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The Real Reason Those Annoying Noises Drive You Mad

A new diagnosis explains so much, but a solution remains elusive.

Aaron Amat/Shutterstock
Source: Aaron Amat/Shutterstock

For as long as I can remember, certain sounds that people make have caused me rage. The word rage isn’t any sort of hyperbole: I have felt compelled to rush up to obnoxious gum chewers, slurpers, and whistlers (not to mention loud talkers, hummers, bag crinklers, and those who play the TV or music too loud) and cause bodily harm—despite the fact that I’ve never so much as shoved someone in my life.

Now, when you’re a generally intolerant person—someone with overly high expectations, little patience, and a desire for perfection from others—you will assume that surges of anger over noises people make is just another example of your intolerance. That is why the sheer redemption I feel over the discovery that I have an actual disorder—misophonia—has been so sweet.

Last year, publications began writing about this condition, said to be caused by a “hyperconnectivity between the auditory system and the limbic system." In February, a New York Times piece launched it to the forefront of public discourse. Slate followed with an article in August and in the past week, Broadly, The Columbian, and others have followed.

I've devoured these stories with the same zeal with which I embraced my Bose noise-canceling headphones. Not only have these pieces provided vindication—turns out I’m not just intolerant—but they have also made me grateful that my condition is comparatively mild. Some people with the disorder, the reports indicate, “frequently cannot function anymore." Others can feel suicidal.

According to Broadly, between 15 and 20 percent of the population has misophonia, but as a lifelong sufferer—the way my brother slurped his cereal when we were kids caused me no end of torment—I find that statistic highly unlikely. I’m not a researcher, but I am a consistent complainer who has talked about this issue with uncountable people during my lifetime, and last year, I met the only other person who has ever been able to relate to my experience. An Emotional Freedom Technique therapist I saw a few years ago in search of relief told me my irritation was connected to trauma; in vain, she tapped on my, um, "energy meridians" to resolve the issue.

Many people believe we overpathologize everyday feelings and habits: A guy stubs the same toe a few times and suddenly doctors claim he has a disorder that causes him to continue to hurt the same body part repeatedly. For those who get upset over this, you can calm down (Kathie Lee and Hoda, I’m talking to you). The discovery that I have a "Pavlovian conditional physical reflex problem" reminds me of how I felt when I learned that I suffered from alcoholism—an immense relief, not only because by then I was in the midst of a solution, but also because it took the onus off of me: I wasn’t actually a crazy, out-of-control, life-destroying person.

Of course, I’m not in the midst of a solution for my “miso." (As someone who has it, I feel entitled to a nickname that makes us all think of soup, even though I have an immediate association with the horrible slurping sounds some make while consuming it.) Some sufferers seek out CBT or SSRIs—Slate mentions desensitization therapy, a practice that includes giving people chocolate chip cookies when they’re around those who smack their lips so they can create new associations with intolerable sounds. This is not terribly practical nor ideal for sugar addicts. Further, there is some debate about the accuracy of reported desensitization success rates.

My solution to "miso" is this: Be grateful that my condition isn’t worse and find ways to cope.

Some coping methods I have tried include:

  • Making comments like, “I never knew you chewed gum,” with plenty of judgment and a shaming quality to my tone;
  • Rushing off the phone when someone I’m talking to is eating into it;
  • Announcing, “No, I hate gum,” when people offer me a piece, hoping this will prevent them from chewing themselves;
  • Rejecting potential relationships with people who I realize are gum snappers.

If none of these work, I may resort to confessing how furious seemingly benign sounds make me, a disclosure that has always embarrassed and ashamed me. This I would only do with a close friend or someone who will be in my life for a long time, if not forever. I hate the embarrassment and shame those conversations have brought, but it’s better than the kind I have when I’ve swept past the anger-controlling point and snapped at people that they're driving me to madness. For example, my friendship with the person who sent me the Times piece, a guy in my co-working space, started with my yelling at him that he needed to keep it down when he talked on the phone if the rest of us ever hoped to concentrate.

These so-called solutions can occasionally be helpful; some people react to the comments by silently spitting the gum out, because they understand—or are just people pleasers. But most of the time, the efforts are entirely ineffective.

Better than any medication, though, is the potential solution that more people may now become aware of misophonia. Then I could just announce that I have it and hope folks reduce their masticating. When I tell people that I’m sober, for example, they stop insisting on pouring me a glass of wine. Of course, I don’t see this happening any time soon, nor do I see a 12-step program for misophonia popping up. So until medicine comes up with an operation that can undo the hyperconnectivity between my auditory and limbic systems, I’ll rely on my old standbys—passive-aggression and headphones—but with the newfound conviction that I'm an innocent victim of a seemingly hopeless condition and not just a nightmare girl snapping at you to keep it down.

Though, truth be told, I really do wish you would keep it down.

This post originally appeared on AfterPartyMagazine

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