Misophonia: This is the most important thing I’ve read in my life
Years ago I chanced upon an article about synaesthesia, in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. The most common form of it is where letters or numbers are perceived as inherently coloured. So I discovered a) that not all people see numbers and letters as colours, and b) once I began to pay attention to this, I realized there were all sorts of other ways in which I was synaesthetic – such as experiencing numbers as 3 dimensional objects with colour, texture and movement. No wonder I struggled with doing even the simplest arithmetic.
A few years later I read the very excellent books of Dorothy Rowe, with her descriptions of Introversion and Extroversion, and began to form a more positive self-concept of myself as an introvert – and hence– well, basically a super-cool person – heheh.
Here’s a bit of basic info about this that I just cut and pasted from a website, for those who don’t already know it: “Psychologist Dorothy Rowe, author of The Successful Self, explains: ‘Either we are “people persons”, who judge ourselves in terms of how others respond to us, or we are “what have I achieved today?” people.’
These definitions have been widely used by psychologists ever since, as a way of dividing personality types. One of the most popular assessments, the Myers-Briggs personality test, considers extroversion and introversion in terms of where an individual gets his or her energy from. According to this approach, an extrovert tends to draw energy from interactions with other people, while an introvert is more self-sufficient, drawing on his or her internal world.
The next useful bit of insight for why I am so weird and always feel I don’t fit it came from reading Elaine Aron's 1996 book The Highly Sensitive Person, which I have already written about in this blog.
So, that’s enough for one person, isn’t it? Highly sensitive, introvert and synaesthetic.
But there’s one other totally weird, off-the-scale bonkers thing about me that I have lived with all my life and thought was unique and inexplicable. No-one else in the world was like me. I have spent years trying to find some kind of explanation for it, even considered having hypnosis to help me with it. And now, today - by pure chance – I came across an article giving it a name: misophonia.
Sometimes called selective sound sensitivity syndrome, misophonia is a baffling and bizarre disorder. Sufferers feel an instantaneous, overwhelming rage - often accompanied by physiological responses such as sweaty palms or a racing heart — to certain sounds.
These triggers are often chewing and eating sounds, sometimes barely audible. Some people report visual triggers such as fidgeting or foot-bobbing, or even olfactory or tactile triggers.
Here’s the article I stumbled across:
The first time I ever noticed I didn’t like the noises people make while eating, I was literally about 2 and a half years old. I still remember the moment. We were still living in Alberta, Canada, where I was born, and my 2 older brothers had gone outside into the back yard to play, my younger brother had been put down for a nap, as he was still a baby, and I was enjoying a moment of quiet with my Mum, sitting at the dining table, after lunch. Mum was reading a book, and I was musing in my quiet, odd way over important questions like “If I shout really, really loud, then stand very, very quiet, will I be able to hear the sound come all the way back round the world to me again?” And “Why did the clock stop, never to go again, when the old man died?”
(I’m not making that up. I remember this so vividly I can even remember what I was thinking at the time, and I did tell you I was weird – or at least, an unusual child)
Then, my mother started to eat some grapes.
Now - I do have to say, in mitigation, m’lud, that my mother has believed for her whole adult life that every mouthful must be chewed a minimum of 37 times. Not 36 and not 38. 37. And in order to achieve this totally unnatural way of masticating, it is necessary to push the food back to the front of the mouth once it has been chewed the normal number of times, say 15 or 16, and re-chew it. So, even if you are not misophonic, this is not actually a very agreeable thing to listen to. But that does not really explain my reaction. It was like having the inside of my skin sandpapered. It was really annoying. I commented on it to Mum by saying “You make lots of noises when you eat those grapes, Mummy.” To which my mother responded by laughing and popping another grape in her mouth. I distinctly recall that it took 3 grapes and I was out of there. I was so small I had to ask Mum to get me down from the table.
Since then, I’ve just had to learn to live with it. I’m usually ok if there is plenty of background noise. Partners are simply informed - not asked, told - that I will never eat a meal in a silent room with them. TV, radio, buzz of background chatter, all help to mask the noise. I had one partner who actually deliberately set out to annoy me by insisting we turn off the telly, then opening a bag of sweets to start slowly chewing on them while she sat right next to me on the sofa. Relationship didn’t last long after that. At one time I was married to a person of the male persuasion who used to eat just like my Mum – he would chew even ice-cream, or porridge, for 37 times, AND clonk his teeth together while he did it.
What I noticed about that was that mostly it doesn’t bother me at first, providing people are reasonably normal in their eating habits, but the better I get to know the person, the more tuned into it I become, and the harder it is for me to cope with it – because I can’t screen it out of my awareness. As I’ve known my mother all my life, she could be chewing with a DC10 revving up in the background, and I’d still be able to hear her.
So, as a family, we’d all be sitting at the meal-table and every time Mum started to chew a new mouthful I’d get this surge of anger. It freaked me out really. I mean, disgust and irritation at the bad manners of someone who can’t keep their lips together while they chew, yes – but anger? It would just come and go while she was chewing, switching on and off like a tap.
I’ve even tried some kind of psychological explanation – like - Mum started that slow eating thing, and clonking her teeth together, as a form of dumb insolence when she was a teenager, because of the way she was silenced in her own family, and the anger is still there, and as I am an empath, I’m just picking up on that. I still think there may be something in my theory about her doing it as a reaction to her own family dynamics, especially as the teeth clonking is akin to teeth grinding during sleep, which is definitely associated with anger. But I was only 2 years old when I first had this reaction! Sensitive and too perceptive for my years, yes, but at 2 years old you believe everything your mother does is good and nice – you don’t start getting angry because of the noises she makes when she eats. You’re more likely to just eat the same way.
Since I moved in with Mum she has stopped clonking her teeth while eating, so at least that is not so bad, but she's added in a whole range of other sounds that drive me crazy to do with her breathing. At first, when she was still mobile, I decided the only way I could survive meals was to eat my food as fast as I could and leave the table. I know Mum thinks this is bad manners, but it’s what I need to do. I’d shoot into the kitchen and start to wash up. Now I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve forgotten how to eat at a normal speed.
But now Mum is making noises all the time because of her breathing problems. She fills up with mucous towards the end of the day and makes this kind of continuous throat-clearing sound. And she kind of smacks her lips in what I can only describe as a wet Velcro type of sound, because her mouth is so dry. Even when she’s not doing that there is this kind of gravelly breathing sound. She can’t help it of course. But I also can’t help the way I react to it. It’s a physical reaction. I’d really love to be able to just sit with her in the evenings, but I simply can’t do it.
Reading this article, I did just sit and cry. I never did that about the HSP thing, or the introvert thing or the synaesthesia thing. But this just got to me. It was the thing about the anger, really. I’m not an angry person. I hate being angry. I freak myself out with that. Reading this, I realize that I am not alone in this. My anger is just a physiological reaction and not a judgement on my mother. It’s not even really anger, in any real sense.
And of course. I never act out on it.
It’s my problem and it’s up to me to find my own solutions, as I have done. I have kept silent about my distress all my life, apart from to a few close friends, and family. I know I can keep coping. But having a name for it and knowing it’s a recognized phenomenon, even though it has no cure or anything, makes it just that little bit easier.