I had just come off stage, after drumming with soul and jazz legend Roy Ayers at Ronnie Scott‘s Jazz Club, when my music career – and life – changed forever.
I could instantly tell something was terribly wrong with my left ear, as it sounded squelchy and sponge-like. I still went through the post-gig whoops of ‘congratulations!’ in the dressing room, but it all felt like I was giving and receiving praise while being out of my body.
When I came back down from my out-of-body experience, I realised I was in a state of living hell. I’d become deaf in one ear – however, the silence I experienced from the outside world, was constantly broken by sounds and noises from within my ear.
It was like being alone on a lighthouse in the middle of the cold, wintry ocean, with bells striking a clock tower, waves crashing around you, and the wind howling uncontrollably.
I was only 22, but had been drumming since I was 11 and playing professionally since the age of 14 – growing up on the Isle of Wight, I began my music career as a teenager in the local hotels and holiday camps.
At 18, I joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. I toured and recorded with many amazing artists and musicians including Nigel Kennedy, Cher and The Lighthouse Family.
So, as soon as I heard the ringing in my ear, backstage at Ronnie Scott’s, I knew straight away that it was going to have a massive impact on my life.
I couldn’t let this break me, but I was petrified for my future.
My ear damage meant I had to temporarily retire. As well as the ringing, I began to struggle with my balance. The left side of my body felt impaired and out of sync. As the months went by, I also developed a condition called hyperacusis: a hyper-sensitivity to sound, making me perceive sound as threatening.
It left me feeling very alone and isolated from loved ones, and also from myself. Exhaustion, fear and the uncomfortable realisation that I was disabled dragged me further and further into despair.
To survive, I had to learn coping techniques to get myself back to a state of equilibrium.
By eventually making myself go walking around town, the woods and the beach at night, I was slowly able to make sense and reconnect with my auditory world again
After seeing my GP, who had no real help or advice for me, I waited eight months to get an appointment with an ENT specialist at the local hospital. When I spoke with the surgeon, he asked me one question: ‘Do you need to hear the music when you are playing your instrument?’ I almost couldn’t reply.
‘Of course’, I said.
‘In that case you will have to stop playing,’ the doctor replied.
For me, that was the turning point. Although there was so much wrong with the consultant’s conclusions, it gave me the strength to get to the bottom of this by myself, as I could see that I wasn’t going to get any help to return to music.
Apart from his conclusion that I’d never play music again, the information I received from meeting the specialist gave me the knowledge I needed to get a positive handle on my problem.
Through a programme of tinnitus retraining therapy, which aims to teach the brain to ignore the ringing sound, I learned how to cope with the constant noise in my ear on a conscious and subconscious level. This was my first step towards moving on.
I also spent months helping my brain adjust to the presence of tinnitus, which was hard because my fear of sounds was so difficult to overcome.
By eventually making myself go walking around town, the woods and the beach at night, I was slowly able to make sense and reconnect with my auditory world again. Traffic sounded therapeutic from a distance (not when it was right in my face), and footsteps on the beach and gravel helped mask a couple of my tinnitus frequencies.
Walking close to the ocean was incredibly therapeutic. Allowing my mind to bathe in natural and unnatural auditory environments was key to the habituation process.
For someone with this condition, it can be excruciating just going outside the front door. I had to wear strong earplugs as soon as I left my house, for fear of normal everyday sounds cutting into me. Tasks like driving and cooking were impossible without something to muffle the sound.
Even so, I was determined to carry on with my career in music. In the studio, I’d wear ear plugs and industrial ear defenders. I felt that every time I approached the drum set I was going into the Gladiators’ arena to fight lions. But once I’d made it through the day, it felt like I was surviving. These achievements helped me to recover.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve proved the surgeon wrong and managed to continue working in music. I teach drums, record drums, and produce music for many varied artists. I even have a Grammy nomination for playing on an R&B album.
I’m now committed to raising tinnitus awareness, because many people don’t realise how at risk they are.
It’s not only musicians like me who could get tinnitus or lose their hearing. For example, people in cities with headphones turned up to produce a louder volume than usual to compete with overly excessive transportation noise are also at risk. Spinning classes, Zumba, aerobics and all kinds of exercise classes also play music at a dangerously loud level.
Having tinnitus also led me to create sound therapy recordings, which blend the noise frequencies that sufferers can hear in their ears into music, field recordings and soundscapes, in order to nullify them.
Then, in 2017, I decided to create an app called the T-Minus Tinnitus Wellness, to give users a tool to help manage their tinnitus and other complications, such as hyperacusis, sleep deprivation and anxiety. The extensive music library on the app contains an environmental series, which is designed to soften the senses and bring the user back into the natural world of sound. Then there’s the industrial series, which is designed to enable the user to acclimatise themselves to more diverse and challenging tones.
In the early days of my hyperacusis I didn’t dream of getting onto a plane or train for fear of the noise worsening my condition. That’s why I want to help people get used to those sounds once more.
Creating the music for this project has been an amazing experience, and at times it’s also been incredibly scary, dark and emotional for me. It has opened up very deep wounds and sensitivities surrounding my own tinnitus. This involved looking back at the state of mind I was in, and reinvestigating old feelings.
I would advise every tinnitus sufferer to try sound therapy. And eventually, when the tinnitus begins to dissipate I would encourage them to take that train, boat, or plane, and go on that holiday.
It might feel terrifying, but you can still take control of this, and navigate your own individual path to wellness.
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