The hearing you save may be your own

Posted: Sunday, November 22, 2009

"How can you sing with your ears ringing?" was one of the questions that came up during a backstage conversation at last weekend's run of "The Mikado."

It's a fair enough question. I suffer from tinnitus, a constant ringing of the ears typically caused by prolonged exposure to excessive noise. It is one of the symptoms of hearing loss.

I first became aware that my hearing was diminished during a hike with my oldest daughter about 15 years ago. As we walked, she stopped and asked, "What's that?" She was referring to a noise, a noise I could no longer hear.

My tinnitus began a few years after the hiking incident, when I used a poorly designed cut-away motorcycle helmet that allowed the wind to roar past my ears, and since I first noticed the ringing it has never left. Never. It is the first "sound" I perceive in the morning. It is the last thing I "hear" at night.

For many people with this affliction, tinnitus manifests itself as a complex combination of frequencies that tend to vary throughout the day. For each of these frequencies, one or more receptor nerves inside the inner ear is damaged, causing it to send out a false signal. Hence the ringing.

Long periods of quiet can lessen the severity of the ringing. Short exposure to loud reports, even to a single clap of two hands coming together, greatly amplifies the phantom sound. Noisy environments aggravate it. So do children, since even the quietest of children make ample noise.

For those who have never experienced tinnitus, the closest description I can come to is the collective sound of millions of tiny insects on a summer evening in rural areas of the Great Plains or the eastern forests.

Indeed, the only respite I've enjoyed from the ringing in my ears has been when I find myself in those buggy areas of the country during a warm summer sunset. To me, the insects are music to my ears, masking the obnoxious sounds in my head. For others, my summer symphony seems more like a deafening cacophony.

That is what I, like millions of other sufferers of tinnitus, deal with every waking minute of every single day.

It bothers me that I cannot hear every word my children say. It bothers me that I sometimes misunderstand them because of my hearing loss. It bothers me just as much when I see other people - with good hearing - willingly subject themselves to noises that in time will cause them the same grief my tinnitus causes me.

My fellow Mikado cast member relayed the tale of a friend who quit playing the French Horn because of tinnitus. Since I've never had a passion for horns I can see this as a suitable sacrifice to make if it means a reduction in the continuous ringing they would otherwise be subjected to, but sacrifices of this nature have their limits.

For those who saw "The Mikado" it should be fairly obvious that I can still sing, and do, although voices raised in song contribution to the severity of my tinnitus. The sounds from my laughing, squealing, shouting children are equally complicit in their contribution. So is playing the piano.

The upshot is that I won't quit doing the things I love to do simply because they make my ears ring. As human beings, we must endure in the course of our lives certain discomforts and annoyances. Is it worth denying ourselves the finer pleasures in life to "enjoy" a reduction in the minor miseries?

I should think not. Still, I strongly encourage all who read this to take proper care of their hearing, whether they have good hearing or not.

Proper care of hearing means avoiding prolonged exposure to excessive noise. When such exposures cannot be avoided, as is often the case during the course of many jobs, or when working with loud machinery, or with many tools, the consistent use of hearing protection will save whatever hearing you may still have.

Or would you rather listen to a noise akin to that made from a million tiny insects, every waking moment for the rest of your life?

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and long-term Juneau resident.

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