Helping Others Helps Me

By Anthony Mennella

In 1987, while doing electrical work at the World Trade Center in New York City, another trade group that installs hung ceilings was putting up ceiling rods for a suspended ceiling. The rods are fastened using a high-powered 38-caliber ceiling rod gun. Imagine six of these tradesmen shooting these guns eight hours a day; it was deafening and the beginning of my problems with tinnitus.

When I asked my foreman for hearing protection, he said it would be dangerous to use anything because I’d be unable to hear someone call out if something fell, which could leave me injured or dead.

A couple days later, when I got out of bed, one of my ears was ringing and I felt dizzy. I hoped it would pass, but when I got to my job site, I felt worse. I told my foreman I needed to leave to see a doctor.

Two hours later, I was sitting in an Urgent Care facility near my home. The doctor examined my ears and said everything looked fine. He then asked when and why the symptoms began. I told him about the job site that I was working on and how loud it was. He wrote a prescription and said I should see an ENT doctor if the ringing didn’t stop in a few days.

One week later, I was seen by an ENT doctor who, after doing a few tests, said my hearing was fine and that there was no ear infection. He then explained the bad news: I have tinnitus that was most likely noise-induced from the job site. He said, “You will just have to learn to live with it.” I felt so distressed hearing that. I blurted out, “Are you kidding me that I have to live with this ringing for the rest of my life?” He gave me a referral to see a neurologist and said he wished he could help me but couldn’t since there was no cure for tinnitus.

I was so distraught, wondering how I’d be able to work in the electrical industry — the only skilled trade I know — because construction jobs are very noisy places. I was out of work for two and a half weeks to give my ears a rest, but I had to get back to work. At the time, my daughter was preparing for college and I wanted to support her; I had to go back to work.

Looking back, the one smart thing I did was file an accident report early on to make sure that ear injury was documented as work related. It was helpful that my ENT doctor drew that conclusion. When I returned to work, I had a letter from my doctor specifying that I only be given light-duty work, reflecting the danger of ongoing vertigo that meant I should stay off ladders.

When I returned to the World Trade Center job site, my foreman put me in a quiet location assembling temporary light streamers for other floors. The vertigo eventually stopped, but the loud ringing in my ear continued.

After six months of loud ringing, I knew I had to adjust to it. I did a lot of research on how to deal with tinnitus. One of the first things I did was get custom-made earplugs from an audiologist to wear every day at work. The only time I took them out was when I was working in a quiet location, such as an office.

As time went by, I became outspoken about hearing protection, telling everyone to protect their ears. I made sure that the foreman had hearing protection available for workers on job sites. I suspect I was a thorn in their side because they just couldn’t imagine what I was hearing 24/7. And all tinnitus sufferers look normal. I didn’t have a cast or walk with a limp, so they had no clue what my tinnitus was like and how bothersome it could be.

I continued to search for ways to help myself cope better with tinnitus. One day I found the ATA’s magazine Tinnitus Today; I couldn’t wait to receive my first issue. It gave me hope that there was an organization supporting research to help find cures for tinnitus.

I also felt encouraged that one of the ATA’s founders, Dr. Jack Vernon, took calls on Fridays to answer questions about tinnitus. Finding the ATA was like seeing light at the end of a tunnel.

Unfortunately, in 1999, the ringing got louder in my left ear and started in my right. It was so bad, I had to stop working. I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore. I remember crying out to God for help because I couldn’t banish the thought that I’d be unable to endure living my life with tinnitus.

I reached out to the ATA for help and they told me about a support group in my area. I joined the group immediately and realized I was no longer alone. We shared stories about what helped us deal with tinnitus; we talked about masking sounds; we discussed articles from Tinnitus Today.

I started meditating while listening to CDs that I purchased though the ATA. I also learned tai chi to reduce my anxiety. I became a telephone support volunteer for the ATA, helping others struggling with tinnitus. I became a facilitator in my own tinnitus support group.

Today, I still have tinnitus in both ears, but I don’t give it the attention that it wants from me like I used to. I keep as busy as I can by doing research on my own to share with people at the support meetings. I am passionate about helping anyone with tinnitus and sharing about the tools that have helped me the last 32 years. I discovered that by helping others, I also thrive.

If you feel alone in the world with tinnitus, please find a support group where you can thrive. If you don’t have one, start one! People will come because no one wants to be alone with tinnitus.