The Art of Seeing by Michael Milton
Those of us in therapy each reached out for help in dealing with an assortment of psychological challenges: depression, insomnia, anger, insecurity, lack of love, lack of trust, bulimia, overeating, physical or mental abuse, financial woes. The list of reasons for investigating therapy is, in fact, as long and as varied as the number of patients sitting on therapists’ couches.
One of my reasons for beginning analysis was my many-year bout of misophonia—sound sensitivity syndrome. I have not always known that my aural touchiness went by any other name than “a little crazy.”
Only recently did I discover that there was scientific nomenclature for my raging response to certain sounds, and that meant I was not alone. It is curious how this singular discovery made me feel a bit better about myself in light of my misophonia. It’s true: Misery does love company.
Perhaps sound sensitivity pales in comparison when considered along-side the deep psychological wounds suffered from physical abuse or a daily battle resisting the siren song of suicide. Still, misophonia and my body’s response to it has made my life very difficult at times.
Chewing, snoring, whistling, humming, noisy breathing, the sound of a knife against a plate, tiny percussions blasting out of the iPod of my subway seat neighbor, wheezing, horn honking — many sounds of day to day life — can set my teeth on a very thin and brittle edge. I change subway cars when my steely stares go unnoticed or ignored by a nearby gum popper. Snoring can push me to seek refuge on the couch or even in the backseat of the car in the garage. I counter the muffled sound of the neighbor’s radio by turning up the fan and the volume on my CD player.
Clearly, settling in New York City was probably not the best choice I could have made in light of this syndrome.
Though therapy has helped me to piece together historic reasons for my misophonia, I am not yet totally free from the unpleasant response I have when I hear certain sounds. What do I feel? Imagine the way you feel when you witness injustice, or the way your body responds when you are falsely accused, or the way your pulse quickens and your skin gets clammy and your throat tightens when you observe someone behaving in a manner devoid of compassion.
That’s what I feel like when I hear certain sounds.
I often go to the theater where, you might correctly imagine, my misophonia can be sorely tested. Despite announcements before the curtain goes up outlining what it takes to be a good audience, there are still fellow theater-goers who think those messages are only for “other people.” I have been known to communicate my displeasure with those breaking theater rules by utilizing a communication system ranging from sharp hisses to outright “shut ups!”
I understand all of this makes me sound a trifle bit unbalanced but please remember, I am in therapy!
Recently, I attended a performance of a new Broadway show. I was running late and was able to slip into my seat as the lights were dimming. Normally, I take the moments before a show begins to cruise the immediate area, making a mental determination as to whom I will most likely need to keep an eye (or rather, ear) out for once the show is underway; who are the likely gum chewers, loud whisperers, page rattlers, pretzel munchers.
But my tardiness that evening had not given me the opportunity.
The opening number had only just begun when from directly behind came the “kkkrrrrsssshhhhhh” of a plastic bag being opened, and then noisily passed around.
I glanced to my neighbors on my immediate left and right. They did not appear to be perturbed at all. Too bad. Often, someone else sitting nearby will beat me to the punch, diving in and shaming the transgressor into quiescence before I have to do it myself.
The noise continued. Finally, exasperated, I looked over my shoulder to deliver a withering glare at the offenders.
And there behind me were four kids, all boys, raptly staring up at whatever was happening up onstage. They were sharing a large bag of M & Ms, passing it back and forth, not taking their eyes off the stage as they jammed their hands deeper and deeper down in the bag.
Further down the aisle sat a man and a woman I guessed were the boys’ parents. I also guessed them to be tourists. The two adults were staring straight ahead, both looking absolutely exhausted and probably profoundly grateful for an excuse to be sitting in the dark, momentarily absolved from their long day of caretaking, relieved from their duties by whatever color and movement was being spun out at them from the stage.
Thank goodness my nasty glare went unnoticed.
I slowly turned back in my seat and for one rare moment, the mindless irritation caused by my misophonia was dampened, and an almost tearful surge of something kinder took its place. Here were parents doing their best by their children. They had, by my reckoning, spent close to eight hundred dollars on the theater tickets alone. Add to that the possibilities of hotels, meals for six, parking, tolls, car rental or airfare. And there was nothing about this little group that suggested that money wasn’t anything but hard-earned.
I thought to myself, “Let them remember Times Square, Ellis Island, Central Park in spring, and the rush and din of our wonderful city and boroughs. I don’t want their takeaway from this trip to be my disdainful glance.”
I left them in peace and—for at least the duration of the play–the continuing rustle of the candy wrapper mercifully faded from my consciousness.
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