The sound of people eating drives me insane

I have a condition that makes the smacking of lips almost unbearable to hear.

Published July 12, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Since I was about 8 years old I've been overly sensitive to the sound of other people eating. I remember needing to eat my cereal in the living room because I couldn't stand the sound of my brother eating his. As I grew older this became somewhat (though never completely) easier to deal with -- school lunchrooms were often loud enough for me not to notice the sound, and I stopped eating at the dinner table with my family. In college I began to wear headphones to the cafeteria, and now as an adult I tend to eat with people only in loud bar/restaurants. Most people don't understand the way this drives me crazy; it's beyond annoying or bad manners. Sometimes I have to go to the bathroom to escape it. I lock myself in a stall and cry; I rip up toilet paper to vent. I'd like to hit and break things when I hear eating or mouth sounds. I'd like to scream and swing a baseball bat. After prolonged exposure I find myself shaking, my jaw clenched shut. I try not to let people know how much this bothers me, as it tends to make them self-conscious and uncomfortable around me.

But eating is such an essential part not just of our physiological lives but our social lives -- I find myself unable to escape this sound. Mostly the problem comes from being at work, where I have no control over the quiet environment, in which every smack of lip and gum is painfully audible. I recently moved to a new city and took a job that I love in almost all aspects. I work with kind and interesting people and what I do is challenging and fun. But the noise ... At my old job I sat at my desk with headphones and ate lunch by myself with no one bothering me. But here I can't use headphones; I must always be ready to answer the phones if necessary. Also, lunch is a ritual in my office, and the few times I've declined to join the noon lunch group, I've been bombarded with attention: "Why don't you want to eat with us? Are you antisocial? Why do you want to sit by yourself? Come join us, come join us" The most difficult, though, may be that my direct supervisor is a gum chewer. Not just a gum chewer, but a gum smacker, a gum popper. She attacks her gum, aggressively chewing and popping and smacking and clicking and everything that makes my spine feel as though everyone in China just ran their fingernails across chalkboards while I sat in their midst. It's so loud I can hear her in her office while I'm in my cubicle. Not a small feat.

I've read about soft sound hyperacusis, and I know I'm not the only person who suffers from this. I'm not sure medically what the best approach is to deal with this. But my question isn't so much about the prognosis -- I want to know about how to deal with things from a well-mannered yet assertive perspective. Can I ask my boss to not chew gum around me (chewing her cud, as my grandmother would say)? How might I negotiate with my supervisors to be able to wear my headphones while at my desk? Is there a way to eat lunch by myself without everyone making a big deal about it? I'm 30 years old and I don't see any way out of the everyday rituals built around eating. I just want a civilized way of avoiding them.

-My iPod's on 10

Dear iPod Blaster,

Hyperacusis is a genuine medical condition. So if you have an enlightened and understanding boss, it may be possible to negotiate changes in your work environment, especially if those changes are practical and inexpensive. Asking your boss to stop chewing gum around you may be pushing it, however. People can be pretty sensitive about stuff like that.

In general, I think you have to make it known to others that you have a medical condition that requires certain adjustments in the workplace. But be prepared for people to "not get it" at first. Be persistent. Get them used to the idea. People can be pretty dumb. You have to be patient with them.

I don't know whether your condition can be claimed as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act, but I doubt it. You might chime in at this disability law blog and perhaps get some more insight. If you want to pursue your legal rights, you'd best consult an attorney who knows disability law.

If you have not yet visited the Hyperacusis Network site, I hope you will do so soon. It looks like an excellent source of support and information.

I have not yet read Carol Lee Brook's book "Tortured by Sound -- Beyond Human Endurance," but this interview with her indicates that she had excellent results with the habituation therapy developed by Dr. Pawel Jastreboff in the 1980s. It is also being used successfully by Marsha Johnson, founder of the Oregon Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Treatment Clinic in Portland, Ore. (While you asked me more about "how to deal with things from a well-mannered yet assertive perspective," I could not resist looking into the clinical situation.)

As far as how to deal with other people, I think your best best is to educate them about the condition. Luckily, there is so much information available on the Web that people can easily educate themselves if they choose. If they don't, however, you will have to do the educating. For a layman, the simplest explanation, or the way I understand it, is that hyperacusis is a nerve disorder in which certain sounds are no longer filtered before they reach the brain; it's as if there's an amp in your head that's on 10 all the time. Maybe I don't get it exactly right, but I'm thinking about possibly imprecise but quick ways to explain it to someone else. And also I think it will be important for you to make them understand that this is not some personal idiosyncrasy of yours, but a real medical condition.

Any device that allows you to interact normally with people would seem to be a good idea. If you could eat lunch with your work mates while wearing headphones, I would think that would be preferable to isolating yourself from them. It appears that while hyperacusis is not a psychological disorder, in their attempts to cope with it people often do develop psychological problems. So whatever will help you maintain good social relations and regular work habits would seem to be a good idea.

Other than that, I just really wish you the best of luck in finding and undergoing treatment. This condition can be extremely painful. The more people who know about it, the better it will be for all sufferers.

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