Every six months or so, I unfold a paperclip, slide one looped end into my ear canal, and scoop out a soft-serve, fragrant, orange-brown globule of wax.
(I’ve placed a paragraph break here as I presume you’ll take a few moments to visualize this, ponder it, and then vomit in a nearby sink or potted plant.)
My excessive earwax production is the third most repulsive thing about my body. The nail bed on my right big toe is so freakish that I will refrain from further mentioning it. The skin flap extruding beneath my left armpit is like another being that lives with me symbiotically.
But my earwax debilitates my everyday existence in a manner that these other grotesqueries do not. Allowed to mushroom unchecked, my wax achieves a hefty mass, eventually solidifying into a sort of goopy ear pudding that blocks my canals and deadens my hearing. It squishes around within its lair in a most disconcerting way whenever I move my jaw. It occasionally doles out a little bead of itself, like the tar plops in the famous University of Queensland pitch drop experiment, tumbling from the porch of my ear upon whatever unlucky surface lies below.
I don’t know why I manufacture so much earwax. Perhaps you will blame my lifestyle or diet. Sure, maybe. I tend to think it’s just genetic. We’re out there, we earwax machines. I’ve met us. We are an embarrassed, ashamed, semi-deaf clan.
In most people, earwax regulates itself, flaking out naturally. But for those of us with earwax overdrive, the natural process can’t keep up. Once the earwax pools into a substantial piece of matter, it’s not going anywhere without a shove.
My troubles started when I was a teen. For the first time, I found that wax had completely blocked my ear canal and made it difficult to hear. I visited a doctor. He used a giant water syringe to blast the wax out—like a firehose dislodging gunk from the bottom of a wastebasket. For a few days, I exulted in auditory glee. I think my brain had been compensating for the deadened hearing and now it felt as though I was listening to the world anew, every detail of sound magnified and heightened.
It didn’t last. Just a few months later, the wax was winning again. I went back to the doctor. He performed the same routine. And then again, a few months later. It became clear I would spend my whole life making annoying, tri-annual visits to an ENT. Unless, of course, I could find my own remedy.
Everything I read said Q-Tips were terrible—they just push the wax farther in, and compact it. Everybody halfway reputable agrees that ear candling is a quack cure, more likely to coat your ear canals in parrafin, or burn a hole in them, then it is to solve your wax problem. I did try those Debrox drops that promise to soften your wax so it drips out more easily. These drops had zero effect on my mass of orange ore.
I can’t recall any more if I spotted the technique somewhere on the internet. Or if a fellow wax sufferer suggested it. Or if I simply devised the method myself. But at some point I tried the paperclip.
First, I unbent it so it had two curved ends. Then, gripping one of those ends, I carefully used the other to explore the deepest recesses of my ear. When I (also very carefully) withdrew the clip, there was a jiggling mass of wax clinging to the metal. And, rejoice, my ear was suddenly unblocked and my hearing unimpeded.
I have done this same thing every few months since then, whenever my wax builds to an intolerable thickness. I perform the ritual in privacy, for I am certain that witnessing it would prevent most ordinary people from continuing to associate with me. I should note that the process includes a disquieting interlude in which I wipe the wax off the end of paperclip with a tissue, so that I may reinsert the clip into my ear for a second pass to excavate all remaining sludge.
Any licensed Ear/Nose/Throat doctor will tell you it is foolish to stick things in your ear. Okay, if you insist, here’s a quote from one: “When I read about you putting a paperclip in your ear,” says Dr. Steven Alexander in an email reply to an inquiry about my method, “I visibly winced and thought, ‘Please don't do that.’ The skin of the ear canal is delicate. Even rubbing it with a Q-tip is enough to cause micro-abrasions (and not-so-micro-abrasions, a.k.a. lacerations) that can subsequently become infected. And ear canal infections are often grown-adult-in-tears PAINFUL. Which is the main risk of trying to clean your own ears with various implements.”
Stipulated. It’s pretty dumb to do what I do. But I’ve been doing it for more than a decade now and have never had an ear infection. My much larger worry is that I might do physical damage to my eardrum or something, but Dr. Alexander says this is less common: “Sure, you can also damage your eardrum or (extremely rarely, your ear bones), but that's not really the problem we see from people cleaning their own ears.”
In fact, Dr. Alexander seems to concede that my method isn’t totally insane: “What you're doing is actually probably more effective than Q-tips because you're emulating a common instrument ENTs use—a looped curette, which gets behind the wax and pulls it forward. You have the potential to slip the curve of the paperclip through and behind some of the wax, and when you pull forward you may get lucky and create a small hole that you're able to hear through. The risk of infection, though, is still there, and you're leaving most of the wax in place and potentially packing some of it in harder such that when someone does eventually need to remove it for you, it's unpleasant for both of you.”
Again, stipulated. I’m an idiot. But I’ve gotten “lucky,” in terms of removing wax and restoring my hearing and not doing any damage, every single time for ten years running. I’ve stopped needing to visit a doctor all the time. Paperclips are cheap. My process takes just a couple of minutes every few months.
I do not recommend this solution to you. Of course I don’t! That would open up Slate to an avalanche of lawsuits from readers with blood streaming down the sides of their heads! No thanks!
But I wanted to unburden myself. I needed to tell someone that I do this. It was important for to me to assert, with conviction loud enough to be heard by even my wax-beset brethren: I stick a paperclip in my ear sometimes and then I pull it out covered in earwax. I may not be normal, but at least I can hear your cries of disgust.
Read more from Normal, Slate's pop-up blog about how you're supposed to do it.