Monday, November 26, 2018

Food vs. Fight or Flight

I hate the sound of people smacking their lips when they eat. For the first few months of marriage, I couldn’t eat in the same room as my husband. I couldn’t figure out how to explain how his lips smacking sent me into fits of barely concealed rage. For years, I imagined my sensitivity came from being raised in a home where table manners were strictly observed. Chew with your mouth closed. Don’t talk with food in your mouth. Small bites. Elbows off the table, hands above the table. Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right. Cups on the right. Napkins folded neatly in your lap. Smacking lips while eating was a blatant disregard of the decorum that a social contract demanded. Even when my father was losing his hearing, and the sound of smacking lips wouldn’t have been an issue, he continued to eat as if at a state dinner, and we continued to follow his example.

Once, at a restaurant, a friend declared to the group that he hated it when people were overly strict about table manners. People shouldn’t have to try and be neat eaters, worrying about their bite sizes or chewing noises. “Just enjoy your food!” he said. I was instantly filled with horror. I took a deep breath and explained that if you do that and disregard manners, no one else at the table can enjoy THEIR food. It’s not arbitrary politeness. It’s evident of a deep consideration for the comfort of others.

Extended family gatherings are a source of deep stress for me. The elderly wheezes, the open-mouth chewing of in-laws. I eat through gritted teeth. How does one tell an entire family that the way they’re eating is horrifying, that it causes shudders to run up and down my spine, that it is the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard? There’s no polite way to correct someone’s chewing without being a snobby asshole. So I just assumed I was a snobby asshole.

And then, years ago, I came across an article detailing a newly discovered neurological disorder. Misophonia. Hatred of sound. Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome. For those with the disease, there seems to be a heightened connection between the auditory system (the part of the brain that controls hearing) and the limbic system (the part of the brain that controls emotion). Sufferers report feelings of intense and immediate anxiety and rage upon hearing the “trigger sounds.” Common triggers include eating and chewing noises, breathing sounds, and repetitive sounds like pencil tapping.

There it was. Validation. I could post this article to social media. I could share it with extended family. I could explain it to friends. I’m not a snobby asshole. I’m a sufferer of a neurological disorder.

But the stupid thing, the really deeply stupid thing, is that no matter how many times I share this article, I will always be in situations where people continue to smack their lips when they eat. I’ll come up with an amusing anecdote about misophonia before a meal, a subtle diplomatic announcement that I will be filled with rage when manners are ignored, not because of strict social upbringing, but because my auditory and limbic systems are closely linked. People nod. “That’s interesting,” they say, as they continue to smack their lips wetly, breathing through their noses, their mouths wide. I can feel the muscles in my jaw tightening.

A friend who shares the disorder once described the feeling as “wanting to crawl out of my skin and stuff that skin down the offending person’s throat.” It’s not just annoyance. The feeling isn’t akin to someone cutting you off in traffic, or posting a political article you disagree with on social media. The feeling is disgust and anger swirled together and multiplied by 100. It’s projectile vomit plus someone stepping on your toes. It’s banging your funny bone in a sewer. It’s stepping on a lego that’s covered in slug slime.

It has nothing to do with WHO is doing the lip-smacking. It isn’t a moral judgment, or an indictment of someone’s upbringing. It’s just an abnormal connection between my frontal lobe and my anterior insular cortex causing a visceral reaction to stimuli.

The good news is that I’ve managed to develop some coping mechanisms. A little cognitive-behavioral therapy here, a little mindfulness there. I’ll leave the room in the most desperate situations. My symptoms tend to fluctuate, depending on general stress levels. But most of the time, when I hear lip-smacking, I feel like I’m eating a food I hate. I can survive it, but everything in my brain and body is shuddering.

So if I ever say something about how you’re eating, it’s not because I’m a snobby asshole. It’s because I want to stay in the room with you, even though my brain is screaming fight-or-flight warnings about chewing noises.

Further Reading:
Science Alert article
Harvard Health Publishing article
Science Daily article
Misophonia Online (resources for sufferers)

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