Living With Tinnitus: I Find It Hard to Believe Silence Ever Existed
Tom Bellamy from the band Losers woke up one day with ringing in his ears. Five years on, we asked him to write about life with tinnitus.
I remember the day the ringing in my ear started. I had been recording some guitar at my house, which went on to become the intro to “Acrobatica”, a song by my band Losers. It was the first time I had got my guitar out in a while and if you listen to that song, you can probably hear how much fun I had that day, blasting out music without a care in the world. In the evening I sat down to watch some TV. That was the moment that everything changed.
In the relative silence of my living room, I could hear a ringing in my ears that was so loud it distracted me from listening to the TV. Shrugging it off as an anomaly, I tried to forget about it. Instead of concentrating on the noise inside my ear, I fell asleep thinking about the positive day I’d had. The next morning I woke up and before I had time to open my eyes, my palms were sweating with fear. I felt sick. It was still there. Maybe I had just played guitar a bit too much yesterday? Once again, I told myself everything was okay, and that it would be gone by tomorrow.
When tomorrow came, it started to feel like I was starring in my very own Groundhog Day. Palms started to moisten again; the sick feeling in my stomach intensified; and, most importantly, the ringing remained. I lay motionless while my body turned itself inside out. I’d heard ringing in my ears many times before, but I knew this time was bad. This was different to the sound that remained after the countless gigs I’d seen or played over the past 20 years.
My tragic love affair with loud music began when I was fourteen, the year I went to Reading Festival. I was blown away by the experience, the music, and the atmosphere. I'd never witnessed such ritualistic burning of plastic on such a large scale, nor had I heard music played so loudly before. To me, this was the rock and roll I had read about in the NME, and I was ready to sign my life away.
By the time I was 20, I was signed to RCA in a band called The Cooper Temple Clause. A very small minority may remember us for having daft hair and making a lot of noise. We were young, full of energy, and very naive. But, most importantly, we loved making a racket. In fact, the louder it was the better. If someone told us that we had made their ears bleed, we would be over the moon.
As a kid, the ringing you get after a gig is a badge of honour, a sort of boastful trophy to wear with pride the next morning alongside a sneaky hangover. The thing is, that ringing is a sign from your body, telling you that something is wrong. It’s the sound of alarm bells, calling out to you, letting you know you’ve done something you shouldn’t have, and you need to stop. At this point, common sense should kick in and tell you to be more careful next time, but for all too many music fans, it spurs you on.
I vividly remember my doctor first telling me I had tinnitus. He told me that my labyrnthitis in my left ear may have contributed, but essentially, I’d caused a spike of hearing loss in my left ear, which confused my brain into thinking it had to make up for the loss by amplifying specific frequencies for me all the time, forever. To simplify, it sounds like a tiny person has jumped in my ear, stomped on all their distortion pedals, and then put put their tiny guitar next to their tiny amplifier to cause a wall of feedback. You know, like the end of a Mogwai gig or something. But in this scenario playing out in my skull, the crew don’t walk back on stage and switch off the amplifiers. It never ever stops.
The first thing you do when you develop tinnitus is outright refuse to accept it. As a music producer, I decided to be clever and EQ the frequency of my tinnitus out of my favourite albums. It didn’t help, It just made everything sound shit. Then I bought a tinnitus pillow, which plays music into your ears as you sleep, as a form of distraction. That was fun for a while, but didn’t help either. Finally, I went to a therapist who gave me ear plugs that generated white noise. I was told to listen to them for a few hours a day, but these were the worst. They were a constant reminder that I had a hearing problem.
As I ticked off various treatments, it became increasingly clear that nothing was working. I started to dread falling asleep. In fact, I started getting so drunk each night that I would knock myself out, so that I didn't have to face listening to the sound of regret screaming in my ear. But drinking only worked until I became dependant. For some reason, it also made the ringing worse. I knew deep down that if I exposed myself to loud music for prolonged amounts of time that I would exacerbate an already crippling affliction, but I also found that without listening to any music, or some sort of noise at a low level all day long, I was just alone with that ringing. And, let me tell you, it drives you insane. Alone with the ringing is a dangerous place to be.
I still played shows. I remember at one, I’d forgotten my special moulded ear plugs, which filter all frequencies equally – if you are a musician and you don’t own these, you are kissing your ears away – so I had to buy some crappy temporary yellow ones you see bouncers at bad clubs wear. That one 30 minute show was enough to drive my tinnitus to new levels. I remember sitting alone crying in my bandmate's car while the rest of the band packed down the equipment. "The show must go on!" I’d thought prior to the gig.
Over the years my tinnitus has gone up and down in volume. At one point, it started sounding like little tiny helicopters. I used to worry that one day it would drive me completely mad. People have taken their own lives to rid them of their ringing. Imagine getting to that point – suffering in non-silence. I had to be careful not to slip into the mental downward spiral, where worry, regret, anger and sadness reign supreme.
Fast forward to present day and here I am, in a silent room in my Berlin flat, with my beloved radio turned off, writing about the screaming in my ear. Yep, he's still here, with bells on. The radio is off because I need silence to write. But I dread silence. I hate it now. My mum told me to be careful using the word "hate" as it is such a strong word. She told me that you can only truly hate something having loved it first. Well, I fucking loved silence. Silence really was golden. These days I find it hard to believe it ever existed.
But when I find myself in "silence" now, I try to stay positive by thinking of what this sound means to me. It is a reminder of the music I have made over the years. It reminds me how lucky I am that I get to make music for a living. Music is still my life, it's just a bit more of a constant battle these days. I've just finished album number three for Losers which will be out in September. I worked in fear the whole time yes, but I still wrote, recorded, produced and mixed a lot of it.
You don’t need to look far to see how widespread hearing problems are in the music industry. Just two weeks ago, AC/DC’s frontman Brian Johnson was advised to stop touring immediately at the risk of total hearing loss. One in ten musicians get tinnitus specifically, yet the government have never invested in any awareness programs about the condition. From working with the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) I discovered there isn't even enough funding to pay for a helpline for people suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts as a result of their condition.
Yet so many musicians and gig goers are blissfully unaware of the damage they are doing to themselves. Professor Trevor Cox of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford wrote recently that, “If you visit a nightclub that is thumping out music on the dance floor at 100 dB (A-weighted), then after only 10-15 minutes the exposure is potentially damaging.” Knowing the psychological effects and permanence of tinnitus as I do, I find it hard to believe there isn’t some sort of sign outside of every live music venue and club in the UK. So, my Losers bandmate, Eddy Temple-Morris, has put together an album to help raise awareness for tinnitus, titled I Am The One In Ten, featuring rare or exclusive tracks pledged for free by artists all over the world. If you love music as much as I do and you want to help please buy this album or donate to the BTA.
The irony of this entire article is that I really don't like talking about tinnitus. It only makes me more aware of it and it drives me through the roof. Maybe that's why the issue has been such a slow one to gather pace, because the last thing sufferers want to do is talk about their suffering. But people need to know. If you love loud music then enjoy it, but enjoy it sensibly. If you frequent live music venues on a regular basis, buy a decent pair of ear plugs. If you listen to music on headphones, make sure you give your ears regular breaks. And if you want to help push things forward, talk to people about tinnitus. Help us spread the word. There is so much research that needs to be done and for this, and so much money that needs to be raised for the BTA. Let me tell you: silence is absolutely beautiful, so make sure you cherish it.
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