The sound of chewing sends me into a panic — here's how I cope

Misophonia isn’t only about chewing. (Photo: Getty Images)
Misophonia isn’t only about chewing. (Photo: Getty Images)

My boyfriend reaches for the cheese, and I look on with dread. Everything changes to slow-mo, the knife slicing through the sharp cheddar, my boyfriend lifting the cheese to his mouth. I brace for the sound that rocks me to my core, trying to steel myself, trying not to run. You can do this, I tell myself. You can be normal.

But when the time comes, I can’t.

His teeth bite down hard, and then his mouth opens with a smack. I see a ball of chewed-up orange cheese and race to the other side of the room, all while trying to look nonchalant about it. It doesn’t work.

His head snaps up. “Why did you just run away?”

“I didn’t.”

“Is it my chewing?”

Ugh. I try to pretend that other people’s chewing doesn’t bother me, that I’m just like any other normal person who magically doesn’t hear the sound of smacking and chomping. But I hear it like it’s 10 times what it is, and the sound heats me up, sends me into a panic, triggers my fight-or-flight response. Just because someone wants a snack.

It doesn’t help that I live on a sailboat with my boyfriend. A sailboat that has less than 200 square feet of living space. We moved onto his 41-foot two-masted boat two years ago to avoid ridiculous San Francisco rents. Now our living expenses are in the hundreds of dollars per month, instead of the thousands that a one-bedroom apartment goes for in this city. The sailboat is beautiful and intimate, and connects us with nature. But it also has one major downside: its size.

When things really get bad with the chewing, there’s nowhere to run. I’ve used earplugs, especially when he’s eating ramen noodles, which lend themselves to a higher level of slurp. I’ve had to use this same tactic in the car, where I’ll slyly try to put in one earplug while he munches beef jerky, which is extra-chewy and terrifying. Unfortunately, the earplug I favor is bright orange, and he always seems to notice.

I first realized that I had a problem with chewing when I was a child, but back then, I didn’t know that having this kind of reaction to chewing was actually a thing. The sight and sound of my mom chewing with her mouth open made me feel anxious and stressed out. I began to categorize food by how loud it would sound. Milk and cereal were the worst.

A few years ago, an article online caught my eye. It was a first-person account from a woman talking about how difficult it was for her to be around her husband while he ate. She felt guilty when she gave him dirty looks with each chomp, and sometimes she’d flee to the other room. She struggled with this immensely; she just wanted to be able to eat dinner with her husband without freaking out or making him feel bad for eating. As I read this article, realization dawned. The woman said she had something called misophonia. Miso-what? I thought, Googling the condition, my eyes widening as I read about symptoms that matched my own. Finally, I knew what was wrong with me. Other people had my issue too! It was so freeing to know that I wasn’t alone.

“If you have a mild reaction, you might feel anxious, uncomfortable, the urge to flee, disgust,” says WebMD. Stronger reactions include attacking the person making the sound; luckily, mine isn’t that bad. Misophonia isn’t only about chewing. People can be triggered by other repetitive sounds, like finger-tapping, pen-clicking, and throat-clearing.

Nobody knows what causes this disease, but it shows up mostly in girls between the ages of 9 and 13. There is no drug treatment, and some people have to resort to wearing a hearing aid that plays a soothing sound over a trigger sound like chewing, or attending psychotherapy/cognitive therapy to help with negative thoughts. Other doctors treat misophonia with desensitization therapy, whereby people are given a pleasurable experience like eating cookies while also listening to their trigger sound. Misophonia still hasn’t been classified as an official psychiatric illness, but it definitely feels like one to me. Luckily, my case isn’t bad enough to warrant seeing a doctor. I’ve learned how to walk away and self-soothe to the best of my ability.

Misophonia influences which food I buy and make for my boyfriend and myself on the sailboat. I try to avoid things that are extra-chewy, like a crusty baguette or jerky. And candy? No way. Just the sound of someone eating a Snickers bar or sucking a piece of hard candy sends me through the roof. Food items are ordered or purchased by sound level in my head. Soft foods like sweet potatoes or chicken that falls off the bone are best.

This has all been trying on our relationship at times, especially living in such a small space. When I’m making dinner, he’ll take a taste, then try to give me a sweet hug while chewing. My knee-jerk reaction is to push him away and take several quick steps in the other direction, which sometimes doesn’t go over very well. He’ll look at me with an odd expression and say, “I was just trying to hug you.” I’ve since sent him articles about misophonia, and can I see that he’s making an effort. He tries to chew with his mouth closed, but even that can drive me nuts. Mostly, I focus on myself instead of him. He shouldn’t feel bad eating around me; meals are something enjoyable that we share. So, I try to talk about it as little as I possibly can and just learn to deal.

I wish I didn’t have misophonia, that I could ignore chewing and feel at ease at dinnertime. I’ve had to learn coping techniques, like taking deep breaths, thinking about something else, or shoving something in my own mouth. Mimicry has shown to be beneficial to people with my problem. The sound of my own chewing in my head often blocks out the sounds around me and has a soothing effect. I’ve noticed that when I’m already stressed or anxious, such as when driving in traffic, the misophonia is even worse. My boyfriend has popped a snack into his mouth at the most inopportune times, and I’ve wanted to pull over and leap out of the car.

Since finding out that I have misophonia, I’ve tried to find community. I’ve read articles about other people with the condition and joined a Facebook group called Misophonia Support Group, where more than 15,000 members lament about horrible sounds and uncomfortable situations. If you have this disorder, you’re not alone. It feels better to know that I’m not the only person who wants to run away at a full sprint when I see my boyfriend raise his fork to his mouth. Maybe through my words other misophonia sufferers can find solace too.

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