Quiet Life (Tinnitus Dub)

I’m still trying to recover from a virus that’s left my head feeling like a frisbee. I’m currently virtually deaf in one ear: listening to any sound makes it buzz and whine and hurt like hell. Couple that with the permanent tinnitus I have in the other ear makes me think that my auditory inputs are in need of some serious downtime. For a music fan and blogger that’s quite a sacrifice, but in a way it serves me right for living such a wild earplug-free youth.

I’ve had tinnitus for about ten years now. There’s a mid-range hum in my right ear that accompanies every waking moment; it’s permanent but not debilitating, as fortunately it’s at quite a low level and not really noticable unless it’s quiet. Since my early teens I’d listen to music with headphones on practically every day, and from my late teens onwards I’d go to a gig or concert most weekends. This all came to a head in April 2001, when I went to see indie-electro band Broadcast at King Tuts Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow. It had been a year since their brilliant album The Noise Made By People had been released, an album that had had quite an effect on me with its out-of-time dislocation, ethereal vocals and inferred deep cosmic meaning. I pushed my way through the crowd to find a decent spot and ended up stage-left, right next to some awesome speaker stack. The band put on a blinding show but for the closing number they explored their more experimental side and in particular: the noise made by feedback. The feedback bounced and hummed and increased exponentially, shaking those speakers to breaking point and blowing my mind, my rhythm and my eardrum.

It took me a while to realise I had hearing damage though (or indeed, brain damage – it’s probably in the processing). Like every good flat-dwelling technogeek, my waking life was accompanied non-stop by computer fan whir, power charger hum, strip-light buzz, air conditioning whoosh… My home PC (which stayed on all the time) was a beast with multiple case fans, a huge CPU fan and several hard-drives inside that I could hear even when drifting off to sleep in the other room. Or that’s what I thought anyway: it wasn’t until a power cut that I realised that the humming I could hear in bed could not in fact be from my PC, since for the first time in months it was actually switched off.

I saw a few doctors and had it confirmed: I had tinnitus, most likely an Easter Echo from that Broadcast gig, and there wasn’t really anything that could be done about it. I’d just have to learn to live with it and if it got really bad then there were some support groups I could join if I wanted. I didn’t.

I soon got used the hum: mostly masked by the tech, it’s only late at night when I’m settling down with a book that I really notice it. Since blogging I’ve gotten to know quite a lot of musicians and music fans, and unsurprisingly it seems that tinnitus isn’t that rare a problem amongst those who frequently work or play with music. Some guys have it way worse than me, the poor buggers. I’m lucky that it hasn’t gotten any worse (yet) and only affects one ear.

But this week I’m noticing it way way more than usual. The virus has left my other ear filled up with fluid (I assume) and means that its performance levels have dipped to a fraction of what they should be. I’m having to say “Pardon?” and “Sorry, can you say that again?” a lot these past few days and have found that any sound seems to increase the deafness and the buzzing.

So for a while at least, there’ll be no music.

No TV.

No movies.

No podcasts in the car.

In my media-filled bubble of a life that doesn’t leave me with much – a scary prospect! Scarier still though is the thought that the amped-up dullness and buzzing in the non-tinnitused ear is going to be permanent too. So perhaps a brief quiet life will do me some good: I shall try my best to enjoy the silence (with its accompanying hum).