A Note to My Teenage Self: Protect Your Goddamn Hearing

You only get one pair of ears.

I did many stupid things as a teenager, but few were as stupid or unnecessary as the damage I did to my hearing. People warned me but I didn't listen, or maybe I didn't hear them over the noise that was blaring from my headphones. I'd blast MP3s directly into my eardrums so loudly the whole room could hear it, as if anyone cared about my taste in music. I went to shitty nightclubs and stuck my head into the subwoofers, the bass so heavy it made my skull vibrate. At noisy gigs and festivals I never bothered with earplugs. Who cared?

I remember once spending an afternoon in band practice, chugging detuned riffs for hours with our amps so high it's a wonder no neighbours complained. As we were packing up afterwards my bandmate said he’d gone deaf. I sympathised. Everything sounded muffled, as if there were fingers in my ears. It wore off by the evening and I thought little of it, but I should have heeded the warning.

Roll a heavy object across a lawn and you'll flatten the grass. Over time the blades will stand back up again, but the heavier they're pressed down and the more often, the harder they'll find it to recover. That's a rough analogy to what happens when you crush your ears' hair cells through repeated exposure to high volumes. Do you appreciate the sound of silence? Trust me: you'll miss it when it's gone.

The result of my misspent youth is that I have tinnitus - a high-pitched ringing in my ears that never fully goes away. I normally only notice it when the room is silent, but sometimes it springs up out of nowhere as if someone had twiddled the volume knob. Eventually it fades, but one day it might not. Whenever it shows up I fear that this time it’s here to stay.

It sounds a lot like this scene from Archer, although mine isn’t this loud:

It comes and goes. A couple of years ago it got so bad it was interfering with my ability to concentrate; I had to drown it out with white noise just to be able to read a book. My doctor gave me eardrops but told me there wasn't much he could do. I started avoiding noise as much as possible, which among other things wrecked my ability to enjoy music because I was too scared to listen to anything on headphones. Things slowly got better - I don't know if it was the eardrops - but they'll never be 100%, and I live in fear of a recurrence. My tinnitus is mild, but I've had enough to know that I really don't want more. Many on r/tinnitus say the condition has destroyed their lives, and I believe them.

My own life hasn't been destroyed, and I'm a victim of nothing except my own bad decisions. But hearing loss is generally a one-way street. To some degree it's inevitable with old age, but for God's sake, I'm only 30. If I'm going to be as deaf as my grandma one day then I don't want to reach that state any sooner than necessary.

So here's some advice to my teenage self: first of all, turn the volume down on your goddamn headphones. Not only does the tinny blare of your metal irritate everyone around you, but you're doing irreversible damage that you will regret. The maximum volume at which you should listen is the minimum volume at which you can hear, and take regular breaks so the figurative grass has a chance to recover.

Secondly, wear earplugs. Buy a decent pair from a music shop that reduces the volume without worsening the sound quality; they're not expensive. Gigs, clubs, bars, parties, whatever: if you're not sure whether to put them in, then you should. Few will notice you're wearing them, and if your friends are really bothered by your using earplugs then it's time to get better friends.

These days I even put earplugs in for long car journeys; I regret it if I don’t. I literally never leave the house without them, since they live in a tube on my keyring. Like condoms, they’re always better to have but not need than to need but not have.

Ha, who am I kidding? I did hear all that advice and more when I was 17, but it didn't help. Nothing sucks like the moment you realise the grown-ups were right. Don't make the same mistake I did.

Here’s to peace and quiet. 🥂


Image credit: Brett Jordan on Unsplash