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Rachael' Story

Rachael's Story medium_Rachael.jpg


There was nothing subtle about the onset of my condition. One evening, home from work, I was sitting in my bedroom when I became irritated by what I thought was the radiators whistling and hissing.


I wondered if there was a problem with my boiler. But the more I listened to the increasingly loud sound the more a sense of dread set in. 


I knocked on my flatmate’s door and asked if she too could hear the strange noise. ‘What noise?’ she said. Later that evening, a friend came round to investigate. ‘Rachael, this is a peaceful environment,’ she said. ‘Maybe you are getting too stressed.’


True enough – I had been extremely stressed for months. My mother was battling a chronic headache condition and we lost my lovely stepfather, Mike, in the summer of 2011. But the prospect of getting to sleep with a screeching symphony in my head was beyond realistic. I was hearing things that other people couldn’t hear. Was I losing my mind?


I started searching the internet for a diagnosis of my symptoms. All roads pointed to tinnitus - a condition predominantly common in elderly people often accompanied by hearing loss.  Celebrities with tinnitus include Barbra Streisand, Plan B, William Shatner, Stephanie Beacham and Anne Robinson. This did little, if anything to comfort me. How on earth did they cope?


I rushed to my lovely GP, Doctor Peter Morris at Wellington Hospital, London, the next morning. I was swiftly referred me to Professor Tony Wright, an ENT specialist on Harley St.  I had to wait two weeks to see him due to a problem with my medical insurance. I was a nervous wreck. It was easier when I was at work, my mind focused on the day’s challenges. But I dreaded going home to my peaceful flat because there was no hiding from the noise. I worried I’d never be able to sit quietly and enjoy a book or film again. How would I ever sleep again without heavy sleeping pills?


Professor Wright’s diagnosis did not come as big surprise. Having had a high-tech hearing test which involved wearing giant headphones in a soundproof box he pored over the findings in graph forms.   ‘Yes, I’m afraid you do have tinnitus,’ he said, ‘This is likely to be the result of a mild auditory loss in your right ear. For a woman of 40 this auditory loss is rather premature. May I ask, do you often listen to loud music?’

Shame-faced I admitted that indeed I did. In fact, over the last 25 years I have been listening to loud music daily on my Walkman, and in latter years my beloved pink iPod. The fact that I had so foolishly damaged my ear was devastating news to say the least. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Professor Wright with an encouraging smile. ‘Providing you stop listening to loud music the tinnitus will probably ease off as your brain filters it back into background noise.’ But the more I thought about it the more it occurred to me that if I was suffering tinnitus due to sound abuse there must be a whole generation of much younger people sitting on a tinnitus time-bomb. True enough, a little research reveals worrying statistics. The number affected by tinnitus, for example, is predicted to double in the next ten years, to 16 per cent of the population. ‘I am seeing a much younger people with tinnitus than I did twenty years ago,’ said Professor Wright when I called to investigate further last week. ‘I have several patients in their late twenties and I expect their numbers to rise in the coming years. Noise abuse is a significant part of the problem. IPods, MP3Players, night clubs, rock concerts, even surround-sound cinemas can all damage the ears. I have to say a lot of ageing rock stars come to me complaining of tinnitus, too.’


Nevertheless, if you have just been diagnosed with tinnitus then it’s not all gloom and doom. Initially, Professor’s Wrights auditory team had fitted me with a tinnitus masker, a tiny hearing device that reduces the symptoms. But in the end I found I didn’t need it.  A big part of my recovery was thanks to a lovely woman called Audrey at Chesterfield and ND Tinnitus Support Group. The charity provides telephone counselling for people with tinnitus and she did much to calm my fears. I will never forget her saying, ‘Rachael, there is no such thing as silence. Everyone hears background noise but most people are not aware of it because the brain filters it out.’ She told me I would get used to the noise in my ears and my brain would learn to ignore it. She was right and I needed to hear that because so aggrieved about the implications of my condition.


Since then I have made a point of warning friends and family who listen to iPods to turn the volume down. Although I still occasionally take light sleeping pills to get me to sleep and I have listen to a soft ‘brown noise’ app via my mobile at night (Simply Noise) which masks my tinnitus very well.


But I have learned my lesson – no more loud music for me!