By Bill Meehan
I am a rock drummer. As a teen and young adult, we played very loud and for hours at a stretch. I sensed nothing bad happening at the time besides some bothersome post-concert ringing in my ears. I was in my 20s and invincible.
In my early 30s I noticed a slight ringing in my ears for the first time—without a loud event as the cause. It was troublesome enough that I went to the doctor. After a thorough examination I heard that word for the first time: “tinnitus.” Okay, great, there is a name for this. “What pill do I take?” I asked the doctor. “There is no treatment currently,” he said with a knowing smile and walked out the door. Seriously, he walked out the door and didn’t even give me a chance to ask another question. I sat there for a moment in the empty examination room and listened to the ringing in my ears for a few minutes in disbelief. Will I never be able to sit in a quiet room again?
I lived with this for years and it was only troubling in very quiet surroundings. A fan blowing or a TV playing in the background was usually enough to drown out the faint, high-pitch ringing.
Then one day it all changed. I was watching TV and noticed a loud sound of crickets. I thought it must be the TV. I turned off the TV and still heard the clear and very loud sound of crickets mixed with a high-pitched tone. I was convinced the TV must be about to explode. I ran over and pulled out the plug. The sound was still there. I covered my ears and was horrified to realize the sound was in my own head. It was well over 100 decibels. I felt sick as the hours passed painfully and slowly. I didn’t sleep.
The next morning I went to the only doctor in all of San Francisco who could see me that day. After the exact same examinations I received years earlier, he told me that same thing, “Sorry, there is nothing I can do.”
After a couple of weeks I was suicidal. Every day was torture. My only relief was to re-create the sound and pitch on my keyboard and play it at maximum volume. When I stopped playing the loud tone I had 10 seconds of relative peace and then the tinnitus came back. I did this over and over again.
Six weeks had gone by and I noticed a slight reduction in the volume. It was something to hold out onto—a little bit of hope. Could it actually be decreasing even though several doctors told me there was no hope? Little by little, day by day, I found moments of peace and an overall easing of the torment. Finally it was bearable most of the time.
A few years later I had another acute attack, but this time I knew there was hope and light on the other side. I went to an upscale doctor who specialized in tinnitus. He had awards all over his wall. He must be good, right? I told my tale. I told him about the acute attack that lasted for weeks, that it was much worse after waking from a nap, and that the ambient noise level had no impact on severity. He was a much-lauded doctor who specializes in tinnitus and I thought he would understand. “That’s not how it works,” he said, as he walked out of the room.
I now have a hearing aid I wear (I have mild-moderate hearing loss) that gives me some relief during the worst bouts. I wear it in my left ear. I also have an app on my phone that can help soothe me to sleep using white noise. I still play the drums, but they are electronic and I can control the volume. I can live a full and rewarding life, but my tinnitus is always there—my constant companion.