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Noises in the deaf of night

by Charlie Swinbourne

26th October 2008

Dear reader, I know peple are into making jokes or jumping to incorrect conclusions about this kind of thing but ... lately I've been 'hearing things'. Not voices but what sounds like relentless mechanical clicking, and a ringing that swells and goes on (and on) into the night.
Charlie blocks the noise by putting his fingers in his ears
Could it be noises coming in from the street? I thought the same thing and, a few months ago, went outside after midnight to make sure no one had set off a car alarm. Nothing was amiss outside, sadly, and the only consequence of venturing out wearing a dressing gown in the early hours has been to completely change the way my neighbours look at me when I pass them in daylight.

I guess you're wondering if poor old Charlie is suffering from a breakdown and is losing his mind a little. Well, no, is the short answer - not yet, anyway. The source of this particular noise has a name - tinnitus. And it seems I'm in good company: famous people who had tinnitus include Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, and Jimmy Savile.

It is a pretty common complaint. According to Deafness Research UK, five million people in the country have it, which causes people to hear noises that only they, and they alone, can hear.

It gets more complicated: each person hears sounds that are unique to them. For some, they are loud and intrusive, for others, they are as quiet as a whisper.

So far, my tinnitus seems to be a nocturnal creature. I hear it just as I'm about to fall asleep, then again in the morning. Strangely, it appears when I am not wearing my hearing aids, as if the sudden peace and quiet prompts my bored ears to improvise some fresh sounds. It'd be much more fun if my ears invented some calming classical tunes, rather than a high-pitched wail that leaves me staring at the ceiling in the dark.

Tinnitus drove Beethoven mad, is rumoured to have led to Van Gogh cutting off his ear, while on the flip side of genius, Jimmy Savile is reported to have happily accepted his.
Charlie with deaf filmmaker Zoe Cartwright
As it's all pretty new to me, I wanted to find out what life's like with more intrusive symptoms, so I caught up with deaf film maker Zoe Cartwright, who won this year's Channel 4 series Shooting Party, which gave nine deaf and disabled people the chance to make a TV short. Zoe's film, titled '' is a poetic look at ten years of living with a tinnitus much more severe than mine.

Watch Zoe's film '':

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She describes her experience of the as being, "Much louder than we speak ... a high-pitched whining, or a buzzing, hissing, clicking or ringing. Mostly it is a combination of sounds rather than one alone.

"I recall losing the plot once. On a skiing trip late in the evening I just went mad with the sounds, so I ended up throwing anything I could get my hands on in the bedroom, all over the place. I ended up wide awake for the rest of the night with my hands over my ears - it took a long time to calm down."

So, with no available volume switch, how does she cope with it? "For me, the best way to deal with tinnitus is tolerance and to accept it as part of my life. I can either choose to let it bother me and live a miserable existence or I can rise above it and enjoy life for all the good things it has to offer."

One way of treating tinnitus is sound therapy - listening to a low level of 'white noise' to cancel out the other noises. Being deaf, however, Zoe is unable to take advantage of this audio therapy. Being hearing impaired doesn't exempt you from these kinds of sounds unfortunately. Deaf people are more likely to have tinnitus, in fact. it's thought to be linked to the damage that caused the deafness itself.

A famous study by Heller and Bergman back in 1953 showed that nearly everyone (deaf or not) has the capacity to hear tinnitus sounds. They put 80 people in a soundproof room for five minutes each, and in complete silence for one of the few times in their life, nearly all of them reported 'hearing things'.
Charlie stares at ceiling trying to get to sleep
The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) lists a host of environmental factors which may trigger the condition; from ear infections and noise exposure, to stress and prescribed drugs.

Treatments include a form of counselling called Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, which teaches people to pay less attention. There's the aforementioned white noise therapy, which attempts to disguise the sounds with other sounds. Finally, there's a brand new treatment currently being tested that involves directing a magnetic coil over the head of the patient - but since the long-term effects of a mechanical impulse on the brain are not known, I won't be rushing out for that therapy just yet.

There's a recording on the RNID website, designed to match those heard by people with tinnitus, captured during a research project. I found it impossible to imagine getting to sleep, concentrating in a work meeting, or even sitting quietly reading a book while hearing these sounds. I'm sorry to say that I think I would become very grumpy and irate indeed. Some of the recordings are like listening to a hail of gunfire - while others were more like a dance music baseline. Hearing this made me realise my own tinnitus is currently a drop in the ocean by comparison. I should stop my complaining.

I'm lucky that at times, my tinnitus completely disappears, so now, when I do hear perfect silence, I'm determined to appreciate every peaceful second. And from now on, when the tinnitus comes back, I'll be listening to calming tunes on my iPod to help me drift into slumber - leaving my dressing gown, and my neighbours, well alone.


    • 1. At 8:08pm on 06 Nov 2008, tigger7823 wrote:

      A long term sufferer of many years

      I first noticed a referee’s whistle being blown in my ear after helping my husband cut bathroom tiles using a motorized tile cutter. The tone of the whistle would eventually change and became a very high pitched whistle together with a hissing sound, for several months I’d seek medical help which took the form of a grommet being fitted in my ear, to medication called Serc 16, neither has worked, the only way I have been able to find relief, is to stay in a calm state.

      I use to suffer regularly uncontrollable bouts whereby the hissing was so bad, I’d pace every room in the house until the rest of the family woke up. This thankfully has not happened until last night. (5/11/08) Whilst turning over in bed I was aware of a loud clicking in my ear, and then suddenly the hissing was so loud I could not understand why my husband was not able to hear it. Then I could feel what I can only explain as being the same sensation as having a nerve blocking injection that you would have if visiting the dentist. This sensation was down one side of my head and face. When I went to boil a kettle it sounded like I was sitting along side a rushing waterfall. The volume of the hissing was unbearable. I can say that this was without a doubt the worst it has ever been, luckily I am taking a few days holiday from work, otherwise I don’t believe I would have been able to cope. During the day the strange sensation has slowly abated.

      To other suffers, try keep calm, I find that if I sleep on the ear that is affected the most I am able to get to sleep, I agree that when turning in the night I do wake up and I have to start the process all over again. But relax your tinnitus is not going to go away so you need to take control.


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