By Vincent Howard | Date: Mon Oct 31 2016

Vincent Howard looking into someone's ear.

The original version of the article published by Vincent Howard in Net Doctor, on 31st October, 2016: Click here to view it on Net Doctor

A Tinnitus Autobiography

I’ll never forget the time when I found myself on the wrong side of the safety barrier, right in front of Motörhead – and, more to the point, their sound system. Not just because, being fifteen and very much into metal, it felt like the very peak of my life up until that point. But also because the ringing in my left ear – that started on that night somewhere between Orgasmotron and Killed by Death – has never left me. And, to be honest, as concert memorabilia goes, Tinnitus sucks.

Thing is, stringy, grungy, metal-mad teenager that I was, I thought I was cool. And the ear plugs that would have saved my hearing without actually diminishing my enjoyment – I mean, seriously, after 120dB, how much more do you need? – were definitely not cool.

At first, Tinnitus was fun. I left Carling Academy in Birmingham saying to anyone who cared to listen,

− “That was incredible! I can’t hear myself think!”

− “Stop shouting!” was the reply I got from the people around me, who clearly did not care to listen.”

It’s odd. If rock concerts involved tangible and immediate damage to our eyesight, wouldn’t there be an outcry? I mean, strobe light notification is now mandatory. Where were the health and safety guys when it came to permanent hearing damage at a gig? Admittedly, I shouldn’t have been in front of the safety barrier – and TBH that’s probably a lot more difficult to pull off in this day and age. But seriously, a few feet further forward or back isn’t the point here.

The point here is that the hearing damage that my cherished Motörhead gave me has profoundly affected my life. In good ways, as well as bad. But the fact remains that I could have heard all the music that night with none of the damage, if I’d known then what I know today.

What I know today is that the fun stopped pretty soon after the gig. The ringing sound in my left ear rose to such a level that I found it almost impossible to communicate with anyone during the days after. I couldn’t understand what the noise in my head was. And why it was louder at night. And why it fluctuated when someone was talking to me. And why their lips were out of sync with the sound coming out of their mouths. Like living in a poorly dubbed movie. Except this was real life, my life, and I was only fifteen, and I was scared it would never change back. Like when your mum tells you to stop making faces – or the wind might change direction and you’d be stuck with a cross-eyed, bared-teeth, tongue-akimbo expression for the rest of your life. Well, I’d stood too close to the speakers, and the wind, it seems, had indeed changed direction at the exact same moment.

I imagined all sorts of things. That it might have something to do with electricity, or the TV. Like I was somehow tuned into an invisible world of static, and that the distortion in my mind went up and down with the neighbour’s volume control on their remote. I convinced myself one night to cut the trip switch on the mains to see if the noise would go. I plunged the house into darkness, and the opposite happened. In the silence, the ringing in my head increased.

It drove me crazy. It drove my friends and family crazy,

− “Are you sure you can’t hear it?” I’d say.

− “No, Vince,” they’d say, “we can’t. What’s wrong with you?”

What was wrong with me was Tinnitus. The mystery illness. The phantom buzz. The condition without trace. So untraceable in fact that the doctors I went to see were dismissive, and one of them even fell back on, “You’ll grow out of it,” as the sum of their knowledge.

But it became a mission for me to work it out. And that mission took me, an otherwise rebellious and far from studious individual, to Bristol University and a four-year audiology degree. It then took me to several NHS audiology departments. Then on to a large high street hearing aid retailer. And then, it took me to co-found Hearology, because I wasn’t satisfied with the level of ear care service I was able to provide whilst working for a company that made its money by selling hearing aids. Here, at Hearology, I am the Chief Audiologist, which means that I can spend all day, every day, giving ears – these miraculous, cartilage appendages that sit, forgotten, on the sides of our heads, converting sound waves into electrical impulses that our brain can process into ‘hearing’ – the attention they deserve.

There’s so much we can do with our hearing to improve our quality of life; so much we can do with our ears to preserve our hearing. I meet people whose productivity is at the mercy of ear wax. Whose careers are on the line because of hearing loss. Whose sanity is affected by the ringing noise in their head. Remembering my doctor, I say, “You’ll grow into it,” and help them do so, because there is no ‘cure’ to Tinnitus as such, more a careful rehabilitation plan and mitigation of the aggravating factors – especially stress.

I still have my friend, Tinnitus, following me around. Driving me forward. I have become attuned to it. But I still find myself avoiding quiet places. Maybe it’s the reason for my extroverted character. Or for my aversion to libraries! I can’t avoid the silence in my clinic as I treat a patient. So I talk to them as I work, helping them to understand how they can conserve their hearing, so they can get the most out of their life. I’d much rather provide a £129 pair of custom hearing protection plugs, than have them reach the point where they have to spend three thousand pounds on a pair of hearing aids.

Hearology does a lot of its work with musicians (not just rock, but classical too – you’d be astonished how loud a piccolo is!) and festival goers. And I still hear people coming out of gigs saying,

− “Wow, that was so loud I can hardly hear a thing!”

− And I jump in, “What would you say if you could hardly see a thing right now? If I told you to stare at the sun for two hours, would you think I was mad? Because that’s pretty much what you’ve just done to your ears.”

I think I get away with it, because people can tell that I care. And if I don’t get through to them straight away, nowadays I can show them a range of extremely cool and high-tech hearing protection devices from my own company! The same ones that Bring Me The Horizon use – and You Me At Six. Because I fitted them. And because my taste in music hasn’t changed that much!

The irony is that I owe a lot to my Tinnitus. And I often wonder what I’d be doing with my life right now if I’d never contracted it. Because pursuing its cause and treatment has given my life purpose. But I’m the lucky one. I know there are thousands of people out there who have to live with Tinnitus, but without the consolation of Hearology. Except now, perhaps, they do….!