Last night, the American television network ABC aired a programme about 19 year old Emma Riehl, who suffers from misophonia – literally, a hatred of sound.
The neurological condition means that sufferers endure high states of anxiety triggered by certain sounds; their inability to tolerate them often forces them into a life of solitude.
I have suffered from misophonia all my life – I just didn’t know it. In recent years, my tolerance to particular noises is so low, it has drastically curtailed activities that most people take for granted.
Take eating. Many of my friends think I have an eating disorder because, when we visit a restaurant, I rarely eat anything.
It’s not that I don’t like my food – I eat like a pig at home; I just can’t stand the sound of other people’s noises, and the tension in my stomach makes it impossible to consume anything other than several drinks to calm my nerves.
I can’t stand the sound of a fork twisting pasta at the bottom of a plate or, worse, the scraping of a spoon at the bottom of a yoghurt pot. So bad is my response to the latter, I can no longer eat breakfast in a hotel restaurant when I go away.
My brother, to whom I am very close, drinks coffee at very high temperatures. I have to leave the room when he drinks, as the tension while waiting for the slurp as he descends upon the liquid, makes me feel not just annoyed but angry – and I am not an angry person.
Tapping, chewing, scraping – many people find these noises irritating, but I really cannot be around them. Last week, I had to ask my cleaner to stop chewing; to me, the noise was like a hurricane, and I felt like hitting the gum out of her mouth – and I am not a violent person, either.
My life as a television critic is spent with the remote control permanently in one hand, as I have to hit the mute button if anyone is eating or drinking on screen. Characters or presenters tapping at a keyboard is another sound that drives me to distraction, just as it does in real life.
A few weeks back, I appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme and, while waiting for my item in the studio, John Humphrys’ sidekick was tapping at her keyboard. My palms started to sweat and I dug my nails hard into them, so extreme was my feeling of fury.
“Excuse me, but are you going to be doing that throughout?” I asked. I knew I would not have been able to carry on through what felt like a hailstorm coursing through my every vein.
I can move carriages up to ten times on a train if I can hear somebody texting – which they are allowed to do in the quiet carriage. Indeed, I once became involved in a row when somebody objected to my intense sighing and mumbling about the noise. Long-haul flying became a nightmare, with the sound from other people’s headphones – another personal hatred.
They say that misophonia is a rare condition and little understood. It is also very different from hyperacusis, which is the over-sensitivity to the loudness of a sound. Alas, I have that, too, and spend the little social life I have asking staff to turn down the music in bars and clubs.
Alas, there is no known cure. Ear-plugs are a no-no for me, as the sound of my own breathing similarly drives me to distraction. Some recommend therapy – but I am sure that whatever noise the therapist made would counter any effectiveness of the treatment.
So, for the moment, I just have to live with it, as I suspect my misophonia will only stop when I am six feet under.
Even then, I wouldn’t rule out the earthworms getting on my nerves.