The year; 1980. The place; a secluded back room in the middle school library. The participants; a dopey seventh-grader, a pair of way-out-of-my-league eighth-grade girls and a vending machine snack.
We’d just returned from lunch and took our seats at the table in the back room. Seventh grade was the first year for middle school students to have a schedule that included changing classrooms for each individual subject. The period following noon hour was my study hall. Nervous about messing up my schedule and making a fool of myself, I was on time, properly seated and well into Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” when the young ladies strolled in — tardy and talking. The girls, poorly feigning interest in their homework, began whispering and giggling. Vonnegut is difficult to understand, even with complete concentration, let alone for a 13-year-old boy staring into the faces of smoking hot, rude chicks.
As it turns out, whispering and giggling were the least of my worries. One of the girls reached into her purse and plopped a bag of Corn Nuts onto the table. That was the day I discovered I had a problem.
Misophonia is a medical/psychological affliction related to the general discomfort, or dislike, of certain sounds. “General discomfort” is a kinder and more pleasant description for how I describe my own internal reaction to specific sounds. Hatred, seething anger and rage are more appropriate definitions for my level of intolerance. Knuckle-popping, gum chewing, slurping, sniffling and open-mouth breathing by the people around me makes me slip into Stage-One fight-or-flight mode. But hearing someone eat is the pinnacle of torture.
The study hall girl, bless her stuck-up heart, tried her best to be discreet by painstakingly opening the crinkly, vacuum-sealed plastic pouch as torturously deliberate as possible. In the pristine auditory environment of the isolated library her repeated fumbling and manipulating of the stubborn sound grenade in her hands was only slightly less annoying than listening to someone attempt to make cellophane origami while wearing oven mitts. For what seemed like the same amount of time it takes for corn to actually grow, she twisted and tore at the 4-ounce bag.
“Use some SCISSORS!” I pleaded silently. Eventually, she squeezed the bag so hard that one end burst open, shooting several kernels of the nacho cheese-flavored dynamite onto the table. After a muffled guffaw from the hungry heathen, and an animated spit-take from her partner, she tossed a nugget into her mouth and bit down with a ravenous disregard for civility.
Audible human mastication is a repulsive cacophony of crushing, grinding, sucking, licking, swishing, breathing and swallowing. For most people, sound travels through the ear, over the tympanic membrane, past the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup. It continues through the cochlea, the auditory nerve and up the central auditory pathway until it reaches the auditory cortex. The sound level increases along this entire journey. Once it reaches the auditory cortex it is processed and diffused. In my case, when the offending sound is processed it doesn’t diffuse — it makes me want to throw a fist THROUGH A WINDOW!
My eyes secretly bore a hole through my book and into her blackened soul. “Ka-pow, ka-pow, ka-pow, crunch, crunch, crunch, mince, mince, mince, swallow.” Over and over, the hollow sortie of explosions echoed from within her head and into my nerve center. I casually glanced in her direction hoping to re-read the label on her bag to be sure she wasn’t eating a peanut butter and gravel sandwich, or a pack of firecrackers. To her credit, she wasn’t chewing with her mouth open. I have a buddy who does that.
This guy chews like a garbage truck — and so do his kids. Another friend politely likened my friend’s family’s eating etiquette as caveman-ish. I was thinking it was more like a National Geographic movie of hyenas feasting on carrion in the wilds of the Serengeti. One time, I was trapped in a vehicle with them for nearly an hour as they ate gummy bears, taffy and beef jerky. It was all I could do to keep myself from grabbing the steering wheel and hurtling us over a cliff.
With white knuckles, and a bulging vein in my temple, I survived that afternoon in the library, but my condition has gotten worse. My wife and her family are wonderful people and they’d do anything for anybody, but their table manners are atrocious. For 20 years I’ve eaten all my Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas meals in another room. Their fork scraping, full-mouth talking and plate-licking often leaves me slipping in and out of a coma. Sometimes even my own chewing sets me off. I have to crank up a heavy metal CD to help get me through the squishy smacking of a braunschweiger and Velveeta sandwich.
The causes and cures for misophonia are unknown. The actual number of sufferer is also unknown — as many of us keep this secret to ourselves. If only the guy clawing his way through a bucket of popcorn in the movie theater knew that the man sitting directly in front of him was fighting an overwhelming desire to choke him lifeless. Or, if the hospital receptionist was aware that her saliva-infused gum snapping made me seriously consider running my eardrum through with an ice pick.
The last several years of my working with students have tested my ability to cope with my disorder. Relentless pen clicking, foot tapping, pencil scratching and sniffling have pushed my limits of neurological endurance. Recently, a kid sat in my classroom and sniffed back a drippy nose for 20 minutes before I quietly rose from my chair and politely handed him a box of tissue. He waved me off — inferring he didn’t need any. I re-offered the box and he looked up at me somewhat annoyed that I didn’t understand him the first time. Briefly I considered telling him that hearing him suck his snot in reverse hyper-speed and swallowing it was going to make me throw up, but I decided to pull several pieces from the box, lay them on his desk and walk away.
For now I’ll suffer in silence until some kind of medicine or therapy is developed to ease the anxiety of my daily life. Don’t be surprised if we ever have a meal together and I slip in a pair of earplugs and offer to buy cotton candy.