Late last summer, I made an appointment at my ENT because I felt as if my left ear needed a blowout. I experience impacted cerumen from time to time, which is gross even to mention, but I figure we’re all adults here. I took a while to get the hang of it being one of my many periodic ailments. I used Debrox and other home remedies, but in the end, the time it took to get my hearing cleared up again just seemed interminable. When I learned that an ENT could restore my hearing to normal in just a few minutes, I never looked back. In August 2022, I felt the familiar muffled sensation in my left ear and thought it was time to pay her a visit.
It should be noted that there’s always something going on in my head. For me, stress can manifest itself in spasms and dysfunction of the TMJ muscles. This has led me to a fair number of likely unnecessary root canals, misdiagnosed ear infections, tinnitus, and now, drastic hearing loss.
I was recording a bass part for a demo of a new song when I thought I was experiencing phase cancellation of some kind. Was it the new Scarlett interface? Bass was panned dead center, but it was right channel heavy. There was some ethereal weakness to it on the left. It felt like a hole had appeared in the program material and that I was being sucked into it. I tried another interface, but the problem remained. The VU meters were fine. Right down the middle. What was going on here? I must need a blowout, I thought.
When I arrived at the ENT and requested the procedure, she told me that my ears were clear. Uh oh. She sent me to the in-house audiologist for a hearing test. They put me in the sound booth and talked to me through headphones from the other side of the glass. In my left fist, I gripped a cylindrical handle of some sort with a button at the top for your thumb. I was supposed to press the button as soon as I heard the distant test tones they played for me in the cans. Now, I already knew that I had some noise-induced hearing loss. I have a dip at 3-4k. I found that out years ago. Probably from years of standing next to drummers. It was after that discovery that I had the audiologist make special ear plugs in the shape of my ear canals. They make these for musicians. They have a variable filter that you mount on them. With these, the music is turned down 5-10 dB, but you lose none of the frequencies that you would by stuffing those foam things hunters use in your ears. I didn’t want to lose any more hearing. I was able to mix New Aquarius without any difficulty stemming from my hearing.
This bass thing was something different, not a subtle loss at all. When the ordeal with the hearing test was through, the audiologist explained that I had a 10dB loss at 250 Hz. Jesus. 250 Hz? I’m a bass player for chrissakes! 250 Hz is an audible fundamental frequency! Of course, I began to panic, as I am wont to do. I stared at the page they printed for me with the frequency response curve of my ear as I waited for the ENT in the examination room to which I had been returned. It said that the loss qualified as mild hearing loss. I was standing on my head trying desperately to hear bass in my studio monitors and switching interfaces looking for phase problems, but they called it a mild loss. What the hell was a severe loss?
Like so many times before, the ENT agreed that my difficulty could be musculoskeletal in nature. So many of my ailments are, as my body continues to rebel against my life choices and look for any way it can find to express the negative energy. (That’s another story.) I was told to follow up in six months at which time they would test my hearing again. I left the office wondering how I could possibly manage this. Brian Wilson. Paul Stanley. Who else was deaf in one ear? I obsessed. During the weeks that followed, I began walking miles and miles a day, just trying to break the hold that stress had on my jaw muscles. Relieve the stress, and the muscles might let go and stop turning my ear canal into a high-pass filter. Every day, I played the demo I was working on with the bass part I couldn’t hear, just hoping that eventually, it would be audible on the left. Months later, that frequency did return. It was glorious to be able to hear 250Hz again. I felt that as a musician and recording engineer, I had been given a stay of execution.
I go back for my follow up hearing test this week. TMJ dysfunction has a hold on me still, but all it’s causing is dental pain. I can still hear. When the bass problem first happened, I told a musician friend of mine about it. He said not being able to hear on the left was “unacceptable.” Interesting word. He was the one who told me to start walking myself to exhaustion to relieve the stress, which may have worked, but the word stuck with me. Unacceptable. I was completely at the mercy of my body’s whim and I couldn’t hear well enough for music production. Hell, I couldn’t even play a record. There were frequencies missing. I had balance issues, vertigo. I didn’t feel the least bit strong enough to declare it “unacceptable.” I couldn’t iron man my way through this. The iron man mentality is what brought me to that state in the first place. This wasn’t something I could ignore or force myself out of. You can’t apply equalizers for holes in your hearing. It doesn’t work like that.
Though I was afraid that I would in fact be called upon by the Fates to accept my hearing loss, instead, I clung to a word that another ENT used years ago when I was first chasing down the symptoms of TMJ-related pain: time. She told me that sometimes, it just takes time for these things calm down. She was right, and it’s a damn good thing, because some other doctor had my head scanned and thought he saw a node in my sinus. He was wrong, but he sent me to the ENT that set that ridiculous notion aside and told me about the healing power of time. I still have more to learn about managing emotions. I can state with absolute certainty that if you don’t wrangle them properly, they can cause all kinds of illness, even temporary hearing loss.