ask them if they could hear it despite the absence of smoke. I was met with some very pitying eyes that told me that no, the alarm was not going off.
My coping techniques have varied over my decade of navigating tinnitus. You need to find the strategy that works for you. For me, the night times when I was lying in the dark is where it became most perceptible. On my good nights, I sent myself into a sort of meditation, where I willed myself into believing the noises were an external force. I imagined I was camping on the beach and the whooshing noises were the sounds of sea. When this worked, I could even find it relaxing.
On my not so good nights, I usually alternated between groaning in frustration into a pillow or masking it with music. I once even took to channeling all of my frustration into penning a poem in the early hours depicting tinnitus titled The Charivari. A Charivari is a discordant, mock serenade that is made with clanging noises such a pots and pans delivered to newlyweds.
When hearing aids were no longer helping and I was told I was an eligible candidate for cochlear implant surgery, my first question was “Will it silence my tinnitus?” I was told there was a possibility it would be reduced. But they couldn’t give me a definitive answer as everyone’s implant journey is different. After a lot of research, countless assessments, audiology appointments, and sleepless nights tossing and turning, I decided to go through with the surgery.
I won’t gloss over it. In the weeks following the surgery before activation, I was sent into a tinnitus-induced nightmare. It increased significantly to the point that I just wished I could just be put to sleep until my activation day. I’m pretty sure I added some rather dark verses to The Charivari at this point.
Come “switch on” day, I was a jittery fusion of both excited and terrified. I had been warned a million times that what I would hear would be unusual and robotic at first. As a result, I was prepared when met with an alien noise that was far from the natural sound I remembered. I was patient. Over time, the electronic noise softened into clarity, becoming more familiar. The tinnitus became quieter and quieter. What once felt like an entire orchestra was now just a solo virtuoso. Eventually I was going about my day a few months on and realized the entire ensemble had left the stage, conductor and all. My tinnitus had been silenced by my cochlear implant!
“My tinnitus had been silenced by my cochlear implant!”
It wasn’t until I was taken out by Coronavirus that the familiar sea shell type sound and whooshing began creeping back in. I instantly freaked out. Images of depressive sleepless nights and the difficult days that followed in which I tried desperately to function like a normal human being flooded my head. I sent an anxiety ridden email to Bethan Savage, a wonderful clinical scientist in audiology who had been with me throughout my cochlear implant journey. She had told me I could contact her any time I needed support.
Read more: The connection between Covid-19 and Tinnitus
She explained to me, “It’s common to experience tinnitus following illness when you’re run down or when you’ve had a period of time away from the processor.” I hadn’t thought to wear it in bed for the few days that I was ill. She also told me about how certain medications, changes to health, and any stress and anxiety are also factors in temporarily bringing back tinnitus. This made sense and goes back to what the BTA states about tinnitus being a brain-related activity.
Since then, I have had other illnesses and periods of stress and anxieties that have brought about tinnitus episodes. They are no longer constant. When they do visit me, I am able to greet them in a way I couldn’t before.
Next week, I turn 28. It is almost a decade since I first experienced tinnitus for the first time. I have finally found acceptance. For those struggling with tinnitus, it takes an enormous amount of fortitude to maneuver through the noise that can at times seem inescapable. There are options out there that can help you cope. Know that you are not alone.
Read more: How my hearing aids helped with my tinnitus