What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
At first the only noticeable issue was a small irritation with tongue clicking.
In middle school, people kind of saw it as a fun thing to do, so I came across the noise more often than you’d think. Each click seemed to echo in my head, banging around and giving me a weird, painless headache.
Then, my friend’s compulsive humming started to get to me. She’d hum during class, or any time she had to be still and quiet. I remember sobbing uncontrollably into my pillow when she attended a sleepover at my house, her sporadic hums polluting the otherwise silent room.
Soon after, certain visuals irked me too. I was surprised and disgusted by my desire to scream at another friend, this one a compulsive lip picker. The sight sent me into a silent fit of rage. Even imagining it now makes my heart race a little.
What really bothered me though, was how no one else seemed to care. Unlike everyone else, I couldn’t simply brush it off.
Things got worse when my cousin came to visit the summer before my eighth grade year. Her gum-chewing threw me over the edge. The popping, the smacking, the very sight of her with gum in her mouth.
After only a week, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I confronted her.
Honestly, we didn’t really get along to begin with, and the situation quickly became hostile. She started to smack her gum louder. I started for her throat. Unless I removed myself from the room, every gum chewing incident would devolve from a heated negotiation to an all-out physical brawl.
To make matters worse, she’d purposely chew large quantities of gum just to egg me on. She’d give me a taunting smile while smacking away, daring me to do something so my mom would find us and yell at me for assaulting her.
On top of that, my younger brother who hung out with the two of us almost daily started treating me like I was crazy. I felt crazy. I had to separate myself from my cousin almost completely. Eventually she got bored of tormenting me, but that didn’t make whatever was going on in my head stop.
The list of triggers continued to build: sniffing, heavy breathing, repetitive motions, picking, scratching, rubbing, sneezing, throat clearing, clicking, tapping, whatever. Those noises and sites that everyone else designates to the background came front and center and began attacking my senses.
I never became physically violent again. Instead, I’d wish death on even the closest of friends, act out violent scenarios in my head just to lessen my rage, and sometimes even raise my voice at my family members.
People would give me weird looks if I asked them to stop doing something that triggered me, asking “Why?” or going silent before angrily continuing the action more intensely.
By high school, I’d invested in a reliable pair of earplugs that my teachers only ever questioned if they thought I was wearing headphones, and I became great at looking the other way when someone in class decided to pick at their cuticles. The feelings of rage were still there, but I could better control them.
I didn’t find out what was wrong until late spring of my junior year, May 2012. My brother and I were sitting in the living room, getting ready for dinner when a commercial for ABC’s 20/20 appeared on screen.
“A girl, unable to stand the sound of her own mother’s voice.” The camera flashed dramatically to footage of a girl screaming on the floor. “People driven to near insanity by the things they hear. What’s it like to live a life tortured by sound?”
My eyes widened. This was me. I immediately jumped up and announced we’d be eating dinner around the TV.
I have misophonia, an inability to tolerate specific sounds. The word immediately stuck once 20/20 revealed the name of the disorder.
I pointed to the TV.
“That’s what I have. That’s why I’m like this.”
Like a lot of people who learn about the disorder, I felt sudden relief knowing the problem wasn’t simply in my head.
According to WebMD, those with severe responses may be triggered to rage, anger, hatred, panic, emotional distress and even a desire to kill whoever is making the trigger noise.
Most people on the special, save for Kelly Ripa, had very severe reactions. They threw themselves on the floor and screamed at the top of their lungs before dissolving into tears. I blushed at those parts. I felt that way inside, but was able to keep most of those reactions under control. These people obviously had it way worse than me.
At worst I’d slam my fist onto my desk as quietly as I could during class, or I’d dig my pen into my skin. Sometimes I’d grab my mom’s face when she’d suck the sugar out of her gum, gently squeezing while staring deep into her eyes with fury.
Thanks to my earplugs, I never really dealt with these sounds too long, but I didn’t want to have to wear them all the time. I thought the TV special would help at least my family understand, but it kind of made things worse.
No matter how many times I’ve explained, it never seems to stick. My close friend rolls her eyes whenever I let her know her occasional nail biting drives me crazy.
I collapsed into a hysterical mess in front of my brother and his friends during a road trip when my mom refused to spit out her gum. She kept her face stern while I leaned into the corner of the passenger seat and blasted music through my phone’s headphones until my ears hurt.
My younger brother scowls and says, “Don’t tell me it’s your disease again.” Every time I have to explain my outbursts, I can see people’s eyes glaze over. Some people think I’m a snob.
For the most part, I keep quiet about my misophonia. I avoid my triggers with a combination of earplugs, loud music paired with soundproof headphones and my ability to quickly sense when someone’s about to initiate a visual trigger. People think I banned gum-chewing in my car to keep it clean.
I do speak up every now and then, but it’s usually met with side eyes or temporary refrains before the triggers start up again.
I get it. It’s hard to have someone micromanaging your every movement, every sound you make. I’ve learned to stay calm, but I’m hoping more people will learn about misophonia, especially for those who have it much worse than me. There’s still not much known about the condition, so it’s important to raise awareness.
I do occasionally run into some understanding people. During junior year of high school, a boy in my psychology class used to chew gum nonstop for days until I left a letter on his desk, explaining my issue and asking him to chew with his mouth closed. He did for the rest of the semester.
Small victories like that (and earplugs) keep me sane.