Saturday, May 19, 2012

Me And My Misopohonia 5/19/12

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.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Dying Is An Art 5/12/12

There are many things I was told throughout my childhood that turned out not to be true.

If you swallow chewing gum, it will wrap around your heart and YOU WILL DIE! for one.

If you don’t go to sleep, the Bogey Man will come and get you (subtext: AND YOU WILL DIE!).

If you don’t look right, look left and right again (I think that was the order), as the road expert Tufty tells you, a bus will come along and YOU WILL DIE!

Small wonder I didn’t die of a heart attack caused by fear, long before I reached adulthood.
I am convinced that the reason I, and so many of my friends, never experimented with drugs was because of a very effective poster campaign during our teens. It was, basically: if you take drugs . . . yes, you guessed it . . . YOU WILL DIE!
I was brought up with a fear of dying from a very early age, not helped by a church background that instilled in me a fear of the afterlife – heaven, if you were good; hell, if you were bad. Good meant have to take eternal afternoon tea with all the old fuddy duddies from church, and hell was just being very hot. I didn’t fancy either much.
Then, at Durham Road Junior School in Newport, on the last Friday of every month there was a roll call at the end of assembly, listing the pupils who had met a bad end for not adhering to Tufty’s road safety instructions.
“Steven XX, stepped out from behind a parked vehicle. Dead. Jane XX, ran into oncoming traffic. Two broken legs.”
The headmaster saved up the broken limbs and fatalities as if they were our reward for good behaviour: look what might have happened to YOU, had you not listened to Tufty! Be grateful, give thanks, you are ALIVE!
My secondary school, Brynteg Comprehensive in Bridgend, did not deal with death much better. Musical instruments were allotted to pupils for just one year at a time, and I was in the clarinet queue.
One morning, the headmaster announced in assembly that the lead clarinet player of the orchestra had been killed on his mo-ped on the way into school. There was barely a beat of breath between that announcement and his next sentence: “Would Jacqueline Stephen please go to the music room at break.”
The music teacher handed over the box containing the clarinet as if it were the Crown Jewels. When I opened it, the reed was still damp, evidence that the poor lad had been practising even before he took his fateful journey. I didn’t want the instrument anymore, and every time I put it to my mouth after that day, it was as if all I could taste was the dead boy’s spit.
I’ve been thinking a lot about death this week, as I have many friends who have lost their parents in recent weeks, and I have had my fair share of friends die recently, too. There is a sense that for every one who goes, I am taking another step closer to that final gate, and it doesn’t feel good.
I’ve also been thinking about it because on Monday, the next part of the brilliant series Seven Up hits our screens. I was just a year younger than the participants when this brilliant documentary series first aired in 1964 and I have followed their fortunes and disparate lives every seven years since.
The original experiment was to bring together working class and middle class children and see how they interacted; it was a social experiment – nature versus nurture – and the results were often surprising, and sometimes less so.
As the group moves towards their sixties in 56 Up, there is something desperately poignant about those early years that saw them so full of hope, excitement and joy, and something equally so desperately sad about knowing that they, too, are next up to the gate: arriving, as Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It says, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.