Tinnitus: A Tyrant and Teacher

By Fi Clark

Around December I developed tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, as a side effect to medication that I didn’t want and didn’t think I needed. At the time I was in denial – if I don’t give it attention then surely it will go away. So I waited…and waited…and whilst I waited, it seemed to erode parts of me at a time until I became a person I no longer recognised.

At first it was just the impact of sleep deprivation, being woken up by the noise, and the difficulty of going to sleep – a horrible cycle of being tired from lack of sleep due to tinnitus, followed by worse tinnitus caused by lack of sleep. Even when I did sleep well, I found concentrating at work, and socializing in evenings, incredibly difficult. I postponed meetings, cancelled social engagements, and generally became withdrawn.

A lot of the things that keep me well, mostly yoga and meditation, involve silence.  When I first developed tinnitus these became excruciating to the point where I gave up meditation completely and left yoga classes feeling distraught.  

Together, the lack of sleep and loss of my wellbeing anchors really changed the person I was, until I began to feel the depression seeping in as I hid under the duvet, feeling isolated from my friends and disengaged from social activities. The tiredness, anxiety, and lack of concentration made having a “normal life” a distant memory.  

My GP suggested I was having a grief experience, which really made sense. I mourned the loss of silence, and the loss of the joy of falling asleep and of waking up – things I use to enjoy that were now incredibly painful.

I did my best to keep myself distracted, this was the advice I’d read about online, to ensure there is constant background noise, or to listen to something you’re interested in, but for an introvert who needs solitude, this became utterly exhausting.  

Within a few weeks my personality had completely changed. I was so distressed I made numerous calls to the Samaritans’ suicide and crisis hotline. I screamed and cried to the volunteers, lost my temper with my neighbour, became defensive with colleagues, had more road rage than I want to admit to (noticeably after Pilates), and managed to break my door. This was not the person I used to be.  

My lack of meditation and silence meant I was no longer able to relax, resource and nourish myself. It meant I was always in “drive” mode, constantly doing anything to avoid being in the present moment. I was over-stimulated and my attention needed a rest.

An especially difficult aspect was feeling like I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. If I said I had tinnitus, most people would start telling me about theirs. I struggled to explain how awful it was and how much it affected me, and when I did try to communicate the impact to friends it sounded like I was in competition with them over symptoms. I found myself desperately wanting empathy and understanding, not finding it, and becoming further isolated from my friends.

I discovered the Beltone Tinnitus Calmer app, recommended by my GP, which gave some relief. My silent mornings were replaced with bird song from the app, and I gradually went back to meditation by playing the sound of rain through the app whilst focusing on my body and breath. Although the app helped to ease the distress, it was still an unwanted reminder that my life had completely changed.

My GP referred me to ENT and I joined a waiting list. In the meantime, a chance phone call to audiology offered me an immediate appointment and I was quickly fitted with a hearing aid that works as a sound mask – the loud hiss overplays the screeching noise, which takes away the distress. Relief!

Thanks to the sound mask, yoga and Pilates are no longer painful, and I can adjust the volume of the hiss as I need to. I can now meditate with the sound mask and am back to living a normal life again, albeit with a hiss throughout the day, screeching before sleep and when waking up, but importantly I have a good quality of life again.

In his book Tinnitus, from Tyrant to Friend: How to Let Go of the Ringing in Your Ears, author Julian Cowan Hill refers to a mindfulness approach that focuses on your personal relationship with tinnitus, rather than the noise itself. Tinnitus may begin as a tyrant, but as we get to understand it better it can become a doctor (forcing us to address trauma and wellbeing) and a teacher – as we recognize tinnitus as an indicator that leads us to manage symptoms through improving wellbeing.  

Relating to tinnitus as a teacher is where I am in this journey so far. I see sleep and stress related to too much screen time as vital to managing noise levels, and I recognise my overall wellbeing as being key to how bothered I am by tinnitus, rather than focusing on reducing the noise itself.  

The old me is slowly returning, recognizing how delicate life is and how quickly a small change can affect who you think you are. I still mourn the loss of silence, I still struggle to fall asleep at times, and I still wake up in huge discomfort, but thankfully it is no longer the noise that wakes me up, and I am no longer in constant distress or drowning in grief over my loss.

Fi Clark is a part-time yoga and mindfulness teacher in central Scotland (www.bodywisdom.info) and a part-time fundraiser for a community arts charity. She enjoys wild camping, hill walking, 5-rhythms dance, meditation retreats, and spending time with friends and family.

Thank you, Fi, for sharing your journey with our readers.

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