The Secret I Probably Shouldn’t Tell You: The Way You Chew Gum Drives Me Insane

She’s killing me and she doesn’t even know it

For as long as I can remember, certain sounds people make have caused me rage. The word rage isn’t any sort of hyperbole, either — I have felt compelled to rush up to obnoxious gum chewers, slurpers and whistlers (not to mention loud talkers, hummers, bag crinklers and those who play the TV or music too loud) and cause bodily harm, despite the fact that I’ve never so much as shoved someone in my life.

Now, when you’re a generally intolerant person — someone with overly high expectations, little patience and a desire for perfection from others — you will assume that surges of anger over noises people make is just another example of your intolerance. That is why the sheer redemption I feel over having discovered that I have an actual disorder — misophonia — has been sweet.

While some publications began writing about this condition — which is to be caused by a “hyperconnectivity between the auditory system and the limbic system” — since last year, it took a New York Times piece from February to launch it to the forefront of public discourse. Slate followed with an article in August and in the past week, Broadly, The Columbian and many others have followed.

Turns Out I’m Not Just an Intolerant Bitch!

I’ve gorged myself on this glut of stories with the same zeal I embraced the Bose noise cancelling headphones I bought a few years ago. Not only have these pieces provided vindication but they have also made me grateful that my condition is comparatively mild; some people with the disorder, I’ve now learned, “frequently cannot function anymore” and there are those who actually feel suicidal.

According to Broadly, somewhere between 15 and 20% of the population has misophonia but as a lifelong sufferer (the way my brother slurped his cereal when we were kids caused no end of torment), I find that statistic highly unlikely.

I’m no researcher or scientist but I am a consistent complainer who’s talked about this issue with uncountable people over the course of my lifetime and I have only met one who related and I only met her last year. The Emotional Freedom Technique therapist I went to a few years ago in the hope of finding relief told me my irritation was connected to trauma; she tapped on my, um, energy meridians in order to solve the issue to, well, no effect.

I Don’t Care What You Say—This is All Too Real

While there are many people who believe that we overpathologize everyday feelings and habits — a guy stubs the same toe a few times and suddenly doctors claim he has a disorder that causes him to continue to try to hurt the same body part repeatedly — all of them can calm down if they want to get upset about this one. (Kathie Lee and Hoda, I’m talking to you.)

The discovery that I have a “Pavlovian conditional physical reflex problem” reminds me of how I felt when I learned that I suffered from alcoholism — an immense relief, not only because by then I was in the midst of a solution, but also because it took the onus off of me; I wasn’t a crazy, out-of-control, life-destroying person. My semi disastrous life the decade before I got sober had not been my fault.

I May Be Vindicated But I’m Still Powerless

Of course, I’m not in the midst of any solution for my “miso” (as someone who has it, I feel entitled to a nickname that makes us all think of soup, even though I have an immediate association with the horrible slurping sounds some make while consuming it).

Some sufferers seek out CBT or SSRI’s and Slate mentions desensitization therapy, a practice that includes giving people chocolate chip cookies when they’re around those who smack their lips so they can create new associations with intolerable sounds. (Yum but not terribly practical and probably not ideal for sugar addicts; also, there’s some debate about the accuracy of desensitization success rates.)

The Times piece reports that studies have linked OCD and PTSD to misophonia but does that potential connection really matter? Sure, I’ve diagnosed myself with OCD, as has almost everyone else I know, though I know that whatever qualifies me for it is quite manageable (it’s safe to say that needing to read the notifications on my phone the second I see them doesn’t interfere with the quality of my life).

And I guess that’s my solution here as well: be grateful that my condition isn’t worse and find ways to cope.

Here Are Some of the Coping Methods I’ve Tried

My most common (and often ineffective) attempt to Stop the Gumchewer Before S/he Starts is to say something like, “I never knew you chewed gum” with plenty of judgment and a shaming quality to my tone.

I’ve rushed off the phone when someone I’m talking to is eating into it and announced, “No, I hate gum” when people offer me a piece, hoping this will prevent them from chewing it themselves.

I’ve rejected potential relationships with people who I realize upon first meeting are gum snappers.

Finally, if none of those things work, I’ve resorted to confessing how furious seemingly benign sounds make me, a disclosure that has always made me embarrassed and ashamed and which I’ve only done when it’s someone I’m close to who I know will be in my life for a long time if not forever.

The sort of embarrassment and shame those conversations have brought me sucks but it’s better than the kind I have when I’ve swept past the anger controlling point and snapped at people that they’re driving me to madness (my friendship with the person who sent me the Times piece, a guy who works in my co-working space, started with me yelling at him that he needed to keep it down when he talked on the phone if the rest of us ever hoped to concentrate).

These so-called solutions can, on occasion, be helpful — some will react to the gum chewing comment by silently spitting theirs out, either because they understand they’re being irritating or because they’re people pleasers (which always makes me thrilled they haven’t yet discovered Alanon).

But most of the time, these efforts are entirely ineffective. People will answer that yes, they do love chewing gum and oh, they’re eating salad or grapes or nuts as they continue to chomp into the phone.

Hopefully, Greater Awareness Is the Answer

Better than any medication or chocolate chip cookies is the potential solution that more people can become aware of misophonia so I can just announce that I have it and hope folks can chill out on their masticating in the same way I can tell people I’m sober and they stop insisting on pouring me a glass of wine.

Of course I don’t see this happening any time soon, nor do I see a 12-step program for this popping up (it would be far more effective to send gum snappers to a 12 step program of their own). Until they come up with an operation that can undo the hyperconnectivity between my auditory and limbic systems (not holding my breath), I’ll just have to rely on my old stand bys — passive aggression and headphones — but with the newfound conviction that I’m an innocent victim of a seemingly hopeless condition and not just a nightmare girl snapping at you to keep it the f down.

Though, truth be told, you probably should be keeping it the f down.

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