Don’t Be Afraid — My Weird Ear Saga
You’ve probably heard this 100 million times in your life already, but good old FDR was right:
“The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself.”
Let’s talk about ear infections. Hey wait come back!
I’m not talking about middle ear infections. That’s the kind you get when you’re a kid, where there’s usually a cold that goes with it, and it sucks, and then you get better…or if you don’t you take antibiotics.
No, I’m talking about outer ear infections. AKA Swimmer’s Ear. This is where your ear canal gets inflamed and itchy and it’s gross, and usually doctors prescribe a topical medication. It’s not life-threatening. But it’s pretty darn annoying.
I had a nasty one of these back in 2005, during a period of intense stress. Outer ear infections are weird self-perpetuating machines. They feel bad, and then you try and do something, and then by picking at it you make it worse.
The one I had in ’05 was a nasty business. My ear canal swelled mostly shut. They prescribed me hardcore pain killers that I didn’t take, and some ear drops. It felt like it would never get better. But it did in a few days that felt like a lifetime.
I was told never to use Q-tips again. Prior to that, for the first 21 years of my life, I had been a serial q-tip user without so much as a single ounce of impacted wax. Then one day BAM problem.
What changed? Stress.
I’m not saying that stress caused my ear infection, but it did nothing to help.
For the next few years I quit the q-tips, but I constantly thought about wax and my ears. I had a couple of ear wax plugs during this time…kind of strange, since again, I had q-tipped myself for 21 years without incident before that.
What was different? I was thinking about ear wax all the time.
I was put on a regimen of wax softening drops, and it all calmed down. Eventually, life was normal again and I forgot about wax. I no longer needed the drops.
During this time, I found the Ototek Loop, at at-home curette you can use to clean out ear wax.
The Ototek Loop became my new friend. Itchy ears? Ototek loop! Wax feelings? Ototek Loop! Feeling nervous about something? Calming power of Ototek Loop!
In 2008, new guidelines came out about ear wax removal, echoing what I had been told two years prior. Basically? Don’t ever do it, unless there’s a build up. You need the ear wax in there to prevent infections, lubricate the skin, and provide a layer of waterproofing.
Water can get in your ear and cause disruptions in its tiny ecosystem, causing infections. Sticking anything in there can cause infections.
Thinking about it too hard can cause infections.
Okay not really. But over the last few months, I’ve been on a weird new odyssey that has made that last one feel true.
After many many years of fun with the Ototek loop, I learned when to not overdue it. Sometimes my ears would get a little sore and I’d take a few days off. In November of last year, my right ear got sore…and then infected. It was again during a period of stress both in my personal work life and due to the completely insane winter that was just starting here in Oregon.
I got through that infection. I cleaned up my bad habits.
Then in March, I got another infection completely out of the blue, after doing nothing wrong. The only external factors? The nightmare winter that we had. And personal stress.
Now, it’s mid-April…and I’ve got another infection in my LEFT ear this time. It’s fungal, which is much less intense than the standard bacterial version. Further, no one in my area carried the prescription drops I need to treat the ear, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting a delivery for two days.
That does wonders for the brain.
But here’s the thing: Unlike bacterial infections, which are immediately obvious and painful, this fungal one lives on the outer edges of existence. Often they occur asymptomatically, and if I hadn’t had some weird itching that lead to me scratching the outside of my ear in my sleep the other night, I would never have gone in to get it checked out.
And I would never have found the tiny fungal mass. At least not until a checkup.
That’s the only instance where worrying has helped me in all this.
I have no pain. I have very occasional mild sensations/itching that go away after about a minute. And that’s it. Further, I’ve been assured that fungal infections move so slowly that it’s no big deal that my meds haven’t come in yet.
So what have I done for the last two days? Why, I’ve sat around worrying about all this stuff, destroying my whole daily routine, that’s what!
This was completely ridiculous, and did nothing to help me out at all. It didn’t make me feel better. It made me feel much worse.
Nothing about this is dangerous, unless I leave it untreated for months and months and my immune system doesn’t get it. It’s a mild annoyance at best, just like ear wax is. It doesn’t require any kind of special surgery, just a basic office visit. And yet, I let it tank my whole life for two days.
So today, I’m doing something different. I was told that over-ear headphones pose no immediate threat to my ears or their wax production, so I’m hanging out at the cafe wearing my giant DT770’s today and writing this very article. I feel much better, even though my meds still haven’t come in as of this writing.
And I’m going to be just fine.
Don’t make mountains out of molehills. Don’t worry about stuff! Find your support group in life, and remember to actually rely on them instead of living inside of your head. If you have anxiety in general about nothing in particular, think of talking to a doctor about it. It never helps to stew inside your brain. Never. Action is always better. And it provides immediate relief.
I lived decades of ignorant bliss cleaning the shit out of my ears, and only when I start worrying about it do problems begin to creep in. I’m not a major swimmer. I’ve never damaged my ear drums. I don’t stick bobby pins in my ears. But I have learned much about the very real power of mental stress. It’s not a weird paranormal event. It’s a simple, concrete, chemical reaction. And I have so much empathy for my friends who have anxiety disorders. It’s a rough business for sure. But it’s not impossible.
There are so many ways to stop fear. You just have to pick one and try it out.
Insert weird pun about how “ear” is inside the word “fear” right here.