If I talk loudly, or ask you to repeat yourself a few times, or offer a weak, confusing smile and a “Hmmm …” in response to something you say, I’m not doing it to annoy you. I promise. It’s just that, at the age of 26, I have noise-induced hearing loss and a permanent, annoying, maddening ringing in both of my ears.
I enjoy a low-key existence. I love going to happy hours with my friends, but I’m not into the club scene. I love to dance, but I prefer mornings to nights, so I don’t go very often. And loud concerts are not really my thing.
No, I lost my hearing and gained tinnitus on one of the rare times I went to a Center City bar with a dance floor last June. I was talking — no, screaming — to my friends when I noticed I could feel the music rattling the inside of my ears. I was very uncomfortable with the noise level and tried to move to a spot away from the speakers, but it didn’t reduce the volume much.
When I left, I had fuzzy hearing, and my ears were ringing. It was odd but not alarming, because it was, after all, extremely loud in there. I’m sure everyone has experienced this. But it didn’t go away or lessen for two days.
My doctor basically told me: “Yep, that’s noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus.”
Learning to cope
Those first few weeks were hard. My full-time job at the time sometimes required being on the phone with clients. Not only was it difficult to hear, it hurt my ears. I convinced my boss to lessen the amount of time I had to spend on the phone, but I could not eliminate it.
I resorted to wearing earplugs at work and not speaking to anyone except my boss. It was a hassle to follow conversations, and it hurt my ears. I didn’t want to talk to my family on the phone. I didn’t want to do anything social. Hearing loss made me feel socially isolated and despondent.
Although my hearing gradually became less muffled, my world is quieter now than it was before. The tinnitus has not gone away, but on occasion it does lessen.
It was hard for me to accept that this is something I have to deal with for the rest of my life starting at such an atypically young age.
And it’s not just me. According to the World Health Organization, 40 percent of teens and young adults aged 12 to 35 in middle- and high-income countries are exposed to potentially damaging sound levels at entertainment venues.
As the Inquirer acknowledged in July, shortly after I partially lost my hearing: It’s too loud in our restaurants. Jones was measured at over 100 decibels, and Park measured over 90.
It takes 15 minutes of exposure to 100 decibels to damage hearing, and eight hours of exposure to 85 decibels.
I can’t be mad at Philly for its incredible, busy restaurants, or its trendy bars with live music, or the chic, modern interiors that make sound bounce around like a barrel full of Super Balls balls dropped from a Market Street office window. But we might as well be sitting on a motorcycle or next to train tracks while having a night out, because that’s what it’s like for our ears. Unfortunately, that’s on the owners of these establishments.
Prevention is the only cure
It took me more than six months to start telling people that the reason for my confusion and mild social impairment is that I can’t hear because of an injury. I don’t want to be treated as if I’m rude for using my outside voice indoors or like I’m not listening to people because I ask “What?” a lot. The fact is that I’m disabled.
I started speaking up about my hearing loss because I want to educate people to protect their hearing no matter what. I didn’t often partake of things typically associated with hearing loss like concerts or blaring headphones. This is a huge problem to everyone — not just people 65 and older.
Start protecting yourself now. I use a variety of earplugs. The soft drugstore earplugs are portable and convenient for blocking low-level noise. I use them when I travel to help me sleep on planes.
My favorite is from a brand called Pluggerz. I use the Uni-Fit Music earplugs. They’re expensive, at about $150 a pop, but I have not regretted spending that cash. They allow me to go dancing and block out loud music, but not sound quality. While wearing them, I’ve been able to easily hear friends who I see straining to hear me as well as hear every lyric to every song.
I have long hair, so people usually don’t see them — or at least they don’t mention it. But if someone does ask me about them, I’m happy to proclaim that I am protecting what’s left of my hearing.
When it comes to tinnitus, that’s more difficult. There’s no cure, and there’s no magic pill or surgery to make it go away — although I do take homeopathic pills that seem to help reduce the ringing. It may be permanent, or it may spontaneously go away. While I really hope it’s the latter — constant ringing in your ears really sucks, and it’s amplified by stress or sleep deprivation — I may have to deal with it for the rest of my life. Because I decided in my youth to not take care of my hearing.
If I could go back in time, would I not go out that night? I can’t say. But I do wish I had thought about protecting myself before it was too late.