I never thought I’d be so relieved to find out I had a disorder.
I never knew I had a condition other people shared, or that it had a name and was studied by professionals. I only knew, my whole life, that the sound of people chewing made me angry in a way I couldn’t explain.
Lip smacking. Chewing. Chomping. Those sounds don’t just irk me, they send me from 0 to 100 on the rage meter without any ramping up. In an instant, I transform from my gentle, mild-mannered self into the Hulk; I want to punch the person in the face who’s making the sound. I can’t concentrate on anything else except how much I NEED that sound to stop RIGHT NOW and how rude, shitty, and awful the person is who’s creating it. It’s pure fury.
When they finally do stop, I like them again. It releases as quickly as it came … until the person starts to chew again, and I feel myself seething once more.
Thanks to a new spate of research, I now know that what I have isn’t a personal quirk, it’s a disorder called misophonia. Misophonia wasn’t talked about much until 2011, and while it hasn’t yet entered the official books — the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — it will.
Misophonia is sometimes referred to as “selected sound sensitivity syndrome,” but it’s so much more than that. There are always sounds that make people wince, like nails on a chalkboard. But misophonia is different because: a. It has to do with normal, everyday sounds that don’t usually bother people; b. It makes those of us who suffer from it insane. Literally, misophonia means “hatred of sound,”, and for those of us who have it, it triggers a fight or flight response that gets out of control very quickly. There are people who have much worse cases than mine, who lose their ability to function in classrooms or workplaces, or have reactions they can’t control, like mimicking the sounds other people are making without realizing it. Compared to them, I have it easy.
But I can name every single person in my life who chews gum (which I think should be banned; those Singaporeans had it right with the caning) or chews with their mouth open, or gnaws on their fingernails, or makes little wet mouth sounds in between their sentences. My love for these people comes in direct conflict with my urge to — at best — run away screaming. At worst, I’m back to my punch-them-in-the-face scenario. In the middle, I want to scream at them, but the truth is, that journey from running away to wanting to kill them happens in about four seconds.
When I was a kid, my siblings thought my reaction to “The Noise” (as they dubbed it) was really funny. They’d make lip smacking sounds and watch me scream and cry and run out of the room. They’d encourage their friends to do it, just to see me go crazy. They couldn’t believe how extreme my reaction was, and how consistently it happened, every single time I heard those sounds.
Hilarious, isn’t it?
From misophonia.com, a website far too long in coming:
“Some insensitive people can be dismissive of the disorder and sufferers have reported being mocked and have had people purposefully make offending noises (at times exaggerating them as well). A person with misophonia may be told to “get over it,” “stop being so difficult,” or told to “grow up.” Obviously, these reactions do not help the stress experienced because of a person’s sound sensitivity problem.”
THIS IS MY LIFE! I spent years suffering, feeling like a freak. But now, it’s in The Washington Post and The New York Times, and there are websites and groups devoted to helping explain it to the rest of the unthinking, chomping, lip-smacking world. Kelly Ripa’s talking about having it on national TV. No longer are people who have it getting misdiagnosed with OCD, anxiety, and other issues; now they know what it is.
That all sounds great, but unfortunately it doesn’t change anything. There’s no cure for it, no treatment. I have developed some strategies on my own, though. iPods and earbuds are my constant companions, often whipped out in a desperate frenzy on public transportation, at work when it’s lunchtime, or in any other environment I can’t control. At home, of course, I have some authority, and I exercise it. I constantly remind my kids to chew with their mouths closed, not just for my sake, but for the sake of their future social interactions, dates, and lives. But when their friends come over, I have to navigate those waters much more carefully. The dinner table can be like a torture chamber if the wrong person is sitting with us.
“In this house,” I say, the words making me feel like some kind of rigid, 1950s parent right out of Leave It to Beaver, “we chew with our mouths closed.” And then I (more gently) explain to whatever sweet 8-year-old or 12-year-old who’s joined us that the sound makes me crazy and unhappy, and they have to help me out.
I wish I could do the same with adults.
I tried it once. I’d just struggled through back-to-back meetings with the most ferocious gum chewers, and I was about to lose my mind. It was my first week at a new job, and it was all I could to to keep from running out of the room in tears. When that finally ended, and I went into my next meeting — a one-on-one with someone from another department — I saw that he, too, had a wad of gum in his mouth, and I knew I couldn’t take it for one more second.
I apologized profusely, labeled myself a weirdo, and asked him kindly to spit it out. He looked at me like I was crazy.
The good news? I’m diagnosable crazy now, and have a word to toss around when I make these requests. “I have misophonia,” I told him, “and I can’t control it.” He still looked at me like I was a weirdo, but he took out the gum and pitched it. And with that, my anger ceased instantly, and I was normal again.
“Thank you,” I said, meaning it with every fiber of my being.
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