Experience: I’m a musician who became allergic to music | Health

One night at home in Greystones, Ireland in 2003, aged 25, I was watching a movie and noticed that my left ear felt as if it had water in it. At first I didn’t think much of it. Then the feeling persisted and got worse every time I heard a loud noise.

I went to my GP, who said I had a small hole in my eardrum and prescribed antibiotics. The hole healed, but afterwards I began to find certain everyday noises painful – and both ears were affected.

This started to have an impact on my behaviour. On a train, I would sit as far as possible from the loudspeaker; in a cafe, I would distance myself from the coffee machines. I hated the sound of the pneumatic doors on buses. Noises at home triggered discomfort, too: plates clinking together, or the toilet being flushed. It was as if everything was turned up to maximum volume. To block out the noise, I started to wear earplugs in everyday situations. My GP didn’t seem to know what was wrong.

In 2004, I moved to London to pursue a music career, but my condition got worse. In the studio, trying to mix a record, I would be in pain. I became depressed about how this “allergy to sound” was affecting my efforts to become a professional musician. It made me anxious and hard to get along with. My partner had to tiptoe around me; if we had an argument we would have to whisper at each other.

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I sought help from the NHS, but was told there was a long wait to see the ear, nose and throat services (ENT). In the meantime, I turned to the internet and learned about a condition called hyperacusis, which seemed to be what I was suffering from. It involves increased sensitivity to sounds that most people are able to tolerate.

When my ENT appointment came round 18 months later, it felt like the last chance saloon for my hearing. I wasn’t expecting much, but was pleased to finally get a diagnosis – the consultant confirmed I was suffering from hyperacusis. But instead of more hearing tests or strong anti-anxiety drugs – the two options I’d previously been offered by healthcare professionals – he suggested hearing therapy at the Royal London hospital.

Therapy involved counselling sessions, in which my emotional issues as well as my hearing condition were discussed. The therapist helped me understand that my fear of noise was a problem: the more I felt afraid of noise, the more it was likely to hurt me. Using earplugs is often one of the worst things a hyperacusis sufferer can do, because when the plugs are taken out, the brain perceives sounds to be louder than they are. This can reinforce the hypersensitivity to noise, and the fear of it.

For some people, there is a link between hyperacusis and anxiety. I suffered badly from anxiety as a kid and I think this was an underlying cause. As career opportunities opened up, I became so worked up about making it in music that my anxiety started to revolve around my hearing. Once the therapist explained there wasn’t anything physically wrong with my ears, and that it was a case of dealing with my anxiety, I felt reassured.

It didn’t take long for my hearing to get back to normal – just a few counselling sessions. You don’t often encounter quick fixes, especially not quick psychological ones, but this reassurance felt like a lightbulb moment. The emotional cost of hyperacusis had been huge. I had nearly given up on music and my girlfriend, and it was a such a relief to be able to experience everyday life in a more normal way again.

Hearing therapy showed I had a real problem with irrational fear. I had a lot of obsessive and frightening thoughts as a young person and, weirdly, my hearing condition helped me contextualise them and get me out of the emotional hole I was in.

I still make music now with my band, Five Grand Stereo, and my girlfriend is now my wife. I’m thankful to the NHS – I could have lost both without its help.

As told to Daniel Dylan Wray

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