We were out at a cafe, middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon. I was on day release from the hospital, and all excited that I could go home for the afternoon and evening.
The cafe was quiet, with only a few other customers, three of whom were trying to chat up the girl behind the counter.
A guy comes in, and orders a coffee. Girl behind the counter, pleased for the distraction, gets busy making coffee.
Michelle and I sat in the middle of the cafe, with plenty of unoccupied space around us. Another member of the cafe staff was sweeping or possibly vacuuming at the back of the room, because the place would close for the day pretty soon. We were among the day’s last customers. Michelle and I enjoyed our excellent coffee and cake. Michelle turned pages of the newspaper.
The guy got his coffee. I forget what he ordered.
As we’ve seen in coffeeshops in North America, this place had a separate bar area, in the middle of the room, right near our table, where you bring your coffee to add sugar, flavourings, and so forth. The guy with his coffee comes over to the bar. He removes the white lid.
Up to this point, everything is okay. I’m feeling a bit angular, a bit round-peg-in-square-hole, as don’t quite fit into this reality. By this point in my hospitalisation, I’m still a building-site, with part-built cinder block walls, a slab of concrete, and big piles of sand everywhere, with a scattering of construction-crap here and there. I’m a work in progress. But just at this precise moment I’m doing okay.
Then the guy with the coffee puts some sugar in his coffee.
I’m still okay.
Coffee Guy grabs a thin wooden pop-stick and begins stirring his coffee. It makes a little, repetitive sound as the stick bumps against the inside surface of his cup. It’s very faint. I can only barely hear it.
Even though that other cafe worker is still either sweeping up or vacuuming, and even those idiots at the counter are still trying to flirt with the barista girl, and even though Michelle is still poring over the rustling newspaper pages–
ALL I CAN HEAR IS THE GUY STIRRING HIS COFFEE AND I’M STARING AT HIM AND FEEL VERY MUCH AS IF I COULD KILL HIM WITH MY BARE HANDS.
I want to yell at him, though he is not even a metre away from me, to, “PLEASE STIR YOUR COFFEE QUIETLY!”
It feels exactly as if someone, some utter bastard, has insulted your sainted mother’s honour. As if someone is coming right at you with a wicked knife, and you know they will try to kill you.
It feels like you know, in the most fundamental cells of your marrow that if you don’t get up right now and leave, Something Bad will have to happen. And that guy is STILL stirring his coffee.
We leave. I sit in the car, breathing hard, my heart galloping, my hands shaking, nerves shredded. Adrenaline is gushing through me. Worse, acute mortifying embarrassment, shame, and anger are along for the fun-ride as well.
Because this is not the first time this has happened to you, and won’t be the last.
All last year, in hospital, I told my doctors I had this weird, debilitating sensitivity to certain sorts of sounds. Quiet sounds, repetitive, often at a high pitch but not always. Biological noises like chewing food, even soft food, the wet, smacking noises of people eating, even with their mouths closed. Chairs dragged across floors. Last year, as I came off my old medication regimen, I began to have this problem. My doctors understood that it was a sort of anxiety, but they knew little about it, and, as they had stared at me blankly about my writing-juju going away, they stared pretty blankly about this. Staff gave me anti-anxiety meds to ease things off.
All day long, from first waking to switching off the reading light at night, one of these noises could occur at any moment. And every time, I felt like murder. If you could in fact kill someone with your gaze alone, I would now be one of history’s greatest monsters. There would be bleak but popular anthemic songs on the radio, “He just don’t like chewing”. Everywhere I went, I was on alert, on edge, primed and ready, because it was only a matter of time before somebody nearby clicked his pen over and over. Or before I heard someone using a knife and fork against a china plate, making a little squeaking sound. There was always something.
One of my doctors one day asked to see me, and she gave me a printout from the web, with a Post-It. This problem I had, it turned out, had a name, and there were other people out there with it, or variations of it.
It was called misophonia.
The Post-It had info about a Facebook support group. The printout was from a website acting as a clearinghouse for reliable information about it. Which wasn’t, and still isn’t, a lot. The reason my doctors stared at me so blankly was because it’s a newly classified condition. There is very little research out there, but what there is so far suggests it is a neurological condition in which the fight-or-flight response in your brain is set off by these sounds. It bypasses conscious thought, and goes straight to those parts of the brain that control your response to threats.
Your brain is freaking the hell out because your lovely wife sitting next to you on the couch is eating a TimTam.
Once I’d digested the information the doctor had given me, I could have hugged her, I was so happy to know that it was a real thing, with a name, and that people are working on it. To know there are other people out there likewise freaking out because someone’s idly tapping their feet against the side of a table.
Mine seems closely correlated to depression and the anxiety that goes with it. I can tell when I’m not as well as usual, because I notice little sounds–suddenly I’m staring-as-if-to-kill at someone or something. When I’m doing better, those same sounds don’t bother me so much. It comes and goes, bit for some people it’s a constant thing, always on, always with the same intensity. On the discussion forums there’s a lot of talk about noise-cancelling headphones–are they worth the considerable expense? (Mostly. Peace of mind is worth paying for.)
What has also helped is working with my psychologist on various mindfulness-based approaches for helping to change the way I think about noise. And to stop me doing what some people with the problem do, who never leave their homes. The world is too full of threatening noises. And it is, too, but it’s better, quality-of-life-wise, for me at least, to try to stay in touch with the outside world. I’m reclusive enough at the best of times without adding this element.
One weird thing about misophonia: the noises you perceive to be threatening, that make you want to kill people, are perfectly okay and fine if you are the one making those noises. Michelle comes home from work, feels like an icecream on a stick. These come in wrappers. If she unwraps it, it would set me off. If I unwrap it, it’s fine. So I unwrap everything now.
I have had to learn to adapt the way I approach my life. It’s difficult, especially when, after a long period of feeling fine, you have a relapse, and suddenly it’s as if you can hear bugs giggling and tap-dancing because your hearing is so acute. People around me have had to learn to adapt as well. I hate and feel embarrassed that because of a problem that I have, other people have to tip-toe around and mind what they do. It bothers me very much. I have issues. But I can work on those.