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Misophonia: the hatred of sound


It’s a rare sensitivity to normal, everyday sounds, like typing, or footsteps, or even breathing. And it’s being increasingly diagnosed. Researchers believe Misophonia begins in adolescence, but it can carry into adulthood. It can cause the people who believe they’re suffering from it to feel enraged, panicked, and inescapably overwhelmed.

KALW’s Leila Day spoke with a teenager who believes she’s suffering from Misophonia in this story of a family’s struggle with sound.  A note for our readers: we’re only using the girls’ first name to protect her identity.

DIANA: Today in therapy I had to close my eyes and try to remember the feeling that I get when I hear the sounds that bother that me then I had to picture myself in a safe place – my room.

Then I open my eyes and follow a green ball that he would move back and forth, in front of my eyes. Doing this helps me move in a place of memory.

My name is Diana, I’m 15 years old and I live in San Jose, CA.

Misophonia literally translated is: the hatred of sound. My trigger sounds: sneezing, sniffling, whistling, coughing, snoring, fingers, feet, etc tapping… tapping, throat clearing. Chewing.

JENNIFER, DIANA’S MOTHER: She always did well in school, very responsible, never had any problems. About five months ago she told me that she has a problem and needed help, she said she had problems with sound.

DIANA: I used to play piano but I didn’t care for it too much so I quit.

JENNIFER: I talked to the doctor and he didn’t believe it was a real condition. He said, “There’s nothing wrong with her.” He said, “If you want to you can have her ears checked out but nothing’s wrong with her.”

He totally dismissed it. The thing that got me kind of thinking that this is not normal is when she said that when she hears the sound she wants to stab somebody or something. Kids don’t describe that they want to stab something. So we got the pillows and we asked her to hit the pillows, but when I read her blog, I realized it’s the feeling that she had was intense and not something we could talk over with her and it would go away.

DIANA: April 4, 2012. Recently I’ve been feeling really dizzy, so my mom has me on a diet and I’m taking anti-depressants. I do feel a lot better but I don’t know.  I’m not sure if it’s from my eating habits or pills. I was at my dad’s house and he sneezed 20 times in a row and I told myself if he sneezes one more time I’m going to go to hit him, so I hit my head on the wall to kind of get it out of my head. And I felt dizzy afterwards and I just went to sleep.

DR. MARSHA JOHNSON: I’m Dr. Marsha Johnson, audiologist, and I’m at the Oregon Tinnitus and Hyper-acoustic clinic. I specialize in very strange auditory disorders.

Misopohonia is something we started to work with in 1997. My first patient was a teenager who suffered from a severe reaction to everyday noises. She couldn’t eat dinner with her family. She couldn’t stand being in a class in high school with pencils scratching on the paper.

What we call sounds that bother us, people with Misophonia call trigger sounds. Most common is gum chewing; after that we find breathing, eating, and lip smacking sounds, throat clearing sounds, even people rubbing their feet together sounds. These trigger sounds can set off a tremendous amount of stress for people that have Misophonia. Try to imagine if in your life, everywhere you go, there is someone scraping that blackboard and sharp fingernails scraping the blackboard and you are feeling that way all the time.

They cry, scream, hit, and refuse to do things like come to the dinner table. A lot of them are nice children – they feel bad and don’t want to eat, but one sign is an hour and a half after everyone else is done they feel hungry. We found that if we flood the brain with a broad band of sound, like a white noise or pink noise, with a sea of noise, these little intrusive sounds won’t have as much of an impact and what we find after a year that about 80 percent get some relief.

Misophonia is a kissing cousin of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so some of the drugs that are used for OCD are being tried on the patients, but haven’t been so successful. We believe it’s involving the lower parts of the brain structures. There’s nothing wrong with their hearing; we believe it’s a trigger that’s associated with the limbic system or the emotional center of the brain or the brain that controls your heart rate or flight or fight capacity. It’s a terrible situation for people.

DIANA: I like brown noise. It sounds like static, to some people it sounds like waves. And it’s calming. If I play it loud enough it drowns out people chewing. I’m hoping that I grow out of it and a few years from now I can look back and go, that’s what happened. But seeing on the Internet, I see there are people that have this in their 60s and 70s, so I’m kind of scared.

JENNIFER: I’m very careful. My husband has a lot of sniffles. Even his breathing. She’s bothered by his breathing. He eats before we eat, so we try to accommodate her. She would put on brown noise just so she can eat while he’s around. At times it’s hard when I’m trying my best and at times she’s mean: she’ll like grab my mouth and tell me to shut my mouth and don’t chew with your mouth open. And I say it’s not her, it’s the Misophonia. And I worry because I don’t want her to think that it’s normal.

DIANA: Do you think what I have is real or do you think I’m doing it to get attention?

JENNIFER: I know that it’s a real condition – that you’re not making it up.

Click the player to listen to this story above. 

To learn more about Misophonia, visit www.misophonia.info.

Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.