"The Buzz"

An Update on My Journey With Tinnitus

By Ian Punnett

As chronic suffering goes, there are afflictions worse than tinnitus. Meaning no disrespect to my sisters and brothers of the buzz, but Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer are amongst the chronic conditions that should keep our challenging and burdensome neurological condition in some perspective. That having been said, chronic tinnitus deserves more respect than it gets.The public has a lot to learn about tinnitus. So still do many tinnitus sufferers like me.

It’s been a year since I wrote the 2012 cover piece for Tinnitus Today. Twelve months later, this is what I now know.

Work and lifestyle choices do make the condition worse; while I cannot make my tinnitus better, it is possible to be better with my tinnitus. So, following the advice from some of the country’s best specialists, I found peace in ending my career as a full-time talk radio host in order to focus on mastering Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), getting more sleep and living healthier. It just no longer made sense to spend hours every weekday morning revving up my tinnitus with aggravating audio exposure only to pay for it the rest of the day.

In doing so, I did not follow the advice of one doctor as much as I just followed the doctor himself. A well known surgeon had reached out to me last spring and explained how his intrusive, focus-depriving tinnitus had forced him out of the operating room. Eventually he resumed practicing medicine although, due to tinnitus fluctuations, he refuses to perform surgery. If he could give up operating and still be happy could I make the leap of faith and give up broadcasting?

As it turns out, giving up a satisfying broadcasting career not only required a leap of faith but also a good therapist. Through counseling, I came to understand that focusing on a brighter future is the fastest way to fade the past. It’s been a few months now since I hung up my headphones and even though I once found it hard to imagine giving up the fun of daily radio, now I can’t imagine going back to the daily discomfort.

Likewise, if tinnitus is forcing you to reconsider the direction of your career, look for a professional who can guide you to whatever that new thing is and then start taking practical steps to get there. In my experience, doing the legwork necessary to create a path to what tomorrow looks like can help you land on your two feet too.

When it came to my new future in particular, after consulting with dozens of people, nothing seemed like a better fit than pursuing a Ph.D. in mass communications. Planning for the applications to grad school, however, meant preparing for the Graduate Records Examinations (GRE), the national standardized post-graduate studies as run by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The stress of GRE-prep was soon to make my tinnitus seem like a violin quartet and expose a real problem for tinnitus sufferers.

For many, stress and tinnitus go together like a cat and a tail. In my case, mental stress always increases the intensity of the tinnitus and the increased tinnitus volume just stresses me out. The tinnitus treadmill can be a concentration killer and, unfortunately, a great score on a timed comprehensive test like the GRE depends on sustained concentration. Even during prolonged study sessions, my tinnitus would spike until I could not go on any further.

A tutor I hired to rejuvenate my dusty 1970s math skills recommended that I circumvent test-related tinnitus stress by requesting a disability accommodation for extra time. The more I investigated that possibility, the more I learned that extra time or “untimed” tests are common for a variety of disabilities and challenges.

Unfortunately, I also learned that tinnitus is not one of them. Despite following ETS’s protocol for establishing the need for extra time – a formal doctor’s request, clinical reports, their forms in detail – my accommodation request was denied and I was only granted “extra break time.” ETS encouraged an appeal but my appeal was denied on the following grounds:

A link must be established between each requested accommodation and the individual’s current functional limitations that are pertinent to the testing situation. Clinicians and qualified professionals should be highly specific with the disability-driven rationale for the requested accommodation(s).

I was told that the doctor at ETS that denied my accommodation had the option of calling my doctors for more specifics but chose not to. During subsequent phone conversations and email exchanges, a representative for the overruling officials of ETS insisted that the testing service understood tinnitus-related problems completely. (I am left wondering why if ETS understands chronic, intrusive, focus-depriving tinnitus like it says it does, why I would have to prove anything at all?)

But learn from my mistake. If you are contemplating a career change that requires the GRE – or if you are a military veteran or the parent of a high schooler preparing for other standardized admission tests – and you believe extra time would help you manage distracting stress-related tinnitus, remember that you are entitled to a time accommodation. Just remember the importance of spoon-feeding ETS about tinnitus. Make sure your accommodation request is so specific that even the people who create the college tests can put “2 + 2” together.

Ian Punnett is the author of How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God available in bookstores and nationwide online from Random House/Harmony Books on April 28th. In addition, you can follow him on Twitter @deaconpunnett and he can be heard once a month nationwide on Coast to Coast AM. He was our cover feature in the Spring 2012 issue of Tinnitus Today and will continue this column, “The Buzz,” as a regular feature in each issue. You can read his original article from the Spring 2012 issue of Tinnitus Today here.