All photos by Imani van der Horst
A version of this article originally appeared on Tonic Netherlands.After performing in bands for a decade, listening to music on headphones with the volume cranked up all the way, and dancing next to the loudspeakers at concerts more times than I can remember, I’ve realized that my ears aren't indestructible. Up until recently, the ringing I heard in my ear the morning after exposure to loud noises would eventually disappear. And then one day it didn't. The ringing was here to stay.
Fifty million people in America have tinnitus. They experience a constant ringing, buzzing, hissing, chirping, or whistling sound in one or both ears. This phantom sound is a symptom of an underlying cause that often remains undiscovered. Though there have been some scientific developments that fill patients with hope, a real cure hasn’t been found. For now, the only thing people with tinnitus can do is learn to live with it.During the first few weeks after I was diagnosed, the constant ringing in my ears nearly drove me insane. Nights were the worst; I would sit up in bed looking for AMSR videos, white noise tracks, or tones that somehow cover up the phantom sound (and the feeling of panic it causes) so the ringing would stop—if only for a little while. Three years later, my ears still scream at me from inside my own head. I'm past the point where I scour the internet for videos or sounds that help. But I still wonder how others with tinnitus deal with the noise, so I asked six people for advice. Did anything actually help, or did their search for relief end in disappointment?Dominique, 28
I’m a DJ and I never used to wear any ear protection. About three and a half years ago, I developed tinnitus. At first I'd lay awake night after night and needed white noise to fall asleep. I left my PlayStation 3 on because it made this buzzing sound. But after a while, the buzzing was more annoying than the ringing in my ears.
My doctor gave me prednisone initially. It helped, but the tinnitus slowly reemerged. I asked the doctor to give me a referral to an ENT, but [there] I was told that I just had to learn to live with it. So I decided to take matters into my own hands again. I knew a fellow DJ friend of mine also struggled with hearing problems and I asked him for advice. He recommended going to [a nearby hospital in Rotterdam] for an educational course about tinnitus and hyperacusis. But even after that workshop I wasn’t able to deal with the tinnitus; I was constantly afraid it would get worse and, because of it, I couldn’t DJ or go out anymore.The audiologist who led the workshop I took told me about an organization that provides mental health care and social services to people who are deaf or who experience hearing loss. In about ten group sessions, I learned how to deal with the ringing; other people in the course also shared how they cope with it. I slowly started to accept the tinnitus a bit more.Even though I hear about ten different noises in my head these days and I also have hyperacusis, I’ve been sleeping without white noise for the past six months. It's been very difficult and I don’t think I'll ever completely come to terms with it. But when I’m laying in bed and I hear all sorts of things, I try to focus my thoughts towards something nice. I do understand that this isn’t as easy for people who hear a 60 to 80 decibel sound. I’m still scared sometimes that the tinnitus will get worse. But, to be blunt, I don’t give a shit anymore. I’m going out partying like I used to and I’m even going back to being a DJ. Fuck it.
There wasn’t a particular moment when I heard [the ringing] for the first time. The tinnitus slowly grew as I went out in loud environments without earplugs—we all know the ringing sound you hear the morning after [a night out]. In addition to that [noise], I sometimes experience crackling noises when I hear certain sounds or frequencies, especially sirens.I have other hearing issues on top of tinnitus. When I was little, my hearing would sometimes just give out and suddenly I'd barely hear anything. A hearing test I took when I was 23 showed that I don’t hear as well in one ear. That only bothers me with sounds that are 16 KHz or higher frequencies—those sounds sometimes just disappear or the tinnitus masks them.Being aware of my [condition] already helps a lot. I wear custom-made earplugs to avoid further damage. If I don’t have those on me, I'll put something else in my ears—earplugs you can buy at the club, for instance. The less I sleep and the more stressed I am, the louder the ringing gets. So relaxing and accepting it are really the only things you can do. For me, that's an endless battle. I’m very aware of the ringing and whether or not it's getting worse. I get paranoid about it at times, and when that happens the ringing does seem louder; it’s a negative vicious cycle. I’m a professional musician and I need my ears in order to make a living.One thing that helps is training my hearing and my attentiveness. When I'm in public, I try to follow multiple conversations at once. If I’m waiting for the ferry, for instance, I try to listen to a handful of conversations around me. Working on that technique helps me to follow conversations in restaurants, clubs, or at birthday parties. You don’t get tired as quickly and don’t feel isolated because you have a hard time hearing the conversation. It takes a bit more energy to listen, but having to say "huh" and "what" constantly isn’t very charming either.
Another piece of advice: Buy a good pair of headphones. Listen [to your music] with the purest audio possible so you don’t have to crank it up. Tinnitus isn’t just caused by clubs or concerts; cheap headphones can be harmful too.Ravi, 47
I’ve had tinnitus in my left ear for eight years, and two years ago I started getting it in my right ear too. While I was sleeping, I slapped a mosquito on my ear. It made my entire ear [canal] close up. The doctor gave me oil to drip into my ear, but that caused a bacterial infection which ultimately damaged a nerve. In the beginning I tried a bunch of different medications, sleeping pills, Ritalin, all prescribed by my physician. But acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen—all of those painkillers just made it ten times worse.The only thing that has a really calming effect on me is THC. It doesn’t get rid of the ringing, but it lessens my anxious response to the sound and helps me focus while other people are talking. It also helps me sleep. Playing the guitar also has a positive impact: The sound of the music helps combat the noise in my head somehow. But it really depends on the person. THC made tinnitus unbearable for one of my friends—he finds relief in acupuncture instead. And some people say taking zinc lessens their symptoms.I can’t handle concerts or parties anymore; the tinnitus is louder than anything else and it stays like that for days [afterwards]. Even with custom earplugs my ears start to hum and it’s unbearable. I avoid stress and screaming people as much as I can. To make people understand what it is I’m actually hearing, I uploaded the sound to YouTube. It’s like nails on a chalkboard.
My advice for other people who have tinnitus: Don’t give up hope. Put yourself first, know what you can endure, and try to not cross that line. You need to live with it. Others only have to show some understanding, whenever possible—and if they don’t, it's too bad.Nicolette, 44
I’ve had tinnitus and hearing damage my entire life. According to my ENT, I was born with it. I constantly hear a low ringing noise.By now, I’ve tried many things to lessen the impact of my tinnitus: acupuncture, ear candling, listening to special sounds and music, wearing a hearing aid that transmits an opposing frequency, and reiki. The special sounds and music helped me the most. They didn't get rid of the tinnitus, but they lessened its intensity. Perhaps because it had a calming effect; kind of like a meditation. Those sounds came on a cassette tape—at some point it broke and I never bought a new one.I’ve also tried an expensive hearing aid that’s supposed to cover up the tinnitus, but it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t get used to it and it made me antsy. Now I wear a hearing aid that amplifies other people’s voices. I sometimes see the upside of not being able to hear everything. Annoying sounds are muffled and I don’t mind the neighbor’s noises as much as my husband does.Up until now, nothing has helped me in a lasting or structural way. I do know that stress makes the rustling sound worse. I try to avoid it, but sometimes it can't be helped. Generally, I play music at a low volume to distract myself. At this point, I’m used to tinnitus; I live with it and it doesn’t keep me up at night. I don’t know any better.
I developed tinnitus after a car accident almost four years ago. [The driver] thought his phone was more important than paying attention to the road. My head slammed into the headrest [when his car hit mine] and I’ve heard a constant ringing in my left ear ever since. it sounds a bit like the noise you sometimes hear when you plug a charger into an outlet.While I was recovering I had all sorts of treatments—a few of those were specifically meant to help me deal with tinnitus. Mindfulness training was the most helpful thing for me. It taught me to focus very intently on one thing—something other than the ringing. I also try to listen with my other ear and kind of ignore the ear that rings and pretend like it isn’t there.The sound still annoys me a lot but I’ve gotten better at tuning it out. It might also be a matter of accepting that it’s there. It used to keep me up at night, but nowadays it mainly bothers me when it’s quiet during the day. Because of that, I always have the TV or the radio on. If I hear other sounds around me, I’m not as bothered by it. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.