I think I have misophonia, sometimes called “selective sound sensitivity.” There are certain noises that run through me like a knife. Not just the usual ones that bother everybody, like the screech of nails on a chalkboard. I’m annoyed by the sound of a yapping dog, for instance, in a way that others seem not to be.
Misophonia literally means “hatred of sound.” But not every sound. The specific irritants vary among those who suffer from the condition, but commonly include loud chewing and slurping, sniffing, persistent throat clearing, knuckle-cracking… Let’s just say it’s a long list.
For people with misophonia, trigger sounds might cause slight discomfort, or a full fight-or-flight response. It’s hard for others to understand our very real struggle to cope with the sounds of daily life.
In the 1990s, my husband directed the University of Wisconsin-Madison Biotron, a controlled environment for plant and animal research. One of the rooms in the building was designed to allow complete isolation from the outside world. It floated on huge springs to minimize mechanical vibrations. Thick concrete walls kept out all sound. A wire cage embedded in the concrete made the space impermeable to electrical interference. From the moment I heard that a room like this could be built, I’ve wanted one in my house.
My misophonia extends to some types of music. Dissonance puts me on edge. Extended jazz improvisations lacking any sort of regular meter upset me, too. And I can’t listen to twangy vocals without feeling unsettled.
One of the places where I play lunchtime background music has wood laminate floors in the dining room. Here’s what happens each time I visit: I arrive as scheduled and begin playing. Residents make their way to their assigned tables. So far so good. But then, each person pulls out a chair, which scrapes across the laminate floor with surprising volume, the noise bouncing off every hard surface in the room. The residents abandon their walkers and transfer into their seats, then adjust their chairs with a series of additional scrapes to get close enough to the table to eat. This goes on for the first 20 minutes of the hour I’m there, at 22 tables for four.
For most people, this would not be a big deal. I know that. After all, the residents are simply settling themselves for their meal. But the incessant scraping pains me. Literally. The raspy noise fills my head and drives me nuts.
Fleeing is not an option. So I take deep breaths and try to slide further into the music, which by now only I can hear. And eventually, the scraping stops. All is calm, my music accompanied only by quiet conversation and the soft clinking of forks against plates.
Too soon, the early arrivers have finished eating and prepare to leave. The scraping begins anew as chairs are pushed back from the table, walkers fetched, and the ritual repeated, in reverse. The cacophony lasts for the final third of my hour-long performance.
But those middle 20 minutes? My pleasure.
Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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