It was the middle of a wet Saturday afternoon last year, I was on day release from hospital, and we had stopped at a cafe for lunch. I was all excited to be out and about after a week cooped up on the ward.

The cafe was quiet, with only a few other customers, three of whom were trying to chat up the girl behind the counter.

But then a guy comes in and orders a coffee. Girl behind the counter, pleased for the distraction, gets busy making coffee.

Michelle and I were sitting 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. The place would be closing soon; we were among the last customers for the afternoon. Michelle turned pages of the newspaper, and I was aware of the sound of the pages turning, as I was aware of the vacuuming, the boofheads at the counter, the coffee machine’s hiss and gurgle, and of course the never-ending noise in my head.

The guy got the coffee he ordered. 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 if I don’t quite fit into this day. 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. I’m aware of things, I’m prickly, sensitive, but not yet freaking out.

Then the guy with the coffee puts some sugar in his coffee.

And 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. Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump, it goes, very soft, but repetitive.

And that’s it. Without even being aware of doing so I’m staring at Coffee Guy as if staring could kill him. I mean him actual, no-kidding harm.

Back in the 1970s there were these excellent paranoia thrillers like, eg, TELEFON, with Charles Bronson, whose premise was that the Soviet Union had these sleeper agents hidden in the United States, only they didn’t know they were sleeper agents. Only if they heard a code-phrase would they wake up to their true self and carry out their true, deadly assassination mission. It was brilliant.

And I was like that. Coffee Guy’s quiet stirring of his coffee was the code-phrase that “woke up” the killer in me.

Which sounds funny, and I am kind of playing it light here, but the thing is, it wasnt’, and isn’t, funny. I really did mean him harm. If I were the sort of person who attacked people at random, if I were the kind of person who was into “one-punch king hits”, Coffee Guy would have been on the floor. I mean it. When I was a kid I had a vile, towering temper. I’m sure it was part of my illness. It was out of all proportion to my small size. And when I heard that guy stirring his coffee, I felt it rush through me again.

I wanted to yell at him, though he was 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 flooding 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 me, and it won’t be the last.

All last year, in hospital, I told my doctors I had this weird new thing. And part of what was weird about it was that very newness. For decades I had developed an intimate familiarity with my set of specific illnesses: I had the bipolar disorder, and a specific anxiety involving crowds and cramped places. I’d known these things since I was a kid.

But last year, right around the time we started messing about with taking me off the Clomipramine, this new thing appeared. And it seemed like madness. I experienced a debilitating, violent 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, and all kinds of other things. Sometimes I found new “trigger” sounds almost every day.

My doctors understood that it was a sort of anxiety, but they knew little about it, and, just as they had stared at me blankly about my writing-juju going away, they stared pretty blankly about this, too. Staff gave me anti-anxiety meds to ease things off. I developed a constant stance of what’s called “hyper-vigilance”, where you’re at high alert all the time, watching and listening for threats. Because what’s happening is the brain is taking these innocuous noises and referring them to the fight/flight/freeze department of your brain. It bypasses conscious thought altogether. You don’t get to choose whether to murder the guy stirring his coffee. You’re lucky that you can just barely choose to leave the scene without touching the poor sap.

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 (ha-ha!). 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. But that doctor was the first person who helped me with this thing. I’d felt like an isolated mutant (even more than the bipolar, etc, already made me feel) with this strange thing nobody knew about, but here, look, there’s an entire worldwide community! I have since joined that community. It seems most misophonia sufferers, unlike me, have had the condition all their lives. Many have withdrawn from society to some extent. Some have withdrawn entirely. I can relate (see my post, “Recluse). There is also a lot of discussion about noise-cancelling headphones.

My condition 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, but for some people it’s a constant thing, always on, always with the same intensity. I am lucky. It could be much worse.

It’s now a year since my misophonia was at its worst. When I lurched from one sound attack to another, never knowing when the next would be, when I was exhausted all the time from the hyper-vigilance, the tension. When I hated the way Michelle and my parents felt they had to change the way they did everything for fear of making the slightest sound around me. They didn’t want to upset me, and I appreciated that, but I hated that my stupid problem was unfairly making these other people change how they lived their lives. It seemed unjust. Unreasonable. It made me angry and I hated it.

It’s possible my overall illness was making me hate this.

These days I always have my Bose QC-25 active noise-cancelling headphones with me when I go out, except when I visit the local swimming pool. They are not waterproof, sadly. Going to the pool still presents serious problems for me. The sounds of little kids playing sometimes feel like a crushing punishment sent from above. They’re just splashing about in water, just like I did when I was their age (see “Drowning”), but when they scream and squeal and yell the noise goes through me like knives. It’s awful, unbearable.

What has helped is working with my psychologist on various mindfulness-based approaches for helping to change the way I think about noises like these. And to stop me doing what some people with the problem do, who never leave their homes. The world is full of noise, including all these little, simple, quiet, innocuous sounds (Michelle eating an ice cream or a Tim Tam), but I can’t let them force me to stay home barricaded against them. I have to live in the world. I have to be able to function, even though it’s very hard.

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 ice cream 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 your hair growing 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. I remind myself today that things are better now than they were a year ago. I remind myself how long it’s been since I’ve needed to use the headphones while out in the world. How long it’s been since I needed to resort to the emergency supply of Lorazepam tablets I carry with me at all times. It’s getting to be quite a while.

Writing about it helps. I hope reading about it helps, too.

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