Misophonia Sinfonia

via anniebee on Flickr: http://bit.ly/w1Ung2

My husband and I moved back to Brooklyn a few weeks ago, which means that I now return — for at least part of the week, on mornings when I’m not in Manhattan — to my old gym, which I frequented during my six years in Park Slope. Today was the first day I’d returned, after two years of going exclusively to the awesome McBurney YMCA, and the memories all came flooding back — through my ears.

The Brooklyn gym is a neighborhood gym, with lots of neighborhood folks — including a few with a sonic character all their own. Every gym has its histrionic huffers and grunters, but we’ve got some even more distinctive character actors here. There’s the guy who rides the recumbent bike, whose insanely loud pffffssshhhhh exhalations, expelled through clenched teeth, resonate throughout the entire floor, into separate rooms and even down the stairwell. Then there’s the other guy who rides the upright bike whose wide-open-mouthed exhalations are equally loud, yet punctuated after every four breaths by two hacking coughs. I’m not lying. It’s like clockwork. And then there’s the guy who listens to doo-wop on his Walkman and breaks out every 20 seconds or so with a jarring “doo bee doo bee doo!”… “tell me whyyyy”… “sheboom sheboom”… “dooo waaaaaaahhhh.” He’s got the perfect voice for the musical style — but, honestly, it’s not what I want to hear, drowning out the sound from my own earbuds, when I’m doing my pull-downs.

The last guy, I realize, might sound adorable. I’m well aware that I should find him adorable, but instead, I’m so annoyed I can pay attention to little else. I find myself grimacing, glaring, then catching myself and forcing a smile. For as long as I can remember, I’ve fixated on errant human- and human-and-object produced sounds. “Don’t you hear that? How can you stand it?” I’ll say to my companions. They often have no idea what I’m talking about. Consider last week, when we were taking the bus to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I was trying to have a conversation with my husband, but all I could hear was a persistently squeaky ‘s’ taunting me from the back of the bus. I simply can’t tune out sibilant female voices: “Yesssss, Ssssarah and I are going out Sssaturday night to Lombardi’ssssss.” Why should such an innocuous sentence make my skin crawl? Why does the sound of cracking gum put me on the edge of getting all up in somebody’s face? (I should note that this paragraph is chock-full of extreme hyperbole!) Why do I want to smash the TV screen when Blake Lively says “Chuck” on Gossip Girl? Why do I feel the urge to publicly berate people who drag their feet in flip-flops? What’s the big deal with cashiers whose long, ornately bedazzled fingernails clickety-click on cash register keys? Why do smacking lips make my fists clench? Why is it so hard for me to be next to people walking in corduroy pants? That zip-zip sound — ooh, it kills me.

I never act on any of these impulses or express my anger, of course. I realize my reactions are completely irrational…and pretty embarrassing. “Doesn’t that bother you, that guy cracking his knuckles on the far end of the subway platform?” I’ll ask my companions, hoping for empathy. Their response: What guy? Then I wonder: OMG — what noises do I make that are really annoying? If I had to listen to myself, would I want to punch me?

Gwinnett County, GA, by BarelyFitz on Flickr: http://bit.ly/BLY4Q

My gym experience this morning reminded me of an article I read in the Times a couple months ago — one that put into perspective my experience and allayed my fears that I might either have bionic ears or be a total a-hole. Misophonia, misophonia — “dislike of sound” — that’s what it is. “Many people can be driven to distraction by certain small sounds that do not seem to bother others — gum chewing, footsteps, humming,” the Times reports. “But sufferers of misophonia, a newly recognized condition that remains little studied and poorly understood, take the problem to a higher level.” Some doctors believe the “condition is hard-wired, like right- or left-handedness, and is probably not an auditory disorder but a ‘physiological abnormality’ that resides in brain structures activated by processed sound.” Having a name for it makes me feel a little less crazy, but I’m not totally convinced that I’ve got a legitimate “condition,” and that I’m not just being a jerk; I can’t let myself off the hook that easily. As some comedian the brilliant comedian Derik Boik put it, “This new ‘condition’ of yours sounds a lot like a thing I call, ‘Being Annoyed by Something Annoying.’”

My annoyance doesn’t escalate to blood-boiling rage, as seems to be the case for some of the folks described in the Times article. But it does push me to the verge of self-righteous proclamations. “Excuse me, sir, but could you please not breathe so loudly?!? Not everyone wants to share in your respiration!”

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Misophonia Sinfonia by Shannon Mattern, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

5 comments on “Misophonia Sinfonia

  1. Kiersten December 13, 2011 12:19 AM

    other gym insights:

    1. Individuals + their overly inflated balls of plastic, should really get their own room (I do not, nor care to, understand the relationships that spawn between my fellow gym members + their plastic balls. what ever works. just please do the rest of us a favor by keeping your public displays of affection, including all corresponding sighs, groans + exhalations, to a minimum.)

    2. Naked person ALWAYS has right of way.

    • Shannon December 13, 2011 12:23 AM

      Awesome. I think we’ve effectively written a handy “code of conduct” guidebook that could be distributed at gyms across the land.

  2. Derik Boik January 6, 2012 12:42 PM

    You know what drives me up the wall? When someone takes the milk out of the refrigerator, uses it, and doesn’t IMMEDIATELY put it back. I remember, when I was a kid, having a friend stay the night who would do just that; pour milk into his his cereal and sit down to eat. I would stare intently and angrily at this kid (my friend, perhaps my best) with utter hatred, waiting for them to realize that the milk jug was still sitting on the table. Inside, I’d be boiling, screaming in my head, “The MILK! You forgot to put the milk away! Hello?!?” Until I could no longer take it and I’d have to get up and do it myself, letting out a passive aggressive sigh which, of course, the other child would not or could not perceive. Sometimes, that would be the last time that kid ever stayed the night.

    Now, did I or do I have a condition called Room Temperature Lactose Intolerance? Or just an anger problem?

    When I was a child, I was diagnosed with and took medicine for ADHD. Did I really have a disorder or was school just boring?

    I loved your article. I’m a little hurt that you referred to me as “some comedian” (with a strike through the word comedian) but just know that I wasn’t saying misophonia doesn’t exist. I’m just saying that it sounds weird (no pun intended). In fact, I think my wife suffers from a version of it that includes smells.

    Good luck to you and consider going to a new gym or buying better headphones.

    Yours Truly,
    Some Comedian

    • Shannon January 6, 2012 2:08 PM

      I’m sorry, Derek! That strikethrough wasn’t my doing! I use a plugin that identifies all broken links in my posts, and marks them with a strikethrough. My textual formatting was no way a tacit commentary on your comedic abilities! You’ll see that I’ve updated the link and gave you some extra props.

      As for misophonia: I agree with you! I think it sounds a little weird, too — but weird things often prove true.

      • Derik Boik January 6, 2012 3:54 PM

        Ha. Thank you. Although, now I’m feeling a little like Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web; first I was “Some Pig” and now I’m “Brilliant.” You’ve made my day.

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