Like many people, I wish I had been more appreciative of the things my dad had done for me growing up. The man worked all day to put dinner on the table… the only problem was I couldn’t bear listening to him eat it.
Trivial as this may seem, but the sound of my dad eating didn’t just grate on me, it would consume every passing moment in my mind and sent my body into a rage. I would, and still do, get a burning sensation deep in my stomach, my palms begin to sweat, my arms tense up and tap my foot incessantly. This is what I now understand to be the fight or flight instinct kicking in — something quite hard to express as a 9-year old. After dinner was over, all my thoughts and prayers were on if we were having dessert.
My parents were well aware of my strong dislike of listening to people eat so we would have the radio on every meal time, and I of course never forgot to turn it on and was liberal with the volume. I just about managed to deal with my dad’s eating whilst growing up. However, sitting and working with unknowing colleagues in a small office, having dinner with the girlfriend and living with two ravenous housemates has all proven to be a little more challenging.
A couple of years ago I came across an article of a woman who claimed to have left her job due to her colleagues eating too loudly. I read on to find this woman had ‘misophonia’ and that she physically could not function at work whilst listening to other people eat. The sound gave her panic attacks. As awful as that all sounds for the poor lady, I was elated upon reading this as I had found somebody who was dealing with a little-known syndrome I assumed was just a weird character trait of mine, but on a smaller scale than hers.
Misophonia literally means the “hatred of sound”. The name evidently isn’t completely accurate in terms of a disease as I, and presumably most people, are fine with almost every other sound apart from a specific trigger sound which in my case is the sound of other people eating. For some reason, the sound of me eating doesn’t disgust me, but I’m sure a recording of myself eating would set me off just the same. Surprisingly I’ve never tested it. Nor have I ever been tested for it.
It’d be very easy to dismiss this as yet another “snowflake generation problem” or, as some kind people like to remind me, “no one likes the sound of people eating”. But these people need to have a word with themselves and realise the severity of what I’m saying here: If my girlfriend were to eat a packet of crisps in the same room as me, everything in my body is telling me to punch her. (Disclaimer alert, I’m not a violent person and have never harmed her or anyone for that matter.) But, the point being, my body goes into a total state of rage and all I want to do is repeatedly punch the jaw of the person who is eating. Naturally, in a civilised society in a fight or flight scenario, it’s flight every time. Apart from when I’m literally on a flight and have nowhere to fly to.
Last week I was on a three-hour flight to Malta with the refreshing company of a something-month-old baby just one row behind me. I could easily endure the sound of a baby crying for hours and be completely unfazed by him. But the sound of the monster eating crisps two rows in front of me and digging for the crumbs in the lining of the packet caused me serious problems and sent me into a blind rage. Strapped into the middle seat with no-where on the plane to run to felt like a unique form of medieval torture. If anything the little tot screaming was doing me a massive favour.
Somebody once said to me that there’s always a reason as to why somebody has a phobia of something; a bad experience like getting bitten by a dog or similar. I’m not quite sure how true that is, but I do certainly remember my first time dealing with what I realise now is misophonia. I must have been four or 5 years old, and had just started primary school. It was raining badly and I was to experience my first of many ‘wet plays’, and was forced to remain in my classroom with the other 29 kids and do some colouring in. All of the class were eating (in very close quarters) the two items which trigger me the most: crisps and apples. I remember distinctly hating every moment of wet play and desperately wanting to leave the classroom, but had no idea why I felt so uncomfortable sitting next to my friends. I told my mum when I got home it was because of other kids “smelly crisps”. But now it seems that it was because of the enclosed space and for me, the repulsive sound, not the smell.
The big problem with having a phobia as niche, socially unacceptable and ever-present as mine, is telling people about it. If I were to tell you I have a phobia of tongues, what are the chances you’d walk over to me and stick your tongue out right in my face to see what would happen? You’re verging on 99%. If I choose to tell people they’re eating too loudly, their response is to automatically eat louder, more disgustingly and also insist on walking over to show me what’s in their mouth. Little do they realise I’m already in a state of anger and their response is stoking a very well-lit fire which I worry will one day explode.
Recently a guy who did work experience with me 2 years ago returned on a job and told me that he was terrified of eating around me after I bollocked him last time for “eating like a nuclear explosion had gone off in his mouth”. I don’t remember the conversation, but that does sound like something I would have said in the rare example of someone pushing me over the edge with particularly a bad eating habit.
How do I deal with it? Most often, I’m forced to leave the room to run a most urgent errand in a suspiciously similar amount of time it’s taken for somebody to eat that cheese and onion pasty.
Obviously I stick in my headphones whenever it’s possible and socially acceptable. However, even using headphones isn’t as easy as it sounds. Recently a supermarket campaign included the sound of people eating as a key part in an advert on Spotify. The ad triggered me every single time it came on and sent me into a frenzy where I’d throw off my headphones like a wasp had gotten inside them.
When my girlfriend and I were first dating my extreme discomfort of listening to people eat eventually came up. I was brutally honest with her and explained that I’d done a full investigation over the first few dates into how loud she ate, but told her “not to worry because she was compatible”. Nothing says sexy more than how few decibels can you wrack up crunching a Jacob’s Cream Cracker. However, she recently revealed to me that she’s become incredibly self-conscious of eating around me and doesn’t eat things like crisps in front of me, which is pretty horrible to hear. But sadly, if she ate loudly or disgustingly we could never be together. And as she can attest to, eating is number one on my list of preferences in a partner.
The fun doesn’t stop there, I survey every tube carriage I get on to make sure nobody is eating on there before I get on. If anyone slyly fancies getting any form of food out (specifically on public transport, where I can’t escape) I’m on the another carriage before you can say, “Mind the closing doors”. I go to the cinema at obscure times to avoid the rustle of a packet or popcorn as my mind will be focused on that for 2 hours rather than on the film. But the biggest nightmare I’ve got is signing a housing contract with a bloke whose eating habits I didn’t do a full reconnaissance on beforehand. He still hasn’t realised I leave the room every single time he eats because it is absolutely unbearable. (Sorry that this is how I’m telling you, if you’re reading this now.)
All of which makes me think listening to the radio whilst my dad ate when he got back from work wasn’t actually too bad.