Our Tinnitus Support Group has been running for 8 months now, here one of our group talk about their experience with Tinnitus. Thank you for sharing your story. 

It’s hard to know where to start, except the day I got tinnitus?

I’d answered an advert for a drummer to play alongside a busker in Leeds. He seemed a bit wacky, but I thought it would be a laugh, I’d never busked before. Despite his disapproval of my drumming ability, we played for about three hours solid. I wasn’t until after that I realised ”Eddy van Driver’s”  Marshall amp had been facing me the whole time. I wasn’t completely stupid, I had worn earplugs that day, enthusiastically recommended by the local music shop in York. I assumed they were working, as all I could hear was muffled drumming and the screetchings of an ageing rocker in the background.

The next day I heard the high pitch of tinnitus following me around. Unlike after other gigs, it wasn’t going away. Over the next few months, like every other first timer, I started looking into “ what is tinnitus”, will it get worse?, will it go away? I wanted positive answers. I skimmed over most chatroom pages because they were so bleak. In the meantime I emailed Alpine Music-safe, the earplug manufacturers in Holland. They said they were sorry my ears were ringing, but directed me to a bit to text, hidden somewhere on the website. Not on the packaging. Amongst other things, it mentioned time exposed to noise. So, unless you had read that prior to using them, you would not know the time limit you can be exposed to loud music with, even with earplugs in.

Time to calculate, how loud we were playing? for how long? and had we rested in between.

If the earplugs are rated to reduce by 20db and you play at 110db, you are still over the 85db limit. At first I hoped the ringing would wear off, a few weeks, a month maybe? some people mentioned it could take 2 years. I didn’t want to give up drumming, so I immediately went to Boots to get the best earplugs I could get. £140 for ACS custom moulded musicians earplugs that allow you to hear the music through them but still be protected. The audiologist was an ex-bass player, so I assumed I was in good hands. But, despite his 35 years of playing live and working in the healthcare industry, he never actually said “be careful of how long and how close you are to a speaker”.

He actually treated the whole idea of ringing in the ears as a bit of a musicians cliche, like you’d expect Lemmy from Motorhead to have, and be proud of!  I’d only really played occasionally with friends, was I in that same league? it seemed ridiculous. Two months later, armed with customised, attenuated and stronger earplugs, I was confident that if I wore these everywhere, I could live with this low-ish level of tinnitus.

For the next year, I thought about every way of preventing it getting any worse.

I asked every musician I met, have you got tinnitus?, what do you do to protect your hearing week in week out? 95% said they don’t bother with anything, like it was never going to happen to them or they’d never even met anyone with tinnitus in their lifetime. So, why was it happening to me? a part time, bedroom musician. I even met Ralph Rolle, drummer with funk legends CHIC at a drum clinic in Leeds, “what do you wear in the huge stadiums you perform?”…”nothing”, he replied! “Are you sure it’s not you blood pressure”

Back on the internet and Louise Hay, celebrated author of “You can heal your life” puts the cause of tinnitus down to “Refusal to listen. Not hearing the inner voice. Stubbornness.” I started to rack my brains wondering what I was “not” listening to!

I signed up to six session of Cranial Sacral therapy recommended by Tinnitus guru Julian Cowan Hill, who states that the affliction centres around you being in a constant state of “fight or flight”.  The course, although therapeutic in an emotional sense, didn’t make any impact on the sound. On seeing another paying patient disappearing, the practitioner urged…”I’d like to be on your tinnitus journey with you”

Hmm, maybe I’ll go on this one alone, I’ve been out of work since the Brexit vote! I love music and since Leeds and York attracts so many live bands, I continued to see occasional gigs, but sat far at the back, earplugs fully in and a db meter installed on my phone. The new moulded earplugs seemed to work and no change in tinnitus level afterwards.  I thought to myself, it’s not great, but I could live with this.

Keep playing

The most fun in music is playing with others and experiencing the magic that comes from tiny moments of human inspiration. I had continued to practice with band of some older friends. One was a headmaster, so we had the luxury of an empty school hall to play in. It was huge and the sound could dissipate high into the ceiling, (although I still turned people’s equipment down when they weren’t looking). While my fellow band members didn’t seem to comprehend my mysterious affliction, they did show concern for my well being, “is it getting better?”, “has the doctor given you anything for it?”

I had hardly lost my legs or my sight. People have worse things to deal with? don’t they? Unfortunately, almost a year to the day since I’d first noticed tinnitus, I returned from holiday and the school hall was no longer available. The others asked if I would go to a small rehearsal room for a few hours, The Melrose Yard in York. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep the volume down”

I was a bit reluctant, when I arrived, I could hear other bands music through the walls. This time I ditched the drums and played bass and only two others came. The room was probably 4m by 4m with brick walls and low ceilings.There was a PA and two large monitor speakers. I got there early and situated myself  between the speakers so they were facing away from me.

However someone brought in a fan! I never thought to turn it off. I just put my expensive earplugs in and played, probably for 3 hours on and off. It must have been loud and above the sound of an industrial fan. The others didn’t seem to mind.

It took about two days for me to realise the tinnitus volume had been cranked up inside my head and now I was noticing it pretty much all the time, from the minute I’d open my eyes in the morning, to watching TV late at night. At least I could sleep. I never thought this could happen again, I had been so careful, why hadn’t the earplugs worked? I was very, very angry.

I couldn’t really blame anyone but myself for going to the rehearsal studio that night, but also couldn’t understand why people who weren’t wearing earplugs, said their hearing was completely fine and hadn’t even thought to bring the sound level down. Yet again I had put my faith in a recognised product they said was designed for musicians, only this time it had cost £140.

I know now, that I can no longer be in the environment of any music that is remotely loud.

And which gigs aren’t? Pubs and events have speakers that are smaller and more powerful than they ever were and nobody is policing the levels.  I’m sad that I’ve lost friends and can’t ever be in band playing live again, because I feel that if my tinnitus got louder yet again, it would be in the words of Jazz guitarist Al di Meola, “game over”.

For me, many of the so-called treatments didn’t work in the way I’d hoped, or even prayed they would, (and I’m not religious). Changing your diet, giving up stimulants like coffee and generally calming yourself down seemed like logical answers. An osteopath claimed he might be able to help, shortly before almost yanking my head off completely. I found the British Tinnitus organisation to be great. There are times I have cried like a baby and the volunteers on the phone line gave me reason to feel better and soldier on.

Keeping as busy as possible seems to be the best solution for me. Surprisingly, It can be hard to fill up so much space in the day, maybe I need a manic, uncontrollable dog to occupy my mind, as well as a super-high pressured job in finance. Or maybe, tinnitus is something telling me to do more with my life. Go to bed at night when you are completely worn out from the day’s activities.

There’s currently no suggestion of cure, but you never know. For now, understanding and a sympathetic ear is enough. I try not to mention tinnitus much to people, it’s boring and they don’t know what you mean. Neither did I.

William Shatner, who is nearly 80, has had tinnitus since an explosion on the set of Star Trek. He’s had a full life as an actor, musician and artist despite the affliction. He claims “ he doesn’t hear it unless he talks about it”