By Jack Sirkett
A few years ago, after a night dancing with friends in Brighton, I made a hazy journey to my kitchen for breakfast but something was different.
I’m not referring to the inevitable grogginess of a morning after, or a pounding headache. This time, I was accompanied by a high-pitched ringing in my right ear.
I’d become used to subtle ringing sounds after loud events, so I shrugged it off and put the kettle on.
As I made my way through the day my hangover gradually subsided but my new friend stayed with me.
Monday came around. Then Wednesday. Then Friday. And on, and on…
It never left me.
It became my base tone.
My very own surface noise.
People are often intrigued about tinnitus. It’s a strange beast, so let me give you some insight into living with the condition. I’ll also leave some actionable advice for people with their very own ringing friends.
What’s it like?
You know the hum which reminds you that you need a new aux cable?
This is what I’m hearing in my right ear. Sometimes it’s a constant tone, other times it’s broken and intermittent, like a morse code signal.
It’s a strange concept if you haven’t experienced tinnitus but I haven’t heard true silence in five years.
I often use white noise to accompany quieter moments. I would always sleep with a fan as a child (because of noises in the night, ironically). Tinnitus has carried this silly habit into adulthood, although I now opt for an air purifier to provide those sweet white noise frequencies.
The ringing changes with mood swings, diet and sleep levels.
If I stumble through the door at 5 am after a big night, my tinnitus will be through the roof the following day. Even a cup of coffee can change the tone and severity of the ringing.
There’s also the issue of hyperacusis, which is a heightened sensitivity towards sound. Acute noises such as doors slamming and coughs are jarring.
This has probably been the biggest problem for me. For example, the high-pitched rattling on the tube can be unbearable.
Working in music and enjoying listening to music, makes tinnitus a tough problem to live with. It’s easy to forget about the condition when I’m dancing. You only feel the effects in the days after going out.
What’s the science?
I won’t bore you with a lecture on the inner workings of the ear but it’s interesting to look into the core science behind the condition, especially if you suffer yourself.
The understanding of tinnitus in the field of science is still developing. However, it has been proposed that damage to the hair cells responsible for picking up sound waves leads to increased spontaneous activity in the brain.
This activity is an over-compensation as the brain perceives a lack of sound waves entering the inner ear, in the same way that a lost limb will lead to phantom sensations in amputees.
This loss of auditory inhibition leads to rogue signals such as hissing, ringing, or morse code beeps.
Tinnitus sufferers also report auditory hallucinations stemming from the same process. Auditory (and musical) hallucination is a fascinating topic.
People often think that tinnitus is solely a problem with your ears but it’s better understood as a misfiring of signals between the ears and the brain. Unfortunately, our knowledge of the brain isn’t developed enough to fully understand the workings of tinnitus.
What’s the relevance to mental health?
We’re old friends now, tinnitus and I. Wherever I go, tinnitus follows. Is it annoying? Of course! However, like an obnoxious co-worker, you kind of have to put up with it.
Well, not exactly. Obnoxious co-workers and tinnitus are similar in many ways.
Don’t like Dave, the office dickhead who keeps making off-handed remarks? Go to HR!
Likewise, with tinnitus, tell the HR department in your head that something’s not working, find the root cause and start to remedy the issue.
Tinnitus is something which can easily get a hold of you. It’s one of those conditions that can quickly snowball. If your anxiety levels increase, so can the volume levels of your surface noise.
If the volume increases, so does the anxiety and there you have a vicious cycle.
For me, the initial stages of tinnitus were tough on my mental health. My immediate thoughts turned towards permanent hearing loss, which is obviously terrifying.
However, in a way, tinnitus has been beneficial for my mind.
Forcing myself to listen to my brain has lowered the volume of the ringing. The coping mechanisms I’ve used to stifle the noise have also been helpful in understanding my thoughts and behaviours.
I discovered Vipassana (or mindfulness) meditation a year ago, which has transformed the way I look at the condition and how I live my life.
For me, Vipassana gives me the keys to my mind. It gives me the ability to look at my thoughts objectively.
By observing my surface noise daily whilst sitting on my little meditation rug, focusing on my breath, I’ve started to detach myself from my tinnitus. In day-to-day life when I feel the ringing rise, I’ll use meditative breathing techniques and it soon quietens.
If anyone wants to ask me questions about Vipassana meditation I’ll be happy to answer them. I can’t shout enough about how transformative it has been.
Ever woken up with a ringing in your ears after a night out?
That’s something to be worried about. That is damage.
Early stages of noise-induced tinnitus involve intermittent patterns of tones for months or years.
These patterns repeat until the duration of the ringing increases and the time between tones decreases.
Finally, the symptoms become permanent. After this, tinnitus can increase in severity with further exposure to sound.
If you’re reading this and you are in the early stages – if it isn’t a constant tone – then please follow this advice.
Buy some ear protection. Don’t take any risks.
Your hearing is important – it’s not worth the potentially lifelong problems that come with hearing damage.
If you’re going to a gig or a nightclub it’s likely that your hearing will be damaged if you don’t wear ear protection.
There’s a reason that venues are legally obliged to give free earplugs to customers. Don’t hesitate to ask at the bar if your ears are in pain.
If you already have tinnitus, your situation will improve if you look after your ears. Also, look up Vipassana meditation as a way to cope with the symptoms or ask me for some guidance.
Also, good health is a must. Plenty of drugs and dietary supplements have been suggested but there is no scientific proof.
Make sure you get your sleep and eat your greens! The tried and tested method hasn’t changed…
My fingers are crossed that science can remedy the condition in the next decade and I can finally wave adieu to my surface noise.
Jack Sirkett (aka Sirkett) is a DJ currently performing around London’s club circuit and is the promoter of ‘Artsclub’, a music and arts community event series. Check out his page here.
Check out more articles like this in our Experiences section.