When Covid blocked my ears, I found myself missing the noises I hated | Rebecca Shaw

Overall, I don’t have too many positive things to say about the coronavirus thus far. When I caught Covid for the first time in August this year, it was gastro Covid (not as fun as it sounds), and I spent weeks with constant nausea and vomiting, simultaneously scared of and hoping for death. During that time, I must admit, I still couldn’t really see many silver linings. But against all odds, a bright side emerged. To understand this miraculous turnabout, you must first understand a condition I have called misophonia.

The word “misophonia” literally means “hatred of sound”, which might give the sleuths among you a clue. I first heard of misophonia about five years ago when my mother sent me an article, saying, “This explains everything about you since you were a weird child!” At about 13, I stopped being able to eat dinner at the table with my family, due to the scraping of cutlery on plates, the slurping of drinks, and the three growing brothers madly shovelling food into their gaping maws (in my defence, yuck). The timing was consistent with the (still minimal) research – something hinky started going on with my neuro-physiological system for some reason, and my brain and body started being triggered by certain sounds and movements. I was also becoming a lesbian, but I think that was unrelated.

My misophonia triggers are hard to predict – it’s not necessarily annoying or loud noises. I don’t get bothered by loud music or horns blasting. Sure, I don’t enjoy a baby screaming behind me on a plane, but my misophonia is not set off. Someone sitting behind me on a plane sniffling, however? That risks an international airspace incident.

This is the part that is difficult to explain, because from the outside it just looks like I’m having a big tantrum about a small thing that affects everybody. Most people are grossed out by someone chewing with their mouth open. Most people don’t love the sound of cutlery on plates, or someone tapping their desk. But while you might find it a bit unpleasant, my blood starts raging. I am generally an even-tempered person, but my triggers cause my entire body to fill with anger, disgust, and adrenaline, and it’s worse the longer I am stuck listening. They are also worse if I’m already upset, tired, or if I dislike the person (lol).

Unfortunately for me, and also everyone else, the triggers are everywhere, because they are normal human sounds that people make when they are existing. In this one area (and no others), I am aware that I am the problem.

Even though my body reacts as if the chips are my family and the person crunching them is murdering them all, nobody is ever doing anything wrong when they trigger me (except the sniffler on the plane, who should be in jail). They are just eating snacks, or stirring their tea. It’s not their problem. I generally try to remove myself from the situation, grit my teeth silently, or – my most common solution – blare white noise in my headphones. I have some hearing loss from this coping strategy, and I’ve also developed tinnitus, which caused me a small mental breakdown – trying to stop the annoying sounds caused one I can’t drown out.

I have only ever felt able to ask long-term partners to try to modify a behaviour that severely triggers me. They have been understanding and accommodating, doing things like replacing scratchy plates, or just licking their fingers a tiny bit less, but I feel guilty asking it of them. Triggers that happen around the house can be particularly tricky, because it’s where I live, so I’m there a lot. For example, I once moved out of a sharehouse when I found out that the faint hammering sounds from next door were going to last six months. This brings me back to the miracle.

My girlfriend and I moved into an apartment earlier this year and discovered that our neighbour is either someone who loves to stomp around in heels for hours at weird times, or a fancy urbane horse enjoying his bachelor pad. This is not a small noise that nobody else notices – my girlfriend and visitors have all been disturbed by it – but as the days went on, I lost my mind a bit more, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Then Covid hit us hard, and after a couple of weeks, I noted to my girlfriend that the Stomper must be away, as we hadn’t heard it for days, and what a relief it was that I didn’t have to endure it on top of being sick. But she informed me I was wrong. The Stomper had been clomping around as usual. My ears were slightly blocked, and for some reason I couldn’t hear that specific sound. She’d decided to not bring it up so I could enjoy the peace and quiet. As she explained, I felt something unimaginable – I missed the annoying noise! I started trying to hear it. I was so sick and miserable, and anxious that my nausea was never going to go away, that I wished I could hear my prancing friend next door. It would mean I was finally starting to get better.

When my ears started to unblock a while later, and I began to hear those familiar thumps and clods again, I felt nothing but pure relief. I welcomed the noise. I have begun to sing the Sixpence None the Richer song “There She Goes”, whenever it kicks off. I don’t know how exactly, but this incident has fundamentally changed the way my brain and body is able to process that specific trigger. When I hear the stomps begin, it immediately reminds me of how awful I felt during that time, and how comparatively good I feel now. It hasn’t cured my misophonia, but it’s an important change.

One thing Covid has given us is an opportunity to think about what’s important, and what we are lucky to have. Covid has shifted my perspective, and now I feel blessed whenever I hear my fancy horse neighbour start his evening dance.

Rebecca Shaw is a writer based in Sydney

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