It’s date night and my boyfriend and I are heading in to a small, but typically busy, restaurant in central London. There are two tables left – the dregs. We can choose between the drafty but isolated table by the door or one inward but just inches away from another table.
As usual, I desperately want to sit in isolation but it’s nearing 5 degrees outside so we walk inwards to said table. Seconds after I sit down, I feel the familiar rush of anger, panic, upset and general loathing of people come over me as the couple to my right eat their meal.
What’s the issue?
I have misophonia, which literally means the hatred of specific sounds. Since I was 12, I have suffered mental and physical reactions to certain noises, like a person eating or irregular breathing. Depending on my mood that day, I can be sent into a flying rage or hysterical crying.
The list of sounds that affects me grows with each month: music from distant headphones, the tapping of computer keys, nail biting, heavy breathing, cracking knuckles, and ticking clocks.
To better understand, when I hear someone eating, rage takes over my usual level headed brain and all I can think of is: ‘you are the most disgusting human being in the world. What is wrong with you? Who raised you? Why do you not have manners? Maybe I should give them a dirty look so they’ll get the point. OK, we made eye contact and they’re still doing it. Was my face not bitchy enough? Should I have raised an eyebrow? Maybe I should move seats.’
Misophonia is an increasingly common problem. But while it is increasingly recognised by some professionals, it remains relatively under-studied and little is known about the real cause. So much so, the NHS still doesn’t list it as a condition on the website – which I am shocked and frankly, quite appalled about. This rejection from the NHS doesn’t help public opinion that we are purely over reacting to everyday sounds everyone finds just a little bit annoying.
The truth is that the set up at the restaurant is a familiar one. My boyfriend is now used to the inevitable scenario that unfolded that evening. We spent the night ‘chatting’ and by that I mean he tried to tell me about his day while I frantically stuffed pieces of makeshift earplugs (wetted napkin) in my ear, while glaring at the couple innocently eating on the table next door.
What’s more is that on the way home, we had to change buses on our way to the train station, as someone was chewing gum in the vicinity. After that, I make us change carriage on the train because someone two rows away is breathing irregularly.
Visits to the cinema are plagued by popcorn-eating fellow film-watchers, train journeys are ruined by distant music emanating from headphones and I stay clear of anywhere that there may be people tapping away on laptops or computers.
But, it’s not just strangers’ sounds that bug me to the core. In fact my boyfriends innocent breathing and closed-mouth eating bothers me the most.
Dr David Scott, a clinical psychologist who treats patients with misophonia, says that this is common. “The most extreme reaction is reserved for people closest to them – their family.
“People with misophonia can get very angry with strangers but there’s something different about it when the sound comes from someone who knows about the problem – and you’ve told them what to do or what not to do before. It triggers a very strong rage.”
David’s words have instantly reassured me. I have always thought I’ve been so inconsiderate that two of the closest people to me – my boyfriend and my mum – have annoyed me more than people I don’t even know.
What’s it like to be the other person?
Let’s face it; misophonia is not a people-friendly condition. It is intimate and only the sufferer really knows how they feel when they hear certain trigger sounds. As you are consumed with emotion, it’s often easy to forget about the other people involved.
While, for the most part, I am able to control myself (and refrain from verbally abusing loved ones while they’re eating) I experience a surge of emotion that makes me feel like I want to behave in that way almost every day. The thought of that is bad enough for me, but what about for him?
And, perhaps selfishly, it wasn’t until writing this that I asked him how he felt.
“Sometimes it upsets me because I can’t help but breathe or eat. Even though I sometimes eat too fast…” he joked, most likely trying to make light out of the situation and not offend.
“But I’m getting used to it now and I know it’s not something that you can control and you do your best to not make a fuss – like when you sneak off to put earplugs in.”
So, can a relationship work when you have misophonia?
That being said, can you love someone when, on occasion, you genuinely want to beat them to a pulp when they breathe, eat, sniff, or even cough?
Simply, the answer is yes. My boyfriend and I have not only survived misophonia but we have lived together for the past two years in relative peace. I’m not going to lie – each day is difficult but it’s getting easier.
If we’re sat on the sofa and he starts breathing loudly, I’ve learnt to quietly, without fuss, go and get earplugs. Or if he’s eating, I’ll eat too. After ear plugs, mimicking is one of the most vital coping mechanisms I use to get through the day.
But, without a doubt, the tool that has enabled our relationship to survive is communication.
While there is no cure for misophonia, David Scott uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to talk through the problem and he says the most important thing they do is urge people to communicate with their loved ones.
“One of the things about misophonia is – because of the anger which results from it – it causes relationships to break down. The most important thing is that people communicate the problem rather than let things bubble up.
“People often think they’re doing it on purpose – they think ‘they’re doing it to hurt me’ or ‘they’re doing it because they don’t care about me’ – all of these ideas turn into anger.”
And I can’t express it enough – that age old saying that communication is key, is 100 percent applicable here. From the very beginning, my boyfriend knew that I had some form of dysfunctional relationship with sound – even if he didn’t know the full extent. Before we started dating, I worked with him and he sat just one seat away. I remember every time he was in deep thought, he would click his pen uncontrollably. This happened to the point that I emailed him one day basically telling him, in few words, to stop. From then on, I told him everything.
I recently found out that at the beginning of our relationship – when we were in the same bed – he rarely slept. It turns out that he was so terrified of annoying me that he didn’t let himself go to sleep on the off chance he snored.
I instantly felt bad and completely unreasonable*. Was my misophonia that terrifying that my boyfriend didn’t sleep for the first few months of our relationship? Apparently so…
*Since he told me this – when it’s 3am and he’s snoring next to me – I often wish that we were back at the beginning and he was too scared to sleep. Don’t judge me, it’s the misophonia talking.
Aside from those 3am selfish moments of madness, I now make an effort to gently tell him when he is making a trigger noise. Admittedly, I have been aggressive in the past when I hear a sound and I find that it can often depend on my mood. Say if I’ve had a horrible commute home and I’m hot and tired, I’m more likely going to react badly to triggers.
Because his chewing is not conscious, when I let him know he’s making a noise that aggravates me, he stops immediately.
In essence, it just takes understanding for both people involved – for him to know when he’s making a trigger noise and for me to know that he’s not doing it intentionally.
Since writing about the instance in the restaurant, I have felt the same anger and panic I felt that night bubbling away. My boyfriend? Well, I asked him about how he felt that night and he said: “What happened? I remember the food. That was good food. We should go back there soon.”
Next time, I’ll take my earplugs – and my boyfriend, misophonia and I will be just fine.