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)

Monday, November 12, 2018

1667: What I've Learned from Six Years of NaNoWriMo

(What the hell is NaNoWriMo?! Click here.)

Most of these lessons apply specifically to writers, but there's probably something in here for everyone. I hope so, at least.

First of all, I don't like writing novels. That's an important thing I've learned. I love writing, but I'm not particularly good at writing novels, and also I don't particularly enjoy it. How the hell do people get to be good at writing novels?! I feel like I'm decent at poetry and creative non-fiction because I do it ALL THE TIME. Do novelists just write novels ALL THE TIME?! Anyway, novels are not my strong suit. I'm not a completely horrendous novelist, but I also don't enjoy it enough to practice at this point in my life/writing career. I value NaNoWriMo because I don't think I would have learned that about myself if I hadn't written three full manuscripts, and started three others.

Second of all, that daily word count goal is key. If I fall behind for even one day, I struggle to catch up. Fall behind for two days and I’m doomed. For some, this attitude is disastrous in the event that they fall behind. For me, it motivates me to not fall behind.

Third, 1,667 words are easier to write than 50,000. 50,000 words over 30 days is 1,667 words per day. And that’s totally manageable if you make the time for it. If you can set aside an hour per day, even in increments, you can totally write 1,667 words a day. If that still feels like too many, write 834 words twice a day.

Fourth, you can do hard things. This is a little trite, but the first year that I completed a NaNoWriMo novel, my greatest sense was one of exhausted accomplishment. I wrote a NOVEL. And as clich├ęd as it sounds, it was a good reminder to carry into other areas of my life. Need to build some shelves? You totally can, because you wrote a novel. Not sure how to play this role? You’ll figure it out, because you wrote a novel. Wanna go to grad school? You totally can, because YOU WROTE A NOVEL.

Fifth, there’s a difference between writer’s block and writer’s fatigue. Writer’s fatigue is when you know what to write, and you just don’t feel like writing it. In those times, the best solution is to take a break. Given the need to meet a daily word count, that break may not be longer than a few hours. But take the break and do something different for a minute. Writer’s block is when you don’t know what to write. Or worse yet, you think you could probably come up with something but you can’t hear any inspiration over the sound of your own inner critic.

Sixth, there will always be an inner critic. There will probably be multiple inner critics. These are the voices who scream from the corners that you don’t know what you’re doing and that all your writing is rubbish and that you should probably give up because nothing you write is original or even interesting and it’s definitely not good. Fortunately, those critics are almost always liars. Unfortunately, the best way to shut them up is to do the very thing they’re telling you not to, which is just to write. (If you're looking for some encouragement, I HIGHLY recommend looking through the archive of NaNoWriMo Pep Talks, wherein published writers give advice and encouragement. The pep talks written by John Green and Dave Eggers are two personal favorites.)

Seventh, just write. Write the memoir or the novel or the poem or the screenplay or the stage play or the radio drama or the narrative journalism or all of the above. The point of NaNoWriMo is to write the thing you’ve always been meaning to write but haven’t gotten around to yet. It’s to help you create a disciplined writing habit. It’s to help you get the words onto the page. Because you can take 50,000 words of a terrible novel and make a good novel out of them. (The way to write a good story is to write a bad story and then fix it.) You can’t take 50,000 words of nothing and make them into a good novel.

Eighth, you’re not a garbage human if you decide to resign from NaNoWriMo. This is especially true if you’re working two jobs, performing in one play, rehearsing for another, preparing an audition for a third, spending more than two hours per day commuting, and discovering that you don’t, in fact, enjoy writing novels. If NaNoWriMo isn’t making you a better or more disciplined writer, isn’t helping you meet your goals, and is in fact taking away from your ability to do well at meeting other goals, then you don’t have to do it. You may feel guilty for a day or two, but ultimately, feel much more at home continuing a blog challenge with your sister and writing poetry and the occasional essay. (When I say “you” in this section, I mean myself. I’m talking about myself.)

The last thing I've learned is that if you embark on this month-long folly, setting up a profile on the NaNoWriMo website is actually a really helpful tool. The pep talks and badges and forums are awesome. I highly recommend it. Both setting up a profile and doing NaNoWriMo.

(photo via)