I’m 33 years old and I have tinnitus. My audiologist also says I currently have good hearing.
My hearing will only degrade as I get older. It’s proven. I’ll be that crotchety crazy cat lady who brandishes an old-fashioned ear trumpet to hear what I once took for granted. Turns out, flying loud airplanes and helicopters for eight years – not to mention cohabitating with all the other equipment that routinely operates on the flightline or in the military – really does a number on your auditory receptors. And this is coming from someone who wore hearing protection during every sortie, when walking to and from an aircraft on the line, and on the rifle range and other mandatory places one needs to wear ear pro.
Is it my fault? Partly. The military docs routinely lecture us, especially pilots, about hearing conservation. Anyone who’s ever gone through any annual training class or BITS (Back-In-The-Saddle) can attest to this fact. The docs are like engineers: they have the latest technology and know exactly how a problem can be solved on paper. But they aren’t the ones living the reality. It’s like telling a squadron they can reduce their mishap rate to zero… if they never fly. Technically, yes, but not gonna happen. Docs tell us we need to wear double ear pro, foamies inside our helmets. Some pilots tried that. I tried that. And I took them out after one flight. Yes, noise is reduced. But, hear me out (pun intended), some noise is good. A pilot, especially a helo driver, needs to hear the engine. When I flick the starter switch, I need to hear what’s going on. When I’m lifting for the first time that day, I need to hear the change in rotor speed, in intensity. I need to hear how level flight sounds or how the air rushes past as I’m tucked into a 20-degree nose-down attack profile. I need to hear the problem before I see it. And, like so many pilots before me, I decided to just stick with the protection of my customized flight helmet.
It’s hard to describe the absence of sounds you lose with hearing loss. You don’t know, because it’s no longer there. It’s not like a certain frequency or pitch or sound announces its good-bye when it leaves you forever. There’s no app or update or message letting you know another little part of your life will be less rich. It’s such a small change at the time – if that’s how your hearing loss occurs – it would be hard to tell even if there was. In fact, as I scanned the results of my latest audiogram four days ago, the numbers looked positively beautiful. I have good hearing. I can detect all the ranges and frequencies. I know when to click that little button after the automated man finishes his (rather loud) instructions. But, my hearing has worsened from my baseline assessment thirteen years ago. I hear things that aren’t there.
What’s tinnitus like? It varies with each person. For me, it’s like someone left a television set on. Except there’s no show playing. It’s just the very high-pitched electronic buzzing, except “buzzing” isn’t the right word. Maybe an electronic mosquito. Maybe someone shouting “Eeeeeeeeeee!” at an ungodly high frequency (in the video, mine is like the first example combined with the last two). Maybe a sonic attack like Cuba is accused of engineering. It’s that electronic sound you get if you have ringing in your ears, or what modern movies play if a bomb goes off near the main character and they suddenly lose their hearing. Apparently, Dallas Buyers Club uses this sound a lot to signify the progression of AIDS in Matthew McConaughey’s character.
However, unlike the movies, mine never goes away after a while. It’s constant, like an unending soundtrack to my day; one continuous sound. I can hear things over it – birds, conversation, music – but it adds its own flavor to everyday life. Tinnitus is most intrusive when it’s the quietest, like when I’m working on a piece of writing or lying in bed about to fall asleep. It’s both annoying and familiar now; it’s futile to think it will ever disappear on its own. Maybe this is why I crave spaces where I can’t be distracted. Maybe this is why I cringe when the T.V. is on and someone’s talking over it. Or why, during the screening of Blade Runner 2049 I saw last weekend, I put my fingers into my ears over and over again when the ridiculously loud noises deafened me. Hey there, Hollywood, I don’t need to be more deaf. Already good in that arena. Maybe I’m just more sensitive to the noise pollution in my world.
The Department of Veteran’s Affairs diagnosed me with tinnitus during my final physical on Active Duty in 2015. This condition rates 10% disability – my ears are literally worth a tenth of my body. I get paid as compensation. Not a lot, but still something. It’s an acknowledgement that I am not in the condition I was when I joined. An acknowledgement that I have lost something, that I am different. I’m technically a disabled veteran. That’s something I’m still coming to terms with – labeling and calling myself disabled – especially since I don’t feel like it’s a “real” disability. I feel like I needed to have lost a limb in combat, or suffer PTSD from seeing a friend blown up, in order to join the ranks of those who sacrificed, like Kyle Carpenter. I don’t want to water down the term. I don’t want to be seen as someone who is taking advantage of the system. I don’t want to make mountains out of mole hills. Yet, reading my medical records and seeing the numbers on paper are acknowledgements of what I’ve lost.
My disability is real, even if I don’t yet embrace it.
(Postscript: A year before I left my squadron, a specialized medical man came and squeezed the coldest pink goo you can imagine into my ears. He took out the ear mold and sent it off to be magically transformed into custom ear inserts. A few weeks later, they came back in a shiny new package. I don’t know how expensive they were, or what the contractor got paid, but I suspect the numbers are astronomical. I tried them out. They felt like the world’s most intimate ear buds, and were pretty comfortable. I flew with them on one flight. They were clunky under the helmet, put unnecessary pressure on my ears – inner and out – and I ripped them off halfway through my flight. I had such high hopes. Perhaps I didn’t wear them correctly. Perhaps they could have been tweaked. Perhaps the pilots behind me who got them earlier in their careers got used to them, but I never did. So, I rode out my last days as a pilot with my trusty old helmet I’d had for six years. Still, I hold out hope that technology will prevail against tinnitus.)