One Loud Night Too Many
By Daniel Fox
On the advice of friends who noticed I loved hogging the music at parties, I first took up DJing in late 2014 after moving to Washington, DC. I was 25. With the popular explosion of electronic music, festival culture, and companies producing simple, inexpensive DJ equipment, DJing today is an easily accessible pursuit, and I became one of its many acolytes. Soon after purchasing my own equipment, I found my mentors in the DC scene who schooled me in the technical and promotional skill sets needed to make the jump between playing in my own bedroom and playing in front of live audiences. With their help, the past four years have seen me, once a month or so, DJing at bars, clubs, weddings, and private events.
Though I’ve always thought of it more as a peripheral pursuit, the standard millennial “side hustle,” DJing has still managed to become a part of my life that carries a lot of weight. There’s an addiction to being behind the decks creating soundscapes, making people move, watching their reactions, and being in control of where you and your audience are headed next. There’s a constant tug—especially in the interim between events—to push your creative envelope, incorporate new sounds, reach new audiences, and get booked at different venues. In contrast to my day-to-day job, which isn’t always as colorful, DJing has provided me an outlet for accomplishment, engagement, and affiliation with a whole new subculture of club goers, promoters, fellow DJs, and others that make up “the scene.”
Despite my immersion in this community, I was only marginally aware of the risks associated with constantly being around loud music. My only wake-up call came in 2017 when I had persistent ear soreness for a few days following a gig. It wasn’t awful, but bad enough for me to ask in a DJ community Facebook group about wearing earplugs. I was motivated to ask, in tandem with the ear soreness, because of my perception that club-level noise could gradually cause me to lose my hearing—something I thought was the worst-case scenario. While two responses critically urged me to wear plugs, the majority of responses were fairly tame and blasé. Moreover, none mentioned the risk of tinnitus, a condition at the time I knew nothing about. When I learned that custom high-fidelity earplugs could cost up to $250, it only added to the perception that earplugs were an extra burden. Subsequently, when the aching subsided and eventually went away, I procrastinated over the next two years in purchasing plugs. That hesitance, however, caught up with me in February this year following the gig that left me with tinnitus.
I don’t think tinnitus is the result of one stupid mistake I made that night. Rather, I believe it resulted as a culmination of many bad DJ habits I developed, stemming from my lack of knowledge and respect for the risk of noise-induced ear damage. The venue was a small space and had a low-quality sound system, and yet, despite this, I left my listening ear exposed to the large speaker closely adjacent to the DJ booth. I turned the volume higher to accommodate for lower-quality songs, and as a result, I caught myself “redlining” (playing music loud enough that it pushes the color display on the mixer past green and yellow into the red, which degrades the quality of the sound). Moreover, whether DJing or not, I was going out several weekends a month to bars and clubs that played music at a high volume without wearing any ear protection. These were all habits that I knew to be poor but were boundaries that I didn’t mind crossing because I did not fully understand the damage I was doing to my ears. In other words, it didn’t happen overnight until it happened overnight.
The week following my gig, I noticed soreness in my ears, felt extremely sensitive to light, and soon began to notice a persistent high-pitched ringing of about 15 kHz in my left ear. Although I at first chalked this up to a bad hangover, as the week wore on and my symptoms persisted, I decided to visit an urgent care. It was there that I first heard of tinnitus, ringing in the ears, and was told that it would hopefully subside given more time to heal. After another week with the ringing still insufferable 24/7, I visited an ear, nose, and throat doctor, who confirmed the tinnitus and provided a little more detail. The consensus was that I’d suffered an acute auditory trauma and that the ringing and soreness were the result. Worse, the ringing, I was also told, could only go away on its own, over time, and possibly not at all.
After about a month of consistent ringing, my nervous system descended into a state of full-time anxiety. Although I’ve dealt with anxiety before, tinnitus has been uniquely constant, and inescapable, making it all the more challenging. I couldn’t focus on basic tasks for more than a few minutes at a time, often felt nauseous, experienced depth perception problems, dramatic fatigue, and tension headaches. I had to take time off from work and, at my worst, genuinely feared that I couldn’t possibly live with the ringing, precipitating thoughts of hurting myself. As an otherwise healthy and happy 30-year-old enjoying life in DC, tinnitus started to make my life feel desperately grim.
Four months later and I’m grateful to say that my nervous system has backed off from such a critical state and has given me a little room for relief. Certain coping mechanisms such as masking techniques, craniosacral massages, and cognitive behavioral therapy have helped me deal with tinnitus. However, I still have a long way to go and I would be lying if I didn’t admit to my ongoing battle with anger, frustration, fatigue, and, at times, depression. It’s difficult waking up every day feeling incapacitated by something so seemingly innocuous as a high-pitched noise in one ear.
Although I look back and recognize how I could have avoided tinnitus, I don’t dwell on what I could have or should have done differently because what’s done is done. There’s no way as of yet to cure tinnitus, so I have to learn to live with it. Nor do I find it constructive blaming myself or others. Rather, I recognize that, generally, despite the enormous popularity of high-volume nightlife, there’s a disproportionate lack of knowledge about tinnitus and accordingly a lack of respect for it as a very real risk. I do my best to serve as a cautionary tale by telling my story and urging music enthusiasts to take precautions by purchasing earplugs (even if it means shelling out a little cash), taking 5- to 10-minute breaks at concerts, and not standing directly under loud speakers. For DJs and promoters, I urge the same but also emphasize the seriousness of watching volume levels and the imperative of providing quality sound (even if it means letting go of that favorite bootleg). Tinnitus isn’t inevitable and can easily be avoided. It just requires taking the risk seriously and exercising the right amount of caution.