Living with tinnitus: relearning the art of listening

Partially losing my hearing has taught me the importance of listening.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with tinnitus. I’d spent years blasting top-volume music into my auditory canal through earphones. The real problems began following an ear infection but I’m pretty sure my private discos didn’t help.

Today I have a continuous buzzing noise to live with, similar to that of analogue television static. It accompanies my every waking moment.

According to Action on Hearing Loss, there are six million people experiencing tinnitus in the UK and 600,000 people say it affects their quality of life.

In early 2018, there were days where I could not take the endless racket, the eternal noise that couldn’t be closed down. I don’t want to be defined by tinnitus so I (mostly) accept it and am making a more conscious effort; not just to hear, but to listen.

After diagnosis my first step was to understand tinnitus. Knowledge is power, as they say. Getting to grips with the facts has helped hugely. While I am unable to control what’s happened I can control my response.

Essentially, the external hearing loss meant my brain was over-compensating by focusing on something else instead: itself. My brain is whirring and humming with activity. And that is what I am hearing on a daily basis. My brain is busy and important. We all want a busy and important brain, right?

I concentrate on being aurally aware of my surroundings. When I run I listen to the noise of wind, the sound of my feet and the inhale-exhale of my breath. It’s a form of relaxation and mindfulness which I’ve talked about before.

Contrary to some advice I find being quiet helps. Five minutes each day in peaceful places allows me to recalibrate and settle down aurally.

Developing tinnitus partly informed my decision to stop drinking. On the days I felt jaded or hungover, the noise thundered in my ears and my resilience for coping was severely weakened. Quitting booze has boosted my tolerance back to full strength.

I always loved being in ear-splitting places: nightclubs with big throbbing baselines, packed bars where you holler to be heard. These places are so viscerally exciting, so stimulating, they make me feel alive.

Now? Well, not so long ago I went to a Kasabian gig and wore earplugs. This saddens me because I feel like I’ve lost a part of myself. I won’t pretend it’s easy because it’s not. Tinnitus is bullshit and there’s no cure.

But I cannot change it so earplugs are necessary and they help me hold onto that person who loves the energy of clubs and gigs. At least they, along with my sensible dancing shoes, give my brother a laugh. Maybe one day I’ll really embarrass him and wear an enormous pair of ear defenders and flourescent Crocs. As his older sister, I completely reserve my right to do so.

On an almost daily basis I observe people failing to really hear each other out. Societal messaging has everything to do with this – shout the loudest and you’ll be heard. But that doesn’t mean anyone is listening.

We live in a noisy world. The media screams attention-grabbing headlines, social media is saturated with the latest uproar and televisions broadcast a cacophony of noise 24/7. Scroll through your phone and you’ll read a rant, turn on your TV and there’s a shouty soap opera row. Switch on your radio and there’s a singer howling about their latest heartbreak.

There’s a certain irony in living with my own analogue white noise in a digital age of day and night debate.

Remember: you do not need to shout to be heard. You can go against the grain. Great communications is about paying attention to what another person is saying as much as it is speaking. I am relearning the art of being a good conversationalist by shutting up more.

Tinnitus is teaching me to slow down, tune in to others and appreciate what is around me. With long-term habits starting to form I feel like tinnitus is much easier to live with.

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.” William Hazlitt, English Essayist

Got any tips on becoming a better listener? Comment below – I am all ears!

Tinnitus Week 2019 runs from 4-10 February. For more information and support contact The British Tinnitus Association and Action on Hearing Loss.

Do you know anyone suffering with hearing loss or tinnitus? Feel free to share this post with them.

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I'm a writer, journalist and communications officer based in the South West of England. I write about wellbeing, the outdoors and life in a rural playground.

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