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Issue 5 - Summer 2007 - The Healthy Issue
HELLO, CLEVELAND! HELLO? ARE YOU THERE? I CAN'T HEAR YOU ...
A rock star rocks too hard and loses his hearing

It’s my senior year of high school. My friend Ryan and I are sitting in his Honda Accord, stoned, windows rolled up, parked in front of a friend’s house. Ryan hits repeat, just once more, to get a final, louder-than-we-can-possibly-handle aural assault from Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” which we have decided over several weeks of careful study is the most rocking song ever written. “Singing to an ocean, I can hear the ocean’s roar,” shrieks Robert Plant. Bonham’s reverb-laced snare drum pops through Ryan’s earsplitting, trebly speakers. The music is so loud it is penetrating us, destroying us — the alternating 8/8 and 7/8 phrases pounding through our chests like waves of, well, the ocean ….

-----

Like any good Jew, I am a hypochondriac. So here I am: it’s July of 1999, and I’m sitting in a soundproof audio booth, my hands resting on my knees. Bulbous 1970s-era headphones bracket my head like parentheses.

I am a paranoid Woody Allen with an imagined brain tumor in Hannah and Her Sisters.

I am waiting for The Tone.

The tone arrives in my right ear. I raise my hand and acknowledge receipt of the tone. The next tone — incrementally softer — arrives, and I raise my hand. Tone. Raise hand. Repeat, until finally, I am just sitting. Waiting.

Now for the left ear. Tone. Hand raise. Tone. Hand. Wait … nothing. Do I hear something? Did I imagine … maybe I should just raise my hand? Wait. Nothing. Really, nothing?

After about forty-five minutes of this and other increasingly demoralizing tests, the audiologist sits me down in her office.

“You’ve definitely had some hearing loss in your left ear,” she says. “Most of the high frequencies are gone, as you can see here.” She points to a graph with a plateau that begins up high on the y-axis (hearing threshold level) and then quickly descends as it travels along the
x-axis (frequency).

“Gone?” I ask, already nostalgic for my precious high frequencies. She nods affirmatively.

“And the ringing?”

“That’s called tinnitus,” she says. “It’s also pronounced tinnitus. It’s a ringing caused by ear hair cells that have been damaged or died.”

“So when will that stop?” I ask.

“Well, it could go away in a day or two. Or it might never go away. A lot of people have it and just learn to ignore it.”

“It’s pretty loud,” I say, all the more conscious of the annoying high-pitched ringing. Imagine a hissing steam radiator blended with the sound of a fine crystal wine glass after flicking it with your finger. It’s driving me batty.

“You’ll be surprised how you can acclimate to it,” she tells me. “And it might just disappear one day. I’d like to put you on a week of steroids — sometimes this can help with a sudden noise-induced hearing loss.”

The steroids did nothing. I didn’t even bulk up. That was about eight years ago.

-----

I am standing on a stage about the size of an Oriental rug looking out on the crowd. I am 97 percent drunk. My band and I are performing for a couple hundred people — various percentages of drunk — packed together like strands of dried spaghetti into the lower hull of the Frying Pan, a dank, rusted tugboat-turned-bar parked on a pier in the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan. We’ve been playing for nearly two hours. People are still dancing, so we keep playing.

There are seven of us in the band, all dressed in ridiculous psychedelic 1960s outfits. I am sweating heavily under a blue feather boa, a loud polyester shirt, and multicolored striped pants; the yet-to-exist Austin Powers would have nothing on me. The band is called Les Sans Culottes (“without underpants”). We are pretending to be French and performing revved up covers of Serge Gainsbourg, France Gall, and Jacques Dutronc songs. We are loud, garagey, and … well, loud.

It’s about now that I notice just how alarmingly close my head is to the drummer’s crash cymbal, a cymbal that, when struck, sounds like a case of beer bottles has been dropped from an airplane and landed next to me. I notice this because the drummer is hitting the crash cymbal repeatedly, and very hard, on our last song (Dutronc’s “Les Cactus”), and the noise now sounds as if it is emanating from inside my brain. I wince. Have I been standing this close the entire set?

Applause and cheering. I toast the crowd with a mostly empty bottle of Budweiser, and we make our exit.

Fuck, my ear is really ringing.

I start up a conversation with an attractive girl, but I can’t really focus on what she is saying. To compensate for the loud space, her natural conversational tendency is to speak into my left ear — the really ringing one. As she talks, I am cringing. Filtered through my tinnitus ear, her voice sounds like a coked-up Axl Rose shrieking off-key falsetto phrases.

I have a few more drinks and try to ignore it. It’s nothing new, really; I’ve been going to concerts all my life. I remember my ears ringing for hours after seeing Cheap Trick at Denver’s McNichols Arena when I was eight years old. Cheap Trick rocked!

But the next morning, in addition to my hangover, I notice the ringing hasn’t stopped. And something else: I feel different somehow. I snap my fingers next to my right ear. Fine. I snap next to the left. Quiet.

Then I rub my fingers back and forth across my thumb next to my right ear. It sounds like the gentle chafing of corduroy pant legs. OK. I do the same for my left ear. Nothing. Nothing? Hmmm. I grab the phone, put it up to each ear, and compare the sound of the dial tone.

This is not good. Am I going deaf? I am definitely going deaf. I think I should see a doctor. Shit.

-----

Three years later, I am in the waiting room of a hearing specialist in Soho. The ringing seems to be getting worse. We do lots of tests over several weeks. Finally, I, just like Woody Allen in Hannah, am ordered to get an MRI to rule out a tumor.

“It’s not a tu-mah,” I nervously exclaim in a Schwarzeneggerian accent as I slowly get loaded into the MRI chamber like ammunition. The nurse laughs. I don’t.

What if the MRI shows a giant malignant grapefruit ripening in my left frontal lobe?

Can playing in a fake French band give you a brain tumor?

No. Schwarzenegger was right: it’s not a tumor. After many more tests, the doctor finally sits me down to deliver a diagnosis: “You have Ménière’s disease,” he tells me. (Ah, the irony! Faux French band, real French disease!) He explains that I have three of the four classic symptoms: hearing loss, tinnitus, and pressure in the ears. I don’t suffer vertigo or dizziness, the fourth and primary symptom. Nevertheless, he is convinced I have this disease.

Some have proposed that Vincent van Gogh had Ménière’s, attributing his painting style to the dizziness caused by it, and suggesting that his ear self-mutilation was an attempt to rid himself of the tinnitus — the phantom ringing.

OK, van Gogh is an interesting historical figure to share a disease with but, um, a disease? A disease?! I thought I had just destroyed my hearing by playing loud music. Diseases are for dying people! Am I dying? Wait. Is it contagious?

I walk outside and meet up with my girlfriend. “I have a disease,” I tell her.

I feel doomed.

-----

For a year, I feel dizzy. I find myself convinced I have vertigo while riding my bike down Seventh Avenue. Occasionally, I imagine I am going to lose my balance and fall into the toilet while standing up to pee. Happily, I do not. Then I discover I don’t actually have Ménière’s disease. The doctor was wrong. Another doctor (a better doctor) at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles tells me no, I just have tinnitus. But there’s no cure. I’ll have it forever. And my hearing in my left ear, based on his recent examination, is worse. And the right ear has now started to show signs of damage.

-----

I’m sitting in the waiting room of Scientific Hearing Corp on Thirtieth Street in Manhattan. On the walls, autographed eight-by-ten head shots of Cher, Rosie O’Donnell, and the B-52s, among others, smile back at me. “Thanks for the plugs — hear’s to you!” reads a signature from a guy with the slick plastic hair of a sportscaster.

A short man dressed like Jerry Seinfeld — high-waisted black jeans, white sneakers, tucked-in oxford — with gray hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache, ushers me into the office and says in a high-pitched Brooklyn accent, “Musician?” I nod yes. He disappears for a minute and returns with a bowl and what looks like an enormous plastic syringe. He puts two different liquids into the bowl and mixes them with a tongue depressor until they form a pasty green compound. He loads the compound into the syringe, stuffs a small piece of cotton attached to a thin string into my ear, and then squirts the green goo into my ear canal. It’s one of the stranger things I’ve ever felt. Like having each side of my head filled with mud.

“I’ll be back in five minutes. Just relax,” he tells me.

He returns, as promised, and slowly pulls the string out from my left ear. I cannot help but imagine this is what it must feel like to remove a tampon. I sort of like it.

Into his hand pops a positive mold of my ear canal. He does the same for the other ear and tells me that my earplugs should be ready by the end of the week.

-----

Today, on my keychain, there’s a circular plastic case containing my custom-made earplugs. I don’t leave home without them. In my left ear I wear a solid plug, the strongest they make. It looks like a blob of silly putty in the shape of an ear canal (mine), and it’s supposed to reduce the sound that reaches my brain by about thirty-five decibels. In my good ear — my right — I wear what’s called a “musician’s plug,” which lowers the overall volume by twenty-five decibels. Miraculously, the musician’s plug keeps the frequencies I hear in my right ear roughly the same; things don’t sound muffled, they just sound quieter. Since I’ve started wearing the plugs, I’ve tended to grow my hair long on the sides to cover them up when I’m on stage.

My left ear rings pretty loudly, constantly, and I notice my right ear ringing when my environment is quiet or when I’m trying to go to bed. Lack of sleep and caffeine (two obligatory ingredients in any musician’s life) make it worse. Sometimes eating in loud restaurants requires a plug in the left ear. Seeing a live band or playing a show requires plugs in both. I’ll occasionally pop them in during a movie if it’s loud or I am seated up close.

The worst is being in bed with my girlfriend when she’s just whispered something sweet in my ear. I have to turn my head to have her repeat it again in my right ear.

“Ssshhsds shheshsss ssdsdhhss hssss,” she says.

“What?”

It’s very romantic.

I recently investigated options for treating the tinnitus, and they proved less than promising. There are herbal and homeopathic (read: snake oil) “remedies,” like ginkgo biloba or compounds such as T-Gone Remedy or TinnaRex. I’ve actually been suckered into trying a few of these, and the results were less than noteworthy.

The only promising treatment I’ve heard about is what’s known as “tinnitus retraining therapy” (TRT), in which one’s brain is actually taught to ignore the ringing. Because the pathology of tinnitus is in the brain, not the ear, researchers figured out that sending a tone with the same frequency as the tinnitus into the ear for extended periods of time can actually acclimate the brain to ignore the signal. Unfortunately, these types of treatments can take up to two years and require a person to constantly wear a noise-generating device that looks like a clunky hearing aid from the 1970s. Not ideal for the moderately fashion-conscious musician (me).

A slightly more appealing version of TRT, called Neuromonics, blends the patient’s tinnitus tone frequency with “soothing” music (Yanni, anyone?) and requires only about two hours per day of therapy wearing headphones, a practice not dissimilar to listening to an iPod. The treatment is said to have positive results within six months. The down side? It’s expensive, costing around $5,000. Maybe one day when I am a big rock star and less in debt, I’ll spring for it.

The American Tinnitus Association estimates that a whopping fifty million Americans experience some degree of tinnitus, with twelve million seeking medical attention due to its severity. iPods and other portable music players that deliver music at dangerously high decibel levels are definitely a big part of the problem. Even veterans of the Iraq war are returning with high rates of tinnitus from having roadside bombs and IEDs explode near them. I think I smell an epidemic (I certainly can’t hear one).

I’m hoping that one day they — the medical they — will find a cure, and I can just take a pill or grow new ear hairs from stem cells or lab rats or something. In the meantime, I still play with a faux French band (now known as Nous Non Plus), compose music for film and TV, and rock out with my air guitar whenever and wherever possible. I stand a little farther away from the drummer’s crash cymbal now, and there are a few loud restaurants in New York that I just can’t tolerate. But otherwise, I’d say feel free to crank up the Zeppelin; I’ll be wearing my earplugs. &

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