April – May 16: Attempts at normality
Tinnitus Richter scale: constant roaring 8.5-9 depending on the level of movement. A window shattering high pitched piercing sound forces me to sit with a finger in my ear and hold back the tears whenever I’m in a room with two people talking.
After three months of living in solitary confinement I have a desperate need to do normal things like leave the house, go to work and see friends.
These attempts at normality are driven by pride, defiance and obligation rather than the physical ability to function in the outside world. Unsurprisingly they all end in failure.
Leaving the house
I can now walk unaided and, like a caged animal, I want to bolt out into the world. But life beyond my flat is so noisy – where can I actually bolt to?
The streets are too treacherous. Buses zoom past, cars blare out music and people stand around with buggies and chat on their phones.
I attempt going back to my favourite café and even have a pub lunch with my brother. But it’s no good: there are too many waiters moving cutlery and too many people wanting coffee with frothed milk. Coffee machines used to be a symbol of joy but now they’re the enemy; their excruciating noise inflicts unbearable pain and I have panic attacks at the thought of being near them.
There must be a solution.
I try wearing an earplug but it traps the tinnitus’s high pitched screams inside my head, increasing both volume and intensity. Wearing an earplug makes my eyeballs roll back inside my head and it feels like my skull will explode from the trapped pressure.
Reading in the woods
The Parkland Walk turns out to be my saviour. It’s a disused railway track which has been turned into a nature reserve. My flat backs onto it and I can get to Highgate Woods and Finsbury Park without the encountering noise from the street.
My walking has improved but my arms, legs and head have lost their co-ordination. I must resemble a Thunderbird puppet as I pace up and down the Parkland Walk like a demented nutter.
I read two novels sitting in the woods, an achievement which fills me with pride, but I often get stranded there as my legs turn to jelly. Pride stops me getting a taxi home. Instead I sit on the park bench, getting cold as the sun goes down, and wait defiantly for the energy to walk home.
Return to work
I start a phased return to work in mid-April and the decision is driven yet again by the flawed logic of an ill person. If I can walk 2km to Highgate Woods and I read a couple of novels then surely I can also read a policy briefing and send some emails. Right….?
But I also want to feel normal and I’m ashamed of being off sick for so long; I don’t want my colleagues put under the additional pressure of covering my workload.
I start by working from home and I’m able to fly through simple, administrative tasks but anything which requires a brain is completely flummoxing. I write half an email and I’m out of breath and have to retreat to bed or sit calmly doing embroidery. How can writing an email make me physically out of breath?
My first day in the office is an unmitigated failure. My office is a massive, echoey, open plan building and it makes me realise the full extent of my hearing loss.
My colleagues’ voices sound muffled and distant. It feels like there’s a glass wall separating me from them and there are a million Disney birds flying around, pecking at my heads and signing a chorus of deafening songs. I stare cross eyed at my colleagues as I try and decipher what they’re saying over the sound of the bird song and the hearing loss.
The office is my second home, I’ve worked there for six years and it represents normal. But I can’t do it. There are just too many sounds which trigger the tinnitus – phones, printers, Dyson hand dryers, air con units and a constant hum of people talking.
After my first day in the office I burst into tears on my manager and it’s agreed that I’ll continue to work from home and only come into the office for meetings. I take a pay cut and go down to a four day week.
My manager and I thought these adjustments would only be needed for a couple of months and then I’d be back full time in the office. Little did we know they would be in place for the rest of the year.
I spend April and May trying to slot back into my old life but the outside world proves too noisy and I retreat back to my Rapunzel tower feeling rejected and defeated.