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In Profile - Isobel's Story

In April 2011, when I was 26, I woke up one morning and my left ear was blocked. I did exactly the wrong thing and stuck my finger in my ear. This lodged a large plug of earwax right up against my eardrum. I could hardly hear out of this ear and soon after an infection developed behind. After two or three days of extreme pain, pressure and hearing loss in this left ear, tinnitus started to emerge. I hear a hiss, much like the sea, or white noise, which is there all the time. Sometime I hear tones. When it is very loud, these are very prominent. 

It bothers me most when I’m tired and in a quiet room. Mainly it troubles me if I’m in bed in a silent room. Therefore, I find it hard sleeping in unfamiliar places. 

Initially I had a complete breakdown. I slept for barely more than an hour a night for the first two months because of the noise. I was desperate and confused. The pressure, which had built up because of the blocked wax, made even the smallest of sounds hurt because of the vibrations on my ear drum, which was now being constricted. I had to speak in whispers because of this as well. Eventually this has calmed, and so has the noise, but initially I had absolutely no idea what to do to make things better. 

This all happened when I was in the first year of my PhD in Sound Arts at the Sonic Arts Research Centre. I had won a prestigious award to undertake my research, so developing tinnitus was a very hard thing to accept and move on with. At first, going back to my PhD after the first few weeks of developing the condition was hard. I was very scared of being in quiet rooms where the tinnitus might be able to creep up and get louder, so going into the studios and listening to recordings all day was very daunting. I didn’t know whether I’d be able to carry on working with sound. But thankfully I was able to continue with my PhD.

I perform regularly as a folk musician and found it incredibly painful to sing, even after the wax had been taken out. The pressure from that had aggravated all the nerves on the left hand side of my head, and it was a good two or three months before they calmed down and I was able to sing without pain again. This was just in time for me to launch my second album. 

The tinnitus did impact on a lot of my relationships. Those first couple of months with tinnitus affected me so profoundly it was inevitable really. I found it hard to join in with the things I used to do with my friends. I worried that I had changed so much, I might never be able to continue with the lifestyle I had before tinnitus – going out to gigs, dancing to loud music, drinking a lot with my friends. All these things massively aggravated it. Because of the initial pressure and hearing loss from the wax, I also found normal levels of sound incredibly appressive and overwhelming. It was a good two months or so before I was able to tolerate a room full of people talking together. 

It also meant that I had to learn to ask for help from my friends and family, which was something I found really difficult. So some relationships were strengthened as well. 

I visited my GP as soon as I had the wax blockage and infection. I didn’t find her very helpful. She didn’t understand why I was finding it so hard with the pain, pressure and hearing loss and said she wouldn’t be able to extract the wax for another two weeks. I walked into the ENT emergency ward at the hospital and they removed it then and there. That made a big difference. When I still had tinnitus afterwards and was still finding it very difficult, my GP put me on medication to help me sleep and sent me for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These things managed to cut into the difficult pit I had got into, but they didn’t in themselves help me to move on and accept the condition.

I therefore went to see an ENT specialist at the Royal in Belfast called Dr D’Arcy who was brilliant. He referred me onto a hearing therapist called Mary Mitchell. I think together they went some way to saving my life. I’m not sure what I would have done without their help. Through a combination of white noise sound therapy and talking therapy, I was able to change my perception of the sounds I was hearing from frightening and unwanted to something that was like any other part of my body. It’s just there. It’s now part of who I am.

I haven’t tried any alternative therapies because I felt that the treatment I got through the Royal in Belfast provided me with the best treatment I could receive. 

I found out about the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) through searches on the internet when I’d first developed tinnitus. They gave me a sense that something was being done to find help for people out there with this condition. It showed me examples of perfectly normal functioning people with tinnitus. That’s a very important thing to see when you first have something that is so alien and isolating. 

I don’t think people should have to go through what I did for the first few months of developing tinnitus. My GP made me feel like my reaction was irrational and over the top. Anyone who has experienced troublesome tinnitus will tell you, it’s extremely unpleasant, isolating and confusing. 

The British Tinnitus Association (BTA) is a world leader in providing support and advice about tinnitus. We provide accurate, reliable and authoritative information, much of it written by medical professionals or clinical researchers.

We encourage prevention through our educational programme and to seek effective management of tinnitus through a medical research programme.

Our work relies entirely on the generosity of our members and supporters, as we receive no government funding.

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