I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was in my seventh-grade math class, trying desperately to stay focused and attentive, struggling to ignore the seemingly magnified and horrific sound blaring in my ears. It wasn’t the disruptive sound of classmates gossiping or the screeching sound of pieces of chalk against the board that had me flustered and squirming in my seat.
It was the sound of the the girl sitting next to me incessantly chewing and popping her gum in her mouth. My heart started racing and my blood pressure was rising as I tried to brush off the uncomfortable feelings and visions that were swirling around in my head.
And what were those feelings and visions?
I wanted to punch her right in the face, for no other reason than that sound she was making while gum chewing. The almost uncontrollable rage I felt that rose so fervently and deeply surprised me. I wanted to do what? Punch a girl out for chewing gum? Yep. I sure as hell did. Right in her gum-smacking face.
Looking back, that was when I think my misophonia started, and I’ve spent the better part of 30 years trying to get it under control.
Misophonia is defined by the Misophonia Institute as a “severe sensitivity to specific soft sounds and visual images.” It also includes other forms of stimuli that cause an immediate extreme reaction. When a person hears the sounds, the person has a very strong emotional reaction such as hate, anger, anxiety, rage, and resentment. There has long been disagreement over the idea that misophonia is a legitimate psychiatric disorder. For years, I had simply thought I was honestly losing my mind and had some weird tic or sensitivity to crunching and chewing sounds.
I never talked about it with friends or family, and I was able to survive by inconspicuously removing myself from situations with triggering sounds, and luckily I never lashed out at the person innocently eating potato chips or chewing ice cubes. Even though I really wanted to.
I know now for a fact that I am not alone in my suffering as it’s estimated that more than 20% of the population suffers from some degree of misophonia, and it usually strikes first during adolescence.
But over the years, it got worse and worse, and combined with the general parenting anxieties we all have, not only was I was unable to control my reactions to all the chewing and other sound triggers, but the library of offensive triggering sounds actually grew. Now it was all kinds of repetitive clicking noises, all foods, and small things like pencil tapping or a ceiling fan swirling. It got to the point that I could barely stand being in the room with my own children and husband while they ate. Let’s just say that makes it quite difficult to enjoy family dinners.
I reached out to a friend of mine who happens to have her PhD in Audiology and asked her if she had any doctoral students who would be interested in conducting a research study on misophonia, starring yours truly. Was there something seriously wrong with my auditory processing functions that was causing my brain to react so freakishly to otherwise normal sounds? What was happening in and between my ears? And is there help for people like me?
After spending a day with a very patient and compassionate group of speech/hearing and audiology disorders PhD candidates, I came out having learned much more about the disorder than I thought I would. Also, I was given some tips and insight so as to better get a grasp on my misophonia and what all of this means to our family.
Here’s what I learned:
1. I’ve got Bionic Woman-type hearing.
After a myriad of standard hearing tests, turns out I could hear stuff that was happening across the street. This made perfect sense to me as I never needed a baby monitor in my home. I could hear that little sucker roll over in the crib from 800-square feet away. Excellent hearing is typical of people who suffer from misophonia as well as high intelligence. Boo-yah.
2. Eating together helps.
If I am at the dinner table and I’m actively chewing myself, it seems I don’t hear the magnitude of others’ chewing as much. I have no idea why this makes sense, but it does. If I am sitting near people and they are eating and I am not, everything is magnified tenfold, and it sounds as if their lips are literally inside my ear canal.
3. Therapies are being developed.
There are many cognitive behavior therapies that are being developed to help people like me, but because of the auditory and psychological aspects of this disorder, it going to require professionals in both of those fields to figure out a treatment plan. Both offered suggestions like total immediate avoidance of sounds, then slowly acclimating myself to short bursts of triggering sounds — kind of like stand near the spider you’re petrified of for a few seconds at a time until you it doesn’t trigger you anymore. Personally, I have had no luck with that and still have to use complete and immediate avoidance. But I’m working on it.
4. Muffle the sounds in your life.
Earbuds are your friend, and they don’t even have to be playing anything. Sometimes simply having earbuds in my ears playing nothing, but filtering out and reducing the loudness of all my triggers does the job. It’s as if I do okay if everything sounds like I’m underwater and isn’t going straight to my brain at high volume.
5. I was unable to go to the movies for many years because of the sounds of people eating popcorn. Now I can!
Well, I did drag myself there on rare occasions, but I had to find a seat totally far away from any people, which meant I was stuck in the front row or the back row. It was suggested I ask the theater to borrow one of their assisted hearing devices, which means I could use their headphones to listen to my movie while blocking out surrounding triggers.
6. Keep family involved, and watch for signs of it in your children.
I felt a huge sense of validation when I left the audiologist’s office that day. I knew this wasn’t all in my head, and I was suffering from a disorder that was real and one that is only now being extensively researched. And being able to share that with my family was huge.
For the first time, MRI images of people with misophonia are providing neurologists with images of what is really happening in our brains, and it’s clear there are abnormal functions of processing that are taking place when people like me hear others crunching on potato chips. Why my reaction to that is one of rage and violence, well, that is still being studied.
So far only one of my four kids seems to have developed misophonia, and it started right at age 13, like mine did. One day out of nowhere, he said, “You’re chewing really loudly, and it’s freaking me out.” I was able to tell him that he’s not losing his mind, and that together we could work through it.
If you think you’re suffering from a form of misophonia, and you live near a college or university with a communications disorders program, I encourage you to reach out to them. Contact the college’s psychology department as well. And of course, consult your own trusted medical providers. The less we are ashamed to share our misophonia experiences and the more willing we are to share our stories, the better chance researchers have of learning its causes and developing treatments. Then we can all chew, and listen, a little easier. No punching required.