Nothing to do with the subject in hand, but I thought I’d treat you to a recent snap of my grandchildren.
Forgive the digression. You know how we grannies dote . . .
My daughter Grace (Buzzfloyd), her nose ever faithfully to the trail, continues to track down instances of the Neurological Weirdness that besets our family, with a view to better understanding and empowering its members – herself and her son in particular. Snuffling suspiciously along the criss-crossing paths of the forest of Life, she has come across this one.
All the women in my family have this.
What is it? Well, the “mis” part you'll recognize from misanthropy and misogyny – it’s an inherent aversion to something, a profound, irresistible, instinctive innate dislike – going beyond dislike, actually; intolerance. Inability to tolerate. And the “phonia” – well, symphony, telephone, phonic – it’s to do with sound.
So misophonia is a near phobic aversion to sounds. Not just any sounds. Social sounds; human sounds. The sounds people make when they eat with their mouths open, for example. Or the sound of a lower-middle-class English person socially acculturated to start a cup of tea with an inward slurp followed by a release of breath, “Aaaaaaahh . . . .” As the tea-drinker releases his audible “Aaahh”, the misophone responds with an internal, inaudible “Aaaaaaaagh!!!!” and has to apply every ounce of self-discipline to stay still and keep smiling, resisting the impulse to scream, run from the room or let fly an astonishing and unreasonable stream of invective. The children of misophones learn early to eat with their mouths closed and move quietly through the world. Which begs the question; to what extent is misophonia endogenous and neurological and inherited, and to what extent is it a psychological trait acquired through socialization? It is easy to mistake one alternative for the other. You get this in many manifestations of human idiosyncrasy – heart disease for example. It is said to be inherited, but then if there’s one thing we inherit and have the devil of a job altering, it’s our eating patterns. Either way with misophonia, it’s a powerful, visceral force; and my family have it in spades. Grace tells me that once when they were small I even asked a guest at our home if he would please not eat with his mouth open as I was trying to train my children not to do so. I can’t believe I actually did this, but I do know I was even crazier as a young woman than I am now – it’s taken years of assiduous work and study to acquire whatever levels of calm and sanity I have now (however tenuously) attained. So Grace is probably right.
One of us can’t stand the noise the water distiller makes (a quiet electric fan running for some hours). When my children were little I had to give them notice of running the vacuum cleaner – and we still avoid vacuuming the floors because the noise does our heads in. We sweep, when and where we can. One of us, as a child, couldn’t help the involuntary noises she made because of one neurological disorder but couldn’t bear the minor eating noises others made, because of her misophonia. It’s all rather wearing.
Some people have it really badly. A friend of Grace’s was reduced to tears at the prospect of attending a wedding reception (her own, for all I know) because her husband’s family all eat with their mouths open. We don’t have it that badly. It doesn’t make us cry. But we’d probably leave early. Or not go.
I have an intense aversion to social events where people have their mouths open in that particular kind of welcoming social smile. Wet. Gleaming teeth. Souls not tucked in properly. That’s (one reason) why I like the Society of Friends; they keep their mouths shut most of the time. They aren’t alarmingly friendly. Such social events are often venues for the noises that torture misophones. I can’t even bear the photos in fashion magazines where the models have their mouths open in supposedly inviting or seductive expressions. And the visceral revulsion that homophobes experience about the prospect of homosexuality afflicts me about all displays of sexuality especially on the TV or on films. Any danger of a screen kiss and I shut my eyes tight in horror, and if it’s the wet sucky licky kind I wrap my hands round my head as well so I can’t possibly see or hear them and someone has to tell me when it’s gone. Ugh. Screen sex, ditto. Can’t bear it. The notion of sex doesn’t distress me, whether homosexual or heterosexual, and my own intimate relationship rolls along fine. It’s the screen sound and visuals that reduce me to crumpling horror; like being overwhelmed by mucusy gastropods (oh gosh, look, some people do it on purpose!). Well, I know snails are silent, but I think in this instance it’s all tied up with the misophonia.
But now, here’s the thing. It seems there are in the world people with philophonia as well (or should that be philaphonia?). Not philophobia. That’s a recognized term for the irrational fear of emotional attachment or of falling in love. I don’t have that, though I have the darnedest job staying attached, to anyone or anything, but that’s another story. No, philophonia is a word of my own creation, meaning the opposite of misophonia. A philophone likes the sounds the misophone can’t bear.
An introvert as well as a misophone, silent and as folded-in as an sea anemone, I can pass through any place unrecognized and ignored, because I give out no signals. I didn’t realize anyone gave out signals until, walking through the town centre with a friend who can’t go anywhere without being constantly stopped by acquaintances who recognize him and want to chat, I began to realize he was causing this by making little sounds. As soon as he saw someone he knew, he began making very tiny sounds in his nose like incipient guinea-pig vocalisations, repetitively. Yes, I am barmy. Yes, it would take a misophone to notice. But yes, this is true. Mini subliminal sounds. Drawing attention. Curious. And it seemed to be working.
But now, here’s the thing. I, a misophone, live in a misophonic household all with neurological dispositions in that direction trained and exacerbated by me, their mother (mea culpa) into an extreme condition; except one of us. For my husband, gentle reader, is a philophone; a man with a sound track, communicating with the world through a seamless unconscious unintentional interweaving of exhalations, grunts and whistles throughout the day. If he sits down on a chair, it’s with a satisfied “Oooooh” and a sigh of pleasure at how nice it is to sit down. Sometime two or three times. A salesman of extraordinary ability, when he locks into advocating a product, I’ve noticed (a misophone would) he emits infinitesimally small smackings of the lips at the end of each phrase – inviting and encouraging, I suspect, on a subliminal plane, and imperceptible to those who are not misophonic. Contentedly, as he potters round the bedroom of a morning searching for his socks and his vitamins, he whistles through his teeth. I must restrain the compulsion to give full vent to my misophonia, and end the catalogue there. On occasion, I have looked at him with amazement and said “You are the noisiest man I have ever met.” And of course, in this household of narrowed-eyed misophones padding through life in stealth mode with their mouths shut like traps, he comes within a whisker of death every day. It is a measure of how much we love and esteem him, for a dearer man never walked the earth, that we continue along together. And also because by this time we know a disorder when we see one; misophonia is quite common, but it is not normal, if you see what I mean.
But silence is golden.