I spent 10 years playing in loud rock bands which was a massive amount of fun. I did however come out the other end with very loud tinnitus which really wasn’t much fun. Tinnitus is an internal noise which can manifest as a variety of sounds such as a humming, whistling or buzzing. It can be intermittent or constant, quiet or loud. I experience tinnitus as a very loud ringing noise. It rings in A minor, if I am not mistaken.
When I first got struck down with tinnitus, I wondered how I could possibly read or write with this noise going off in my head. I was getting so frustrated and stressed that it was hard to concentrate. I was angry about this perceived invasion to my peace of mind. I was steadily building a deep aversion towards the noise which just created a greater and greater cycle of stress. I felt silence had been stolen from me and it affected me so much that my mood dipped and I stopped reading and writing completely.
After some time talking to doctors with little joy, I started to look at alternative methods to dealing with this problem. I started classes in mindfulness meditation. This really helped me get some distance on the noise and see it as part of my experience rather than the whole my experience. Holding this ringing noise in my awareness as a neutral observer slowly helped to dissipate the aversion that I had built up towards it. This is no quick fix however, it is an ongoing practice. I started going on longer meditation retreats and practicing as often as I could. Slowly I started to get more distance around the noise and be less affected by it.
There is a great saying in Buddhism that ‘pain is inevitable but suffering is optional’ in other words there is nothing I can do about the tinnitus itself but I can control the stories I create around it. I can change my relationship to it. This was where my stress was coming from. My challenge was, do I accept and integrate this noise as part of my experience or continue to rally against it and create my own internal war?
I found it interesting to look the ideas I had around my notion of silence. Is silence the complete absence of all noise? How often do we really have that in modern life? Further investigation made me realise I saw silence (and by default my peace of mind) not the absence of all noise but rather the absence of noises I don’t like. An interesting idea from the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton is that silence is not an absence of sound but the presence of everything. Dr David Toop a lecturer in audio culture believes silence can be the enemy of peace. He draws on the example of Victorian writers that used to put themselves in sound proofed areas to write in. They found themselves getting increasingly distracted but the softest of sounds.
I set myself the task of trying to befriend this new unwanted neighbour. It wasn’t a case of trying to pretend that I’m okay with tinnitus when I’m not. It was more a sense of trying to give myself some space around how I felt. Letting these feelings of aversion rise and fall as I bring my awareness to them. It was also a case of looking at what ideas came up for me and realigning them. Can this noise really harm me? Is it the end of the world that it’s part of my experience? Clearly not.
The longer time went on, the more the muse in me started a call to action. How can I use this in my writing? How can I get creative with it, to help me transform my attitude towards it? I developed a character who has tinnitus named Indra in a novella I’m working on called The Release Code. I explore and use my experience to build his world and inner story. As part of the process this also helps me integrate and normalise the experience for myself. Writing as you probably know, is good therapy. I also did a course in Tibetan thanka painting that uses awareness as a framework for it’s expression. Whatever your creative medium, can you use it to achieve the same end?
Tinnitus has placed physical limitations on me, there are now places I can and can’t go. For example it is difficult for me to go to gigs and loud parties now. I like to write in coffee shops sometimes but even they can be very noisy and distracting. A breakthrough for me has been using noise cancelling headphones. These are very effective at taking out the louder treble end noises of social spaces and they help me focus in on what i’m doing. They also provide a gentle backdrop hum which helps to mask the tinnitus. The ones I use are here.
I know people with tinnitus that find concentration difficult while working on a computer or reading. Masking CD noises can be useful to have on in the background such as nature sounds or pink/white noise. these can help you get less distracted by the tinnitus. If possible though I always try and go for the real thing and sit in nature herself and write. not only is this calming but it’s also inspiring.
Final Note the above thoughts may not resonate with everybody. They are merely my reflections from living and coping with tinnitus for 30 years. It is a long road with ups and downs but I have found it does get easier. For me awareness, acceptance and creativity are the keys to this process.
David Toop, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds – Serpent’s Tail; Main edition (22 Feb. 2001)
Gordon Hempton, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World- Free Press; Har/Cdr edition (31 Mar. 2009)