Misophonia is the new black.
Ever since I described the condition and told people my symptoms, I have been inundated with people who say that they, too, are blighted by the condition.
Basically, misophonia is a neurological response to certain sounds. It induces in sufferers high states of anxiety, often anger, and their inability to tolerate them can force them into a life of solitude.
It is not – I stress not – just being irritated by those sounds. It is an extreme reaction that really can make life intolerable.
I can no longer sit having breakfast among other people in a hotel. Waiters clattering cutlery, spoons chinking on cereal bowls and, worse, diners scraping every last morsel of yoghurt from a carton – all bring me out in a sweat and feelings of intense fury. “Just have another yoghurt if you like it that much!” I want to scream, as I hear a spoon excavating another layer of plastic.
Tapping, chewing, scraping, texting, typing – to me, the ordinary sounds around us every day are intolerable. I have stopped going to one café bar because I cannot stand the sound of customers playing with their cappuccino foam, right down to the last bubble. I have parted company with another restaurant because, at the end of food service, the sound of cutlery being washed, dried and cleared away echoes in my ears like the London Philharmonic tuning up. Loudly.
Then there’s The Hum, which is a different ear complaint altogether. And it’s just that. A hum. I have it only in one house, which makes me think I am attuned to some kind of generator close by.
So, finally, I went to the doctor, who thought the second complaint was most likely tinnitus; she didn’t really comment about the first but thought that I was suffering from high anxiety and recommended anti-depressants or counselling. I took her up on neither. She also referred me to the hospital, where finally, yesterday, I had an appointment.
The nurse said that I had been referred for tinnitus, and when I explained about the misophonia, she wrote down hyperacusis and said they were the same. Well, they are not. Misophonia is, literally, a hatred of sound; hyperacusis is the over-sensitvity to the loudness of a sound.
I was sent to a room for some hearing tests. With headphones on, I had to press a button every time I heard a sound, no matter how quiet. I would have been able to hear every one, had staff not been making such a racket outside the supposedly soundproofed room (cue sweaty palmed annoyance). I was also tested for my tolerance to very loud sounds.
I returned to the waiting room while the results were being collated, and that’s when the trouble started. I could hear Lady Gaga singing Poker Face. Quietly, but enough to set off my misophonia big time. I looked around to see if anyone else could hear it, but this was a room full of people losing their hearing, so it was unlikely.
I went to the reception desk to ask if they could turn the music down. They said there wasn’t any (their own hearing aids made me realise I was on to a loser going down this path) and that it was the air-conditioning. Even I know that air-con sounds nothing like Lady Gaga, but they were adamant. I spotted a lad listening to his phone and asked staff if it was okay to approach him (ie beat him up if he didn’t turn his music down). When I did, it was clear that the sound was not coming from his earphones.
What followed was a small riot. People started to strain their ears and declare that yes, I was right, they too could hear Lady Gaga. They nodded their heads enthusiastically, agreeing that they, too, were suffering this gross infringement on their silence.
I felt like Robin Williams in Awakenings, as the catatonic patients came to life after being administered with the L-Dopa drug. Suddenly, all these deaf people were awake to the sound of Lady Gaga; the waiting room sprang to life, with patients frantically pointing to the air-conditioning, insisting to staff that Poker Face was coming through the vents. My misophonia had brought about a revolution.
The man reading his Kindle in the corner had been quick to join the complainers, little knowing that it was the phone in his pocket that had been playing the song. When he realised, he apologised to the now baying throng, but it was too late; the rabble were well and truly aroused.
Luckily, I was called back to the nurse for my test results and left the chaos I had created.
Verdict: I have the hearing of a dog (I could have told them that). “My hearing’s even a little bit better than yours,” said the nurse, a little unnecessarily, I felt. I wanted to add: ”And I’m five stone lighter than you, and I know which I’d prefer,” but I kept my counsel.
As I was able to tolerate extremely loud sounds with no discomfort, hyperacusis was out (I could have told them that, too); so was tinnitus. I have experienced strange noises in my ears just twice in five years, and The Hum did not appear to fit the tinnitus profile, either.
I was recommended “hearing therapy”. “The first question you’ll be asked,” said the nurse, “is what you do to relax.” She had already asked me that question when I arrived and, the truth is, the only thing I do to relax is more work. I love writing. More than anything. Taking time off from it to go fly-fishing or some such inane “hobby” would stress me out even more.
I know I am stressed at the moment and my blood pressure is higher than normal – all of which, I was told, could well be contributing to The Hum.
I think, basically, the verdict was that I am nuts.
Walking back through the waiting room, silence had resumed and, as in Awakenings, when the patients returned to their catatonic state when the effects of the L-Dopa wore off, my patients were once again deaf mutes.
Still, it felt good to know I had given them their moment in the sun.
So, now I await my “hearing therapy”, during which I will doubtless be told to imagine calm seas, to breathe deeply, to get more sleep, and to do something relaxing. Like fly-fishing.