For most of us, there are certain everyday sounds that are annoying, like car horns, dripping sinks, and foot-tapping. For people who suffer from misophonia, they can be enraging — and for one New York woman, it drove her to suicide.
Michelle Lamarche Marrese, a Fulbright scholar and Russian historian with several advanced degrees, was found dead in bed in her multimillion-dollar New York City condo on Oct. 30. According to the New York Post, Marrese suffered from misophonia and had emailed writer Joyce Cohen, who had written a story about the condition for the New York Times, asking for help.
“Unfortunately, the battles about noise (which ‘no one else can hear’) are destroying my marriage and my health,” she confided in Cohen over email, according to the Post. Marrese detailed how noise “travels across several floors through the vents” in her building, adding, “We suffered through 18 months of shrill noise coming from the toilet next door.” A neighbor also “held me hostage” with construction noise from interior renovations, but Marrese said her complaints were brushed off by her husband and condo manager.
Marrese also detailed how it affected her marriage. “My husband is a noisy eater,” she wrote. “He breathes like he just ran a marathon, even while sitting still. Of course, noise does not bother him, so he manages to forget that I really am in emotional pain most of the time.”
Misophonia, also known as “selective sound sensitivity syndrome,” is a hatred of specific sounds and triggers that are specific to each misophonia sufferer, according to Misophonia.com. “Any sound can become a problem to a person with misophonia, but most are some kind of background noise,” the website says, noting that people call the collection of sounds that they’re sensitive to their “trigger set.”
If people with misophonia hear a sound from their trigger set, they have an immediate negative reaction that ranges from discomfort to full-on rage and panic. “While experiencing a trigger event, a person may become agitated, defensive or offensive, distance themselves from the trigger or possibly act out in some manner,” Misophonia.com states.
M. Zachary Rosenthal, Ph.D., an associate professor at Duke University who treats patients with misophonia, tells Yahoo Beauty that the condition is “very in the moment, biologically based.” He compares misophonia triggers with hearing nails on a chalkboard, but instead of getting shivers up your spine, a misophonia sufferer will experience an intense fight or flight reaction. The reaction is “very biological and tough to contain,” he says. Rosenthal says research on the condition has been sparse, and many scientists are trying to raise more money to explore it further.
The Misophonia.com forum is filled with stories of people who suffer from the condition, including one who says she “never knew this was a thing.” “I’ve had this for as long as I can remember, but didn’t know it had a name,” she wrote. “Hopefully I can find someone to show me coping skills so that I might be able to eat with my family again.”
Others describe the “torture” of living with the condition. “I’m beginning to wonder if I will ever be able to stand having a family of my own or if it would be fair to my future family to make them put up with me,” one sufferer wrote. “I just don’t know what I want to do with myself anymore.”
Misophonia is a newly termed disorder, and research on the topic is in its infancy. However, audiologist and sound sensitivity specialist Susan E. Smittkamp, AuD, PhD, FAAA, of Associated Audiologists tells Yahoo Beauty that some people have found relief through cognitive behavioral therapy as well as sound therapy.
The exact reason why some people develop the condition is unknown, Smittkamp says, but it may be related to enhanced connectivity in the brain between the auditory system and the limbic system (which regulates emotion, among other things) and autonomic nervous system (which regulates the function of internal organs).
Aage R. Møller, Ph.D., a professor of cognition and neuroscience at The University of Texas at Dallas, tells Yahoo Beauty that misophonia can cause “real suffering in many people.” “I believe that the disease is not in the ear but in the brain,” he says. “It seems to me as a neuroscientist that it is an incorrect wiring somewhere high up in the brain where sounds are interpreted.”
While Smittkamp says misophonia can affect sufferers’ performance at school and at work, as well as their relationships, she says it can also be managed with proper treatment so that it no longer interferes with daily life. Rosenthal says it’s “definitely” possible for people to learn to live with misphonia, but does acknowledge that the condition falls on a spectrum. Meaning, it may be easier for some sufferers to learn to live with the condition than others.
Marrese recounted in her emails that few people took her condition seriously, adding, “I find it sad that compassion and empathy are in such short supply.”
In her last email to Cohen, she wrote, “Forgive the intrusion and the outpouring. I have left your name for my husband. If I can’t stand any more agony, at least you can write about me.”