Zach Rosenberg didn’t know why he’d get irrationally angry while listening to his family eating until he learned that his reaction was being triggered by a very real neurological condition
During mealtimes with my son, it’s like someone has put a microphone next to his lips. It’s as if I hear the glands in his mouth squirting out saliva, dousing the food even before it’s off the fork, which slices across the enamel of his teeth. I hear the shapes of his molars fitting into each other as his jaws come together and more saliva fills the remaining crevices of his mouth. I hear his tongue lapping around, molding the food into crumbled, wet balls, mashing them backward down his throat. And that second swallow… that’s just crumbs and saliva.
I vividly remember hating the way that certain people ate when I was a teenager. I could hardly stand to be at a table with these people—which was disappointing because they were my family and close friends. I got older. Moved out, moved away. I wasn’t around those members of my family all of the time. I wasn’t living with those friends. So, occasional meals with them weren’t as much of a problem.
But now I’ve got a son and, sometimes when we’re eating together, I do everything I can to not explode into a billion irrationally annoyed and screaming pieces.
I’ve always asked people if they could “not eat like that.” I’d give friends hell if they weren’t chewing with their mouths closed, though it really didn’t have much to do with whether they chewed with their mouths open or closed.
After one particular lunchtime when I had to sit in another room while my wife and son had lunch, I knew I had to do something about it. Nothing breaks your heart more and makes you feel more stupid than hearing your five-year-old son say, “This is just how I eat, Daddy.”
Because he’s right. He’s doing nothing wrong and, once I made sure that I told him that, I whisked away to my online dad blogger support group. I figured they were in the same place in life as me, so they might know what I’m talking about.
I asked if anyone else was filled with complete and unfair rage while listening to others eat. And then it happened. At least TEN other dads said that they experience the same thing. I wasn’t alone. And then one of them gave me a name for it—MISOPHONIA. Literally, the hatred of specific sounds.
The dad that put a name to my irrational behavior also linked to a New York Times piece that immediately made me feel better. Before knowing about misophonia, I was just uncomfortable and angry at the table. It made me feel like I was being needlessly cranky and particular. Because after all—I wasn’t grossed-out by the sounds my own mouth was making, and I knew I was making sounds. And telling my wife, who remains married to me through years of me snoring, that I’ve got a problem with the sound that her saliva makes as it saturates the food in her mouth and lubricates the bolus of food as it slides down her throat… well, it doesn’t go over well.
Misophonia isn’t to be confused with hyperacusis—which is an over-sensitivity to certain frequencies or volume ranges of sound, or phonophobia—a fear of loud sounds. I love all sorts of loud music—and misophoniacs (which I just made a word) often enjoy loud sounds. It’s just that those barely-audible, insignificant sounds somehow get inside their heads and create the “fight or flight” response.
Research is still very young, as misophonia has been recognized as a disorder for less than fifteen years. Experts don’t have a lot of answers, so they’ve kicked around the ideas that the disorder is linked to bad memories, trauma, or just plain ol’ genetics. But it’s been found that that misophoniacs are more deeply annoyed by people they’ve got close emotional ties with—like family members. This is why I care about my son’s chewing, but not the random people at the table next to us at a restaurant.
A Dutch study that concluded way back in 2013 found that 52.4% of their misophonia-sufferers showed traits of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. For what it’s worth, when I get into my car, I “have to” tap the brake and gas pedals alternately a couple times before I can start the car. And I’ve admitted in the past that I can’t pee around other men (but, strangely, have no problem listening to them pee). That’s a whole ‘nother topic.
But I digress.
Just knowing that misophonia is a thing makes me aware that it’s okay for me to feel this way because I can’t help it. Or can I?
I can. I now feel better at the table. I’ve got an admittedly mild case, from what I’ve read about others’ experiences. My solution: I’d recently started putting on music during dinner and, besides just loving music, it helped to focus my mind somewhere other than my son’s inner-mouth-workings. Mealtime music won’t work for every case, but I’m pleased with my results.
The most important thing to me is that I can continue to eat dinner with my wife and son. I love having dinner with them, and the pleasure I get from having conversations with my family over home-cooked meals trumps my annoyances any day.
Image courtesy of the author