Mind

Learning to live with tinnitus

This week is Tinnitus Awareness Week. Now To Love writer Karyn Henger is a sufferer and shares how she has learned to live with it.

By Karyn Henger
A few months ago I woke up in the night to the sound of crickets chirping loudly. This is weird, I thought, because it's the middle of the night and it's not summer so where are the crickets? But I went back to sleep and in the morning they were gone.
They reappeared every so often at varying volumes but never for long and I didn't think anything of it until one day I realised that I couldn't remember when they last hadn't been with me.
For me tinnitus crept up slowly.
"How long have you had it?" my GP asked me when I visited her to find out if there was a cure, and honestly I couldn't tell her.
"A few weeks?" I hazarded a guess.
It's not like this for everyone. A friend of mine can pinpoint the very morning she woke up to the sound of a fire alarm in her head. She went straight to the doctors but after months of visiting hearing specialists and trialing hearing aids she has concluded that all she can do is learn to live with her tinnitus - and this often turns out to be the case.
We have laughed about it together because if you don't laugh you might cry.
"Can you imagine overhearing us at a bar," I say. "We'd be yelling at each other across the table and I'd go 'damn crickets'."
"And I'd go 'damn smoke alarm!'" she added.
LOLs all round.
Tinnitus is a constant buzzing, roaring, whooshing, ringing or chirping in the ears. Mine alternates between chirping and a high-pitched ringing and, of the two, I prefer the cricket sound.
It's often associated with older people but that's not always the case. My friend and I are both in our forties.
Tinnitus affects about one in five people and can be brought on by hearing loss, ear injury or a circulatory system disorder.
In my and my friend's cases, our tinnitus was brought on by hearing loss.
My right ear only picks up about 30 per cent of what people say to me, and my friend is profoundly deaf in hers.
Our tinnitus is our brains making up for the noise we cannot hear. They've compensated for the lack of sound by producing their own constant stream.
People who don't hear high frequency sound hear ringing or crickets, like me. People who don't hear lower frequency sounds report roaring or whooshing.
All sorts of things can aggravate tinnitus – stress, loud sounds, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.
Mine is worse when I'm tired or when my surroundings are very quiet. When you start thinking about it, the volume hikes up – like now because I'm writing about it.
My hearing specialist told me that people often report their tinnitus being louder when they first get it because they're focused on it and wrestling with the fact it may never go away.
In terms of treatment, when it's hearing loss-related hearing aids can sometimes reduce or clear it. But it can take months or years, if it happens at all.
Sound therapy (soothing background sound or white noise) can distract you from it and when you're absorbed in something you tend not to notice it. Counselling and relaxation techniques can help you cope.
Learning to live with it is key because it can affect your mental health and your ability to cope with everyday life, which in turn can isolate you from those you love, as well as affect relationships at work.
In a 2011 Better Hearing Institute report it was stated that tinnitus "can contribute to psychological disorders, such as depression, suicide ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and anger. The constancy of tinnitus and the perceived lack of control can provoke fear, which exacerbates the problem, leading to an ever increasing cycle of distress."
What has worked best for me is that I've talked myself into thinking of the crickets as my friends - constant companions, like my old dog Jack.
I inherited Jack when my dad passed away and I didn't really want him at first. Everywhere I went he was right there at my feet and I found his constant presence irritating.
But eventually I got used to him and then couldn't imagine life without Jack.
While I'll never love the crickets the way I grew to love Jack, I am learning to live with them.

Things that have helped me cope with tinnitus