Misophonia is a nightmare.
Still relatively unknown outside of the medical community, misophonia is a sound-related disorder that elicits extreme emotional reactions in those affected in response to normal human noise. Each person with misophonia has their own set of triggers; some people are pushed over the edge by the sounds of eating, while others find themselves enraged by the repetitive clicking of pens or the sniffing of noses. Misophonia currently has no cure and- at a prevalence rate of less than 200,000 known cases¹ of the disorder in the United States- there doesn’t seem to be much of a push to address its impacts. Fortunately, there has been a recent interest in learning more about the disorder through clinical research studies, an effort spearheaded by the Duke Center for Misophonia and Emotion Regulation².
But those who suffer from misophonia usually do so in self-imposed silence. Some experts claim that people who experience the burden of a disorder that turns everyday sounds into enemies are victims of a difference in brain structure³, while others state that the affliction occurs because of a history of childhood trauma. Regardless of the causes, misophonia comes as a challenge for those of us who suffer through it endlessly and on a daily basis in environments that others might consider normal: at the workplace, in a restaurant, at home with a spouse or child, or perhaps even in the company of a pet. We suffer in silence because it’s difficult to justify the need for a confrontation in order to ask the many to adjust their typical behaviors for the sanity of the few.
I have suffered from the effects of misophonia since childhood. The sounds of other people chewing and crunching their food in close proximity to me leave feeling enraged, prompting unwelcome and unbidden thoughts about those who offend my senses in this auditory manner: How could you make so much noise? Do you have any awareness whatsoever about how your noise is perceived by people like me, or do you simply not care?
I found this to be particularly true while working within an office setting without a designated eating area. From the safety of my own space, I could still hear the various sounds made by my coworkers during the dreaded lunch hour- chewing, tearing into apples and granola bars with sickening crunches, nibbling loudly on potato chips and crisp leaves of lettuce. When my colleagues come down with seasonal colds, the common air between us becomes filled with their methodical snorts, sneezes, and sniffles. My ears were assaulted by this cacophony on a daily basis, though the emotional responses I experienced as a result of this exposure confused me; I generally liked the people who were making these noises, so why did I feel so angry and frustrated when they went about making their regular human sounds? How could I possibly expect them to behave any differently?
On a particularly tough day, I finally decided to plug in headphones. I was six months pregnant at the time and my tolerance for the noisy world around me was at an all-time low. I was emotional and tired- often crying alone behind my closed office door- and I was willing to do whatever was necessary to block out the sound, permission from my boss notwithstanding.
On a whim, I selected the Metallica station on Pandora. Metallica is the long-time favorite band of my husband, whose other musical tastes include Slayer, Danzig, and Megadeth. His enthusiasm for the heavy metal music genre always eluded me as I typically found myself settling for the softer tones of pop and classic rock. As a couple, we have always been night and day when it comes to musical tastes, and it almost seemed like a secret betrayal against myself and my preferences to select his genre over mine after years of openly complaining about it. But, desperate for relief, I decided that I would try out his music for the day and tomorrow, I would select a different station.
That was weeks ago. I discovered- much to my surprise- that Metallica and their fellow heavy metal musicians drowned out the world around me like no other style of music ever could. The sounds of thrashing guitar riffs, pounding drums, and Hetfield’s dynamic vocals filled my ears to the point at which no external sounds infiltrated. For the first time in weeks, I was no longer plagued by the sounds of chewing, crunching, sniffling, snorting, and sneezing; in fact, no human-created noise entered my headspace over the roar of the music, and I finally was able to focus without having to deal with the inexplicable and alienating rage of misophonia. I was finally able to function. At one point, my boss stood in my door to speak to me, and I carried on right through her side of the conversation while the lyrics of “Sad But True” rocked away in my ears.
When I told my husband that I was listening to Metallica and some other of his loud favorites while at work, he was flabbergasted. This was a man who- over the course of our decades long relationship- tried to introduce me many times to his music so we could share the experience of listening together. But I was never open to the frenetic rhythms or screaming vocals of heavy metal, as I once considered those sounds an assault on my ears. However, compared to the noise of the real human world around me, Metallica was one former “evil” that I felt I could safely move to the other side of the scale. I found that when my misophonia and its internal voices were stifled, I could behave as a normal person without an intense sound phobia probably would: happily, with some understandably minor irritations here and there, but certainly not enough to leave me shaking with rage. By flooding my mind with my own type of sound, I felt more capable of taking on the environment around me- despite its sometimes obnoxious noise.
I hate the fact that I have misophonia. It is an awful, debilitating disorder and after years of self-exploration, I have come to the realization that my personal struggle with it likely developed over time- because my own father had it during the formative years of my childhood.
If a sound-phobic father with a firm approach to discipline raising three loud, rambunctious daughters sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, it’s because it was.
In a way, I’m thankful that my strange, dysfunctional brain structure and traumatic childhood upbringing led me in my thirties to finally appreciate Metallica, who would have otherwise remained elusive to me, forever doomed to be just a random song or two played privately in a different room by my husband. Instead, amid the chaos and the frantic soundtrack of the outside world, their gritty, loud approach to music has managed to strengthen my ability to live and behave as normally as possible in circumstances that may have otherwise been too much for me to handle.
Or, in the words of Metallica frontman James Hetfield, “Out for my own, out to be free/One with my mind, they just can’t see/No need to hear things that they say/Life’s for my own to live my own way.”
: Misophonia Institute. (2016). Prevalence of misophonia. https://misophoniainstitute.org/prevalence-of-misophonia/
: The Duke Center for Misophonia and Emotion Regulation. (2020). Research overview. https://www.misophonia.duke.edu/content/research-overview
: Denys, D., et al. (2019). Misophonia is associated with altered brain activity in the auditory cortex and salience network. https://www.nature.com/