How tinnitus drove Northern Ireland musician Isobel Anderson to brink of suicide
Singer-songwriter Isobel Anderson tells Lee Henry how tinnitus halted her career in music and caused a physical and mental breakdown — and what helped her come back from the brink
It's a condition that affects one in five people in the UK, with 21% of adults suffering from ringing in the ears, a persistent buzzing sound or some other form of intrusive noise that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once. It's not surprising that tinnitus is an ailment most common among musicians.
Famous artists who suffer with tinnitus include The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin and The Voice judge Will.i.am, to name but a few. Writing, recording and playing music in rehearsal rooms, studio spaces and arenas around the world, often through sound systems that can generate 100 decibels and more, means that tinnitus is a consequence of the job that all musicians fear and many are forced to live with.
Isobel Anderson can attest to that. The 32-year-old singer-songwriter, who originally hails from East Sussex but has been living and working in Belfast for some years, developed tinnitus in 2011 during the recording of her second studio album, Dark Path.
"We all have these sounds in our internal bodies," she explains. "They are electrical signals and we can't hear them. But for various reasons, including but not exclusively related to hearing loss, these sounds that are usually subconscious can become conscious in the brain, which results in tinnitus. That's what happened to me.
"One day, I noticed that my right ear had suddenly became blocked because of a build-up of wax. I then developed an ear infection which quickly led to tinnitus.
"My hearing was cut off entirely in one ear and it stayed even after the wax had been removed and the infection was gone. As a musician, it was devastating."
The impact on Isobel's personal and professional life was immediate and calamitous.
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"I had to cancel all my gigs, including those booked as part of my artist residency at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. I was emotionally all over the place - hopeless, extremely anxious, lacking concentration, experiencing memory loss and incredibly bad headaches," she explains.
"The sound was constantly there, loud, abrasive and perpetual. I found places with more than two people talking uncomfortable to be in because it almost physically hurt. It freaked me out. Suddenly I couldn't do things that I took for granted, like having a cup of tea with my housemates. I wasn't able to sleep at all for weeks at a time and I became suicidal within about a month of its onset. I had a physical and mental breakdown."
Recently, Isobel appeared on Channel 5 News to talk about her experience and draw attention to Tinnitus Awareness Week. In the interview, she described hearing "cluster sounds", as if someone was holding something to her ear. But she admits that before developing tinnitus herself, she had a limited knowledge or understanding of the condition.
"I had been told about it during a seminar that a fellow musician once gave when I was attending university, but it had really just painted a very bad picture of the condition," she says. "I came away thinking that there was little hope for recovery, if you did happen to develop tinnitus. But actually, it's far more common in the general population than you might think.
"I have just as many friends who aren't musicians who have it to some degree. Often people say, 'Oh, I don't have tinnitus, I just sometimes hear a tone every now and then'. But that's when I say, 'You have tinnitus. It just isn't as bothersome'. It's very like depression or anxiety in that it affects people in different ways and to different extents. There isn't really an objective gauge as to how bad your tinnitus is in comparison to someone else's."
With her career and, she admits, her life at stake, Isobel sought help in dealing with the constant tones that resulted in "incredible pressure" in her head. She was initially prescribed anti-anxiety drugs by her GP, which helped her to sleep and, as a result, to find a figurative foothold while the tones continued.
"But I think the biggest reason that I didn't end up taking my life was because the consultant I saw at the Royal Ulster Hospital, the brilliant Dr D'Arcy, and the hearing therapist there, Mary Mitchell, really understood what I was hearing, thinking and feeling, and made me feel supported and that there was, in fact, hope.
"This is crucial, as tinnitus is so isolating as it's such an internalised sensation. Many people, including GPs, either don't want to know or just don't understand what it's like to have it."
With the help of her consultant and hearing therapist, Isobel began to manage the condition. "I did many things which have led to my tinnitus being much quieter and less intrusive. These include meditation, hearing therapy, sound therapy, counselling and making sure that I'm protecting my hearing," she says.
"I know people also take into account diet, exercise, acupuncture, reflexology and other courses of action, and while all of these things can help individuals and are beneficial to your wellbeing in general, they didn't affect my tinnitus much."
Having built up a bank of knowledge on the subject, Isobel has since attempted to offer guidance and advice to other tinnitus sufferers. A video entitled 'How I Live With Tinnitus' has received thousands of views on her YouTube artist channel, and she has also talked to fellow musicians about how they can reduce the risk of developing it themselves.
Today, thankfully, her career is very much back on track. Since Dark Path, described by BBC Radio 2 presenter Jamie Cullum as a "great album", Isobel has released three further albums - 2013's In My Garden, 2017's Chalk/Flint and a remastered reissue of her debut, Cold Water Songs, in 2018 - with tinnitus having a minimal impact on her creative output.
"I used to find it hard when recording or mixing to work out if I was hearing my tinnitus or a studio sound sometimes on a mix, but now it rarely enters my mind," she says.
"I used to hear it all the time, but now I rarely hear it unless I'm in a really quiet room and actively listening for it. In this sense, you could say I've largely 'habituated' it, which is a term used to describe when someone has become unconscious of their tinnitus. It doesn't worry me."
That said, however, Isobel has been forced to give up playing guitar due to an undiagnosed chronic pain disorder that has troubled her for the past eight years. Many of the techniques that she has relied on to manage her tinnitus have also helped her deal with pain in her throat, pelvis, wrists and left shoulder, all of which have been affected to a greater or lesser extent.
"I seem to have some issue with regards to injury recovery, but the reason for the pain is still a bit of a mystery," she admits. "There are various conditions that people will throw out like fibromyalgia and ME which, although they are real and have similarities, don't really map on properly with my experience.
"I am thankfully talking comfortably again after an initial six months of huge discomfort with even normal speaking, but I am yet to get back to singing.
"Aside from not being allowed to play guitar, I can't use a computer keyboard or do any form of heavy lifting or repetitive movements. I can use my phone, but only for a certain amount of time before it hurts. This meant that I had to write my whole PhD thesis with voice recognition software, and the pelvic pain meant that I also had to do it standing up."
It has certainly been a tough few years for Isobel. However, she is philosophical about what she has lost and what she has gained. Currently promoting the video for her single _4284_, in collaboration with the Alliance for Choice campaign for reproductive rights in Northern Ireland, she's proud to be able to campaign for the things she believes in and to continue making a living through music.
"I would no doubt be better off financially and professionally if none of this had happened, but I have developed an awful lot of patience and humility, for which I am grateful," she says.
"And I have been lucky in other ways. For example, my millions of Spotify plays have stood in for disability benefit for about three years. Being unable to work felt awful.
"The development of tinnitus, through to all the struggles I've had with chronic pain, has undoubtedly meant that my path has unfolded dramatically differently to many of my peers. But I have learnt that life is far more wild and unpredictable than we often like to think, and overall, I'm glad about that."
Common condition that has many causes ... but which can be managed with the right advice and help
What do Chris Martin, Liam Gallagher and Bono all have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re three of the most successful musicians of the 21st century, they’ve also all been affected by tinnitus.
Characterised by hearing sounds in the ears or head which aren’t from an external source — such as ringing and buzzing, or even roaring, whooshing and clicking sounds — tinnitus can take a number of different forms.
“Tinnitus is a frustrating condition that produces a constant sound in one or both ears,” says Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at Healthspan (Healthspan.com).
“It’s not a disease or illness,” she adds, explaining that tinnitus is usually related to an underlying physical or psychological problem.
A common condition, Dr Brewer says: “Tinnitus can affect anyone, and it’s found in men and women equally. It may occasionally occur in children but most commonly affects those of between 40 and 70 years of age.” While some people might experience the same sound in both ears, others may hear one type of sound in one ear and a different sound in the other.
Dr Brewer explains it’s estimated that around 10% of the UK population frequently experience tinnitus, equating to around six million people. For around 5% of these, the problem is persistent and troublesome, affecting quality of life by preventing sleep, for instance.
Although the causes of tinnitus aren’t always fully understood, it can be triggered by many factors. Exposure to loud sounds, such as loud music or machinery, is one of the most common, as it can cause permanent damage to the cells of the cochlea.
“Hearing loss, poor ear hygiene, mental health issues and your brain being unable to control your reaction to specific sounds can all contribute to tinnitus too,” adds Brewer. “Other medical conditions and certain medications can also play a role.”
According to Brewer, a build-up of wax in the ear is the most easily remedied cause. Other health issues that cause tinnitus include a viral infection of the inner ear (or ‘labyrinthitis’) and Meniere’s disease, in which fluid pressure in the inner ear increases, which can also cause severe dizziness and nausea and a sudden reduction in hearing.
Brewer adds: “Over 200 different medicines are known to damage the ears and can cause tinnitus or problems with balance,” says Brewer. “These ototoxic drugs include high-dose aspirin, quinine, certain antibiotics and some cancer treatments, such as cisplatin and carboplatin.”
If you’re concerned that any medications you’re taking could be causing tinnitus, speak with your pharmacist and book in to see the doctor — they may be able to prescribe an alternative, or offer additional advice.
While many people experience occasional bouts of tinnitus, for some it can be an ongoing and significant problem. If this is the case, it’s important to get things checked out.
If a build-up of wax is ruled out, an audiology examination may be recommended, particularly if the tinnitus is only on one side, pulses in time with your heart rate, is associated with hearing loss or difficulties, or has persisted for six months or longer.
Tinnitus might be something you have to live with, but that doesn’t mean the situation can’t still improve. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that helps change how you react to tinnitus. The NHS says tinnitus counselling can also aid you in learning more about your tinnitus and finding strategies to cope with it.
Brewer suggests trying a ginkgo extract, which she believes can improve blood flow to the inner ear, and possibly help tackle vertigo and tinnitus where symptoms are linked to abnormal circulation.
The general advice though is prevention, avoiding loud and ongoing noise where possible.