Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Compulsive ear popping


Some people can voluntarily open the Eustachian tubes in their ears.  This causes a clicking or popping sound.   Those who can’t do this suffer from ear pressure on aeroplanes but those who can do it may suffer from something else, especially if they also have OCD and perhaps even more so if they suffered from chronic ear infections throughout childhood.  Why?  Because many cases of Tourette’s tics and OCD are triggered or made worse by the same Strep virus which causes upper respiratory tract infections; the ears, nose, throat, lungs.

Now some people with OCD become caught in involuntary compulsive loops to check and recheck, others to wash and rewash.  My OCD had a blowout when I was about 9.  I already had tics since age 2.  By my OCD manifested in compulsive checking but more severely in compulsions to repeat patterns, to create exact rhythmic repetitions and balance and pairing, until things were indistinguishably ‘same’.

Now imagine this in a child with chronic ear, nose, throat, lung infections who is struggling with gunk that pressures the Eustachian tubes in the ears, blocking them, and creating persistently uneven pressure in one to the other.  In me the glue ear and infections and meaning deafness drove me balmy enough but on top of that this compulsion to pop and repop and repop my ears lead to strained jaw and neck muscles, impaired breathing, lack of oxygen and ultimately extreme distress and depression.

At first it was just perplexing.  What was this clicking, this popping in my ears.  I could even do it to tunes.  But then it took control of me, building from a novelty to a compulsion, to something I was compelled to do 20%, 30% finally sometimes 80% of my waking day.  Try concentrating when you are constantly compelled to rebalance the pressure in your ears with this popping strategy.  Try just getting on with it. Compulsive ear popping is an insidious tic or OCD compulsion because the environment can’t see when its happening so can’t help the person divert.

Anyway, I had such a holiday from this hellish compulsion, especially since a Haemophilus infection and 4 months of antibiotics ate much of my Strep, giving me a great holiday from co-morbids.  But after all the nose and ear inflammation, the ear popping compulsion has returned to haunt me.  First 20% of my day, then sometimes 80% then down again.

Some days good, some bad.  Today it is giving me hassle.  But I remember one of the worst things in late childhood was I couldn’t communicate it so I kept hitting myself in the ears and shaking my head.  What of all the kids with this who can’t explain what they’re experiencing.

Once I could communicate in sentences with some fluency by age 11-13 one of the first things I asked was ‘my ears are clicking’.  Nobody understood me, but in those days we had a tape recorder and mic so I grabbed the mic, stuck it to my ear and clicked away.  My aunty was well amused and perplexed.  She had me do it again this time with my mouth open.  I remember she declared, ‘it really is coming from her ears’.

Still, it took me until the age of 46 to know exactly what was happening.  I had the voluntary ability to open my Eustachian tubes in my ears, to pop my ears, and my OCD had taken that and played havoc with it, making something truly innocuous, even helpful, into a form of torture.  Hopefully, when I lay off the bananas (they raise Dopamine which contributes to tics and OCD) and maybe take some Taurine (which is known to reduce OCD) this annoying flea will get off my back.

Donna Williams, Dip Ed, BA Hons.
Author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter.
Autism consultant and public speaker.