March 28, 2015

Quiet, Please

Rodger Hoefel details his experience as a member of the Screaming Ears Club.

1. The First Time

In 1992 I was 11. My favourite clothes were a pink Hypercolour T-shirt that turned purple when touched; purple, aqua, and orange happy pants; and black pump hi-tops. I kept all my possessions in a black bumbag: $3.75 in coins, and a spare pair of shoelaces. My brother was 9. We were babies. I hadn’t started using deodorant yet. Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi were my gods. Terminator 2 was about to be in the theatres but I wasn’t allowed to go and see it. Bob Hawke was the Prime Minister of Australia, a man worth celebrating. Australia, a British colony, celebrates the Queen. On the second Monday in June, Australia has a national holiday in honour of the Queen’s Birthday, and we launch fireworks in celebration.

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“Boys!” mum screamed.
It was time to come in for dinner.
We knew it really meant we had 5 minutes to get inside before we got in trouble. It was the Monday evening of the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. My brother, my next-door neighbour, and me had been lighting fireworks all afternoon. We were boys being boys, troublemaking and raising hell. There was one left, a big one, a show-stopping piece of pyrotechnic. A red-paper cylinder: 10cm long and as thick as 2 candles. It promised pure and utter explosive excitement. We sprinted to the vegetable patch at the end of the backyard to make a colourful grand finale to the long weekend. Gleefully, we imagined the ripe pumpkin and juicy tomato puree splattered across the back fence.

A lighter was sparked, the wick alight, and the burning stick of mayhem was lobbed toward the vegetable patch. Fingers were plugged deep into ear cavities and shelter found. We crouched behind a fallen wheelbarrow. After an excruciating 45 seconds of electric anticipation, nothing.

“It’s a dud,” we concluded, and jumped up from behind the wheelbarrow to investigate.

If time travel had been invented, this is the part of the story where I transport my molecular structure through space and time to the vegetable patch in 1992, where the three short-sighted fools commenced the most mindless investigation in human history. Big Rodger would have walked over to Little Rodger, grabbed him by the neck, shook him violently, and cried:
Why child? Why ?
You go to school!
What do they teach you there!?
Common sense?!
I guess not!!
What the hell is wrong with you?!
Can’t you see what might happen here?!!!
You stupid bastard!

But time travel has not been invented, and Little Rodger is just a boy, an 11 year old half-baked, ill-advised child who has always learned things the hard way. In a moment of complete and utter absentmindedness, we sprung up from behind the wheelbarrow and hurtled toward the ‘dud’ firework. Little did we know, it was a slow-burning wick.

The explosion was so loud birds flew from trees in terror, but in my head, it was silent. Pure, arctic, white silence. Smoke engulfed me. Orange pumpkin chunks surrounded me. My arms were hot, but they weren’t burnt. My brother was fine, walking backward while gesturing toward the house. This was no time to be a sissy. We needed to hide this mayhem from our parents. I sprung to my feet, brushed the dirt off my ass, and ran inside.

Dinner was served just as I slid into my seat at the table. I sat there, but wasn’t sitting there. The world seemed so far away, hushed. Firecrackers boomed throughout the neighbourhood from other celebrations. No questions were asked. Sunday night was pancake night. I knew the drill. If someone looked at me, it meant I had to pass the icing sugar, lemon juice or maple syrup. Easy. The 34-inch portable TV sat on the bench next to the dinner table. On the screen, the Dream Team was warming up for the Summer Olympics. The focus was off me, thank God. I bluffed my way through 20 minutes of dinner, completely deaf.

Over the next few days my hearing recovered, but a new sound arrived. It was a piercing whistle in my left ear. The sound screamed, like a banshee that’d slammed its finger in a door. Three months later, I worried why it hadn’t stopped.

That’s how I got tinnitus the first time.

2. Is There a Cure?

The explosion of the firecracker ruptured something in my inner ear. Different research papers offer different theories for the cause of the ringing. One suggests that the tiny hairs that transmit sound within your ear have teared. The ringing sound is actually the noise created as sound waves jump across the tear.

Tinnitus sounds like this:
Warning: If you have tinnitus, turn the volume down.

Promises of resolution are plentiful online.

Tinnitus Can Be Reversed!
Can Horseradish Actually Help Control Ringing In The Ears?
The Tinnitus Treatment That Actually Works!
Tinnitus Can Recover.
Tinnitus? Not a Problem Any More!
Curing Tinnitus – Hidden Natural Secrets Revealed.
Eliminate Tinnitus In As Little As 7 Days – Guaranteed!

There is no proven, effective treatment for tinnitus. It is difficult to treat as the symptoms are not visible, they can’t be recorded, and can’t be seen on an MRI. The methods I have researched are either experimental, with no guaranteed outcome, or they are ‘alternative’ medicines. Both treatments have ridiculous price tags.

I persevere. At first I went crazy. It was loudest at night as I attempted to fall asleep. It makes it very difficult to be alone with one’s thoughts. Awful is the realisation that I’d made an irreversible mistake. The disappointment and despair was nauseating. Doctors probed utensils in my ears, shrugged, and advised I quit using headphones to listen to music. I was a teenager and just kept on being a teenager. In the seven years that followed the firecracker, the ringing gradually died down, or I got used to it.

3. The Second Time

I fell in love with music at 6 years old. We Built This City by Starship was my favourite song. Mum would race the portable AM radio to me every time it came on. I spent afternoon upon afternoon sifting through my parents’ record collection finding favourites. I can still feel the chill that ran down my spine when I first heard the introduction to Great Southern Land by Icehouse. The sounds of Robert Palmer, Fleetwood Mac, Chris Rea, and Mike & The Mechanics filled my weekends. Sunday nights were spent crossed-legged in front of my stereo, fingers ready to pounce on the play and record buttons, taping my favourite songs from the Top 40 show. By the time I was eleven, I had saved up $13 of pocket money to buy my first cassette single: Humpin’ Around by Bobby Brown. At 15, I spent entire weekends with my friend Thomas, compiling hip-hop mixtapes with Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian, Notorious B.I.G, and Snoop Dogg onto cassette.

At about the age of six or seven, I realized that of all the invisible powers the one I was destined to be most strongly affected and dominated by
was music.
– Hermann Hesse

The iPod was released in 2001 when I was in my second year of University. Everyone had one except me, so I had to be cautious. We started going to clubs to see DJs in those days. I fell in love with music all over again. I needed that iPod to collect all these new sounds. One Friday night we had a gig lined up, Sander Kleinenberg at the University. As I walked home from after-work drinks, I received a text message that the pre-party had already started at our place. In anticipation, I turned up My Lexicon by Sander Kleinenberg in my headphones. The sound thumped down my ear canals. I fumbled the keys as I attempted to unlock my front door. Picking them up, the headphones fell to the floor, and that banshee scream filled my ears. Both ears. It was back.

Today, my ears still ring, just as loud as they did that Friday night.

4. Awareness

003-celebs

“Hey, can you hear the ringing in my ear?” said no one ever. Tinnitus is a difficult thing to talk about. Sometimes, it’s nice to know you’re not alone. According to various sources on the internet, the following popular figures suffer from tinnitus: Phil Collins, Barbra Streisand, Anthony Kiedis, Burt Reynolds, Neve Campbell, Thomas Bangalter, Deborah Harry, Noel Gallagher, Moby, Jerry Stiller, Louis Tomlinson and Keanu Reeves.
The musicians are expected. Years of standing blisteringly close to speakers twice their size screaming music at stadium volume will do damage. The most interesting one is Neve Campbell from Scream and Party of Five, who developed tinnitus from loud nightclubs.

In my entire 34 years, I have only met one person with it. In 2009, I was talking to a semi-pro surfer at a party in London. He had been dumped by a big wave in 2004. The enormous pressure burst both of his eardrums, giving him tinnitus in both ears. Five years later, there was no improvement and it still rang at the same volume. He explained that the doctors couldn’t remedy his situation and he started to go mad. Maybe intense pain will mask the ringing, he thought, and inserted hot needles from the stovetop into his ear canals. “What!” I exclaimed, spitting beer all over him. It didn’t work and he ended up in hospital for a week.

“And the bells in my ears kept ringing, In my ears bells are ringing.”
– Blondie, Fan Mail 

In 2006 in Sydney, Australia I worked with the bass guitarist from an 80s new wave band. He told me the story of their roadie, Butch, who set up and sat by the speakers each and every gig on tour. Butch’s tinnitus was so loud that it consumed him. He overdosed in his flat, trying to escape the constant ringing.

These two stories hit me in the face with a brick. Mine is bad, but not so bad that I would consider ending it all. We need to share solutions. Something has to be done.

5. Management

003-concerts

I still go to concerts. Ear plugs are a necessity. If I forget to bring them, I strategically position myself between the speakers. Never too close. Without ear plugs, the banshees scream with megaphones, driving me mad. For a long time, I thought earplugs made me look like a dork. But I had to get over it. Look closely the next time you go to a concert, ear plugs stick out of ears canals everywhere.

003-blondie

Musicians also use tinnitus protection. You can see in the above photo, Blondie use a plexiglass screen around the drummer, to protect Deborah Harry’s ears.

I still listen to music with headphones, in moderation. For a maximum of three days per week. Two days in a row and the banshees scream. It’s hard when you love music. It’s hard when you’re at work and you need to drown out the seven-person meeting happening at the next desk.

I have developed a volume level/equaliser system that helps minimise the scream. I never go above two bars on the Mac OS X volume system.

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In the iTunes equaliser, I select “Bass Reducer” from the tab presets, then drag the main bass to zero. I’m no doctor, but it has helped.

003-bass_reducer

Even though I have precautions in place, shit still happens. I went to the supermarket on Christmas eve to pick up a case of beer for our party. Smoke was coming from the back of the store. A fire truck arrived with sirens blaring. My ears screamed. It was so bloody loud I thought my head was going to explode. Smoke continued to billow as the second fire truck arrived. My brow furrowed, my head throbbed. I began to sweat profusely and nearly passed out. I ran out with my jacket tied around my head, looking like a madman. I got the beer, but my ears screamed at double-volume for the next three days.

The harsh reality is that the damage has been done. After 20 years I have embraced it. It’s a part of me. The first few years were difficult. The adjustment period from hearing normally to hearing with a screaming dog-whistle symphony attached to every single sound is torture. Eventually, you just surrender and realise it’s better to cooperate. I count my lucky stars that it hasn’t decreased my hearing. I can still hear the paw prints of my upstairs neighbour’s cat as she creeps around on the wooden floorboards. Lately, though, my girlfriend says my ‘normal’ TV volume is too loud for her, and getting louder. A slightly worrysome observation, to say the least. My OCD interferes:
You’re going deaf!
In five years, you’ll need a hearing aid.
And you thought ear plugs were stupid.
You better start learning sign language.

Surgeons have performed a double-arm, double-hand transplant.
3-D printers are producing body parts with actual human cells.
The first full face transplant was done successfully.
Robots can perform surgery to remove kidneys.
Soon, a bionic eye will restore sight.

It’s about time we found a cure for this bloody ringing then, ain’t it?

Credits
Written by Rodger Hoefel
Images
Celebrities & Musicians from Wiki commons
Blondie image via getshotmagazine.com

Video
Music by
Moby

 

2 Comments for Quiet, Please

  • Hi Rodger, I’d been waiting on this latest story since the teaser came out. I’m an audiologist and do hope you have sought the best behavioral psychologists to help you along with a brilliant audiologist. Dr Google is evil. There is NO cure but there are some treatment options which involve masking the tinnitus sound so you learn to cope very well with it (not never hear it again though). I’ve had a patient who’s brother committed suicide and almost everyone we see has had tinnitus at some point (though not constant). You are certainly not alone.
    It is horrendous and I wish you well in seeking some relief from it if you can.

  • You left out Pete Townshend! He has really, REALLY bad tinnitus. In fact, the moment it happened has been documented. Watch as Keith Moon blows up Pete’s ears. And watch it because it’s the FUCKING WHO for Christ’s sake!:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYkGimCrcRg

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