Famous People Who Have Tinnitus
Second only to the shock of first encountering tinnitus in one's own head, the biggest surprise is finding out how many others have it. Look at a hundred people in a supermarket and about ten of them can be reckoned to have permanent sounds. Most will not be troubled, but one or two will be – even to the point of finding that the quality of their life is badly affected, maybe mining their careers. In addition, research has shown, for every hundred people able to visit a supermarket, there will be one person so devastated that he cannot perform such an everyday task as shopping.
A thorough, nationwide survey conducted in the 1980s revealed that one in ten of the adult population has permanent tinnitus. That gives a formidable total of more than four million in the UK. A smaller percentage of teenagers and children are similarly affected.
A breakdown of statistics shows the real extent and seriousness of it all. Of every 100 men and women with tinnitus, 25 find it moderately annoying, for 15 it is severely annoying, ten find their quality of life badly affected and five say their normal, everyday life is severely affected. About 200 adults experience the onset of tinnitus every day, but rather more than half of all those who have the condition find it only slightly annoying or are not unduly troubled by it.
The problem is worldwide. Where reliable surveys have been conducted, the one in ten figure has been equalled, or exceeded. In the United States the total has reached an estimated 50 million. The less reliable evidence of anecdotal history and individual doctor's assessments also suggests that the British percentages are present across the world.
Up to now, very little effort has been made to quantify the economic and social cost of tinnitus in a whole population. Until this is done, governments remain to be persuaded that resources can legitimately be diverted to relieve or cure the condition, not knowing what net financial savings, if any, would follow from successful research and treatment. One telling piece of evidence has come from the former West Germany. It has been found that at least 5 million people over sixteen cannot follow the career of their choice because of their noises.
With a history, however sketchy, of thousands of years, tinnitus has many famous and infamous figures among its victims. In modern times Adolf Hitler was probably the best known. He kept it a close secret, confiding only in a doctor who later told all. It is not certain when the noises started, but they were made much worse by the explosion of the bomb when some of Hitler's officers tried to assassinate him in 1944. (One could speculate that the intense day and night distraction indirectly contributed to the desperate decisions taken in the Berlin bunker as the Allies closed in on the city.)
Artists of all kinds have left the world vivid and dramatic descriptions. The Spanish painter, Goya, found it to be a source of real anguish and Vincent van Gogh's self-mutilation in cutting off his ear is believed to be an extreme attempt to find relief.
Thomas Hardy used a character in A Pair of Blue Eyes, William Worm, to describe the affliction: 'I've got such a noise in my head… 'this for all the world like people frying fish… sometimes 'tisn't only fish, but rashers of bacon and onions. Ay, I can hear the fat pop and fizz as natural as life.' The clergyman to whom he confided this was sympathetic enough, but confessed to being totally ignorant of the subject.
Mr Worm showed some courage in his words, as people in those days were often labelled insane or mentally deficient and in need of some kind of custody if they complained of invisible rackets in the head. Jonathan Swift puzzled readers by writing of "a thousand roaring oceans about my head' and in recent years Saiman Rushdie, in his novel Midnight's Children, speaks of "ringing bells of deafness'.
But it is musicians who have supplied the starkest descriptions for posterity. To find a reason for this, one has only to consider the effect loud and discordant sounds can have on people whose intellect is enveloped in the creation of melody and harmony.
The world knows Beethoven was deaf. A common image of him is sitting grumpily in a Viennese coffee house or at home in his ramshackle lodgings trying to converse with the assistance of an ear-trumpet.
It is virtually impossible to imagine what almost total deafness really meant to a genius writing music which changed mankind's view of life and the world. Think further and try to realise what terrible tinnitus meant to him.
For music lovers with tinnitus the house, now a small museum, in the Viennese suburb of Heiligenstadt where Beethoven wrote his famous Testament is a moving centre of pilgrimage. In 1802, at the age of thirty-two, he used the document (actually a letter to his family) to describe his shattering anguish and withdrawal from the social pleasures of his youth.
Though endowed with passionate and lively temperament and even fond of the distractions offered by society, I was soon obliged to seclude myself and live in solitude. My misfortune pains me doubly, in as much as it leads to my being misjudged, for there can be no relaxation in human society, no refined conversations, no mutual confidences. I must live quite alone and may creep into society only as often as sheer necessity demands. At the age of 28 I was obliged to become a philosopher.
The Heiligenstadt Testament, written while Beethoven was busy with the Second Symphony, stands today as a monumental affirmation of the human spirit and its defiance in the face of a medical condition scarcely more understood today than it was in the early part of the nineteenth century.
Nor was there anything to be done for Robert Schumann, whose deranged mental state was aggravated by tinnitus. No one will ever know how much it contributed to his unsettling illnesses, suicide attempts and early death.
In 1874, and at the height of his creative powers, the Czech composer Smetana wrote to a colleague that a 'cruel fate' had overtaken him. He told of 'buzzing and tingling in my ears as if I were standing in a huge waterfall'. Before his last days in a Prague lunatic asylum the composer revealed his awful state of mind:
That ringing in my head, that noise.., is worst of all, Deafness would be a relatively tolerable condition if only all was quiet in my head. However, almost continuous internal noises which sometimes increase to a thunderous crashing torture me greatly.
This inexplicable pandemonium is pierced by the shrieking of voices, from strident whistles to ghastly bawling, as though furies and demons were bearing down on me in a violent end … I begin to wonder what the end will be …
In the twentieth century tinnitus has continued to take its toll among both classical and pop musicians, with even more eoncertgoers forced to give up their music. Some performers, however, fight back successfully and overcome their handicap sufficiently to continue their careers. In the opera world one of the most successful recoveries has been made by the singer Benjamin Luxon, who thought he would have to retire when tinnitus replaced much of his hearing.
He now wears a hearing-aid as he treads the opera stage and recital platform, and encourages others too to fight back instead of despairing. Another type of singer, Barbra Streisand, shares Mr Luxon's resolve, but admits that strenuous public performances place an enormous strain on her, making her tinnitus much worse on occasions.
Ronald Reagan, when United States president, found his White House duties were made more taxing because of his troublesome sounds. Many other statesmen and politicians have deliberately kept quiet about what they but no one else can hear, perhaps for fear of diminishing their purposeful standing among the electorate and thereby being seen as not up to the task of leadership.
By and large they prefer not to talk about tinnitus, however long they have had it. Two exceptions in the House of Commons are the Liberal Democrat spokesman Robert Maclennan and the Labour MP Don Dixon; the latter blames a noisy ship-building yard, where he worked before entering Parliament, for his trouble, which he finds really bothers him after a long Commons debate. The Speaker's time-honoured call of 'Order! Order!' is never heeded inside his head.
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