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 an infection developed.
After two or three days of extreme pain, pressure and hearing loss, tinnitus started to emerge. I was hearing a hiss, much like the sea, or white noise, which was there all the time. Sometimes I heard tones. When it was very loud, these noises were so prominent that it was like I had a generator literally right up to my ear.
I struggled to get support from my GP who just said once the wax was cleared the tinnitus would go but it remained and within a few weeks I thought I was losing my mind.
At this point I would describe myself as having a complete breakdown, it was horrendous. I slept for barely more than an hour a night for the first two months because of the noise. The pressure was also causing me immense pain and I had to speak in whispers. I was desperate and confused and had absolutely no idea what to do to make things better. When the wax was removed I was in less pain but within a few days the tinnitus was back and as loud as ever.
Fear for the future
This all happened when I was in the first year of my PhD in Sound Arts at the Sonic Arts Research Centre. Going back after the first few weeks 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 also perform regularly and found it incredibly painful to sing as the pressure from the wax had aggravated all the nerves on the left hand side of my head.
The tinnitus did impact on a lot of my relationships as well. Those first couple of months 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, socialising with my friends. All these things massively aggravated it. I also found normal levels of sound incredibly oppressive and overwhelming.
Dealing with all this, made me feel seriously suicidal. I know this sounds dramatic but being kept up by this horrible sound was relentless and traumatic and it is made worse by the fact that no one else can hear it and people just do not understand what is happening. Tinnitus is so psychological, it feeds off your attention so the more you think about it the louder it gets.
I eventually went to see an ENT specialist at the Royal in Belfast called Dr D'Arcy who was brilliant and immediately recognised the state I was in. He referred me onto a hearing therapist called Mary Mitchell. I think together they went some way to saving my life as 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 from frightening and unwanted to something that was like any other part of my body.
Another source of help was the British Tinnitus Association, which 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 very important to see when you first have something that is so alien and isolating.
Now, my tinnitus is in control. I rarely think about it as it is much quieter. I do, however, wear hearing protection when I go to gigs as I don't want to risk making my tinnitus worse and, although I can now accept my tinnitus is just there, and part of who I am, I feel very strongly it that the condition as a whole needs to be talked about.
The British Tinnitus Association's Tea for Tinnitus campaign this month is doing just that - urging people to talk about the condition and, in turn, raise much needed funds.
For more information, visit www.teafortinnitus.co.uk. To listen to my latest album, CHALK / FLINT, visit www.isobelanderson.com