Shooting Myself In The Ear

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In the summer of 2008, I realized I was hearing an annoying, persistent whine in my ears. Each day it seemed to get louder, so much so, and so much THERE, that I decided to see the doctor. Perhaps I had an infection or blockage of some sort. A dose of antibiotics and I’d get better in a few days.

The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong, so he passed me on to an ENT. No visible damage. No tumor. Then on to Audiology down the hall. That’s when I got the bad news: I have 40% hearing loss. My hearing was that of a much older man, an 80 year-old. Then they told me the really bad news: it wasn’t coming back. Permanent. Gone. Move on.

“Hearing loss” means you lose the higher frequencies. Birdsong, children’s and women’s voices, rainfall … musical notes. It was pretty depressing to learn I was losing the sound of my wife’s voice and I may never hear my (future) grandchildren.

And there’s a final letdown: hearing loss isn’t a diminished volume control. No, it’s a substitution. My ears ring loudly of insects. It’s like sitting under a tree on a hot summer day with millions of cicadas whining above you. It’s always there. This is called ‘tinnitus’. I call it a ‘torment.’ I can no longer enjoy a quiet evening.

Back to 2008… the audiologist said the damage was likely self-induced. Did I work in a factory? No. Did I shoot firearms for a hobby or in the military? No. Frequent exposure to airplane noise? Yes. Do I listen to loud music? Er… Do I wear earbuds? Um … With an MP3 player? Yes!

And then I realized what I had done. Earlier in 2008 my gym decided to save a few dollars and not replace some very noisy treadmills. I mean VERY noisy. I use those machines for an hour at at time. But the real culprit was my MP3 player. To overlay the treadmill shrieks, I cranked up the volume to drown them out.

Humanity is not meant for loud noise. Homo  sapiens evolved in quiet places. The savanna and forest don’t have treadmills or rock concerts. Loud things startle nature and drive animals away. Humans’ maximum tolerance is 85 decibels.That is about the sound of a person talking a bit too loud. Our delicate ears aren’t meant for the modern, cacophanous life.

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The doctor said I could prevent further damage if I used hearing protection in the gym, when cutting the grass, flying in a jet and during any other exposure to loud things. She said to avoid ‘noise cancelling’ devices because they mask, but don’t eliminate noise. And I perhaps I should use ‘pink noise’ machines when the tinnitus is unbearable.

So I made some changes. I now wear dorky, industrial-strength hearing protection in the gym, foam ear plugs when cutting the grass, and soothing classical music when I’m alone to shush the cicadas. I’ve been retested for hearing loss twice since that summer and I am happy to say I’ve not lost any more hearing.

So my word of caution to you: avoid loud things and loud places. Don’t make my mistake and shoot yourself in the ear.

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