A quiet night in

It’s official: I have tinnitus. So the cracks, pops, whistles, groans and the constant background hiss, like a layer of cicadas inside my head, are here to stay. For a while at least. Probably. There is ambiguity.

I’m told tinnitus is a symptom and not a condition – causes include noise-induced hearing loss, the side effect of drugs, psychological issues and wax. I had hoped it was wax. Anybody who has ever had their ears flushed out will know what I’m talking about. I go swimming just to encourage the build-up of wax, just so I can have my ears flushed.

But it’s not that, and although it’s possible my tinnitus is the result of an ear-syringing habit, I suspect it’s more to do with the Seventies playlists on my iPod. All those synthesisers and twenty-minute guitar solos have taken their toll and denuded my inner ear of hair cells – which would make me both bald inside my head and bald on top of my head. Damn you, weak follicles. Am I the first person to link tinnitus to male-pattern baldness?

I need to work out how I’m going to say tinnitus. Tiny-tus is out; and although I like the more widely used tinny-tus I am drawn to the strident tin-nightus. That’s a pronunciation I can shout, which is fitting given the increasing level of interior noise. I’ve got tin-nightus I will say with an antipodean inflection. I suppose there’s also tinnight-us, but that sounds too intimate.

During the day other sounds mask the beeps and whistles inside my head and, as with a ticking clock, I am not always conscious of them. And even if I am, somehow my brain can accommodate the duality of interior and exterior sounds. Thank you, brain. Every year I have a full medical check-up which includes a hearing test. I sit in a soundproofed booth with headphones on and listen for tiny pings and beeps. Even though my head is filled with other hums, hisses and clicks I can still pinpoint those exterior sounds. It’s the aural equivalent of feeling beads in cotton wool.

It’s at night when I lay down to sleep that things really get going, and I’m surprised my tinnitus doesn’t keep the neighbours awake. At night a full experimental orchestra kicks off including double bass, bassoons, church organs, industrial generators, steam traction engines and rocket launchers. Not only that, I snore like a hog. It’s an internal and external cacophony.

My doctor said that tinnitus can come and go but if it gets worse I should go back to see her. I will. There are support clinics, websites, distraction techniques, medicines and even musical and sound products available to mitigate the symptom. Apparently, a third of all people are affected by tinnitus at some stage in their lives. So in my opinion it’s an under-researched symptom. In extremis, tinnitus can cause great misery. In extreme extremis those internal sounds can take on a more sinister and frightening quality.

However, as I write this, things are fairly calm. The cicadas are creating their uniform hiss from one ear to the other but that’s about it. Outside my head there are real sounds: cars passing, the wind blowing, distant voices. I can’t imagine what it is like to be in utter silence. I’m sure I once was; I haven’t had tinnitus all my life, have I? But I don’t know. Maybe I have.

In the scheme of things the tinnitus I have is no big deal. It’s a very manageable symptom and nothing to complain about. I’ll continue to go swimming and I’ll continue to listen to that awful music. It’s not affecting my concentration and it’s not affecting my sleep, although from my partner’s perspective that last item is not so good. I think she would like to push all the snoring inside my head. And that would be fine with me because I’m certain the orchestra is missing a percussion section.

For more information on tinnitus, follow this link: http://www.tinnitus.org.uk

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