It’s been a fascinating and eye-opening journey these past couple years, as we’ve navigated the whole gifted/ADHD/homeschool thing with my son. Armed with information, it’s been relatively easy to get him what he needs. What’s made it so interesting is looking back over my own childhood and experiences—past and present—through this ADHD/gifted lens.
In the past year, I’ve learned a lot about ADHD and “giftedness”/”differently wired” and holy crap. It’s been life changing. In layman’s terms, ADHD means that every single cell in my brain devoted to sensory input is firing all the time, all at once, 24/7. Not only are they all firing at once, but I get a stronger signal than a neurotypical brain. I get angry at the people having a conversation next to me because I can’t stop hearing them. I hear them, I hear Husband, and I hear the five other tables nearby. I’ve always known that I can listen to multiple conversations at once, I just didn’t understand why. I remember my ex-boyfriend always telling me, in the most exasperated tone possible, to “just stop listening,” but I couldn’t. I can’t. I notice everything—not just sounds but people coming and going, movements, smells, sensations—all the time.
I’ve finally realized that my “noticing things,” is the reason I get so cranky when I’m out and about, and I’m not crazy when I feel overwhelmed by everything around me. The aforementioned ex used to get annoyed with me every time we’d be out because I’d be obsessing over the conversation of the people nearby, or a noise someone was making, or the sound of someone’s voice. Husband has marveled at the fact that I can hear him clipping his nails on not just different floors of the house, but opposite sides. If we go to a movie theater, I’ll spend at least a third of the time in a rage, obsessing over something someone is doing or a sound that they’re making. (Don’t even get me started on the jerks who keep checking their phones during a movie.) I’ve sat in waiting rooms staring someone down for exhaling too forcefully for an extended period. I’ve gotten angry at Husband for not noticing things… until, just in the past couple months, when I realized it’s not so much that he DOESN’T notice things so much as I notice EVERYTHING.
When I told Husband that I thought the sound of people chewing or tapping annoyed everyone, he said that it does… so he just tunes it out. Whenever he talks about tuning something out, I just kind of sit there and blink at him. You do what? But how?
It’s called “leaky sensory gating.” Most people shut out “irrelevant” sensory information. Many people with ADHD have trouble shutting things out. In fact, I don’t just not tune things out, but I hyper focus on them. The mouth breather in the waiting room? He becomes the center of my entire existence, and the sound of his breathing fills me with rage. And it’s really not a matter of me choosing to “just breathe and focus on something else.” It might surprise you to know that I taught meditation for a while. I know aaaaaaaaall about meditation and how to do it. I’m great at instructing others on it, but my dirty little secret is that while I was teaching in a quiet room… all the little sounds that people make, including outside noises, irritated the shit out of me. It was the responsibility that I felt as a teacher that allowed me to keep smiling and hide my irritation. It was also the fact that everyone’s eyes were closed, and they couldn’t see me shooting dirty looks at anyone. Not all noises, though. Stomach rumblings didn’t bother me, nor did coughing or any other one-off noise.
The noises that drive me mad are mouth/throat/nose noises (especially the repetitive ones) such as repeated sniffling, throat clearing, lip-smacking, and mouth breathing. Repetitive clicking or tapping will have me plotting your imaginary death. The same goes for loud or open-mouth chewing fills me with the kind of disgust usually reserved for… well, for something considered truly disgusting by “normal” people. I also can’t deal with loud music played far away – meaning, if I can only hear the repetitive beats or bass without being able to make out the actual melody, I’ll get really agitated and want to hunt down the source of the sound.
In the last year, I’ve been asked if I have misophonia a few times now. Each time I’ve said “Nah… Husband just makes a lot of noise.” I’ve come up with a million rationalizations for why a particular noise bugs me. But after being asked about misophonia the last time, and then having an incident with that @(w5!@#% person exhaling loudly in a waiting room, I started to investigate. When I sent the diagnosis checklist for misophonia to Husband, he responded twenty minutes later with, “That is 100% YOU.” He then reminded me of the times I’ve angrily texted him over the course of an hour to complain about the noises people were making in study halls at UW, usually in regard to the constant crinkling of chip bags and chewing. There are also certain voices and tonal qualities that make me want to bash my own head in.
I’m going to an audiology clinic tomorrow to do an official evaluation, but after reading up on misophonia these past few weeks, it’s really just a formality. I struggle with sensory input, in general (I’ve come to avoid crowds, loud spaces, and certain visuals), but sound is one that affects me worse than others and that I can potentially do something about. If/when they give me the diagnosis, I can do desensitization therapy and apparently there’s a special “white noise” hearing aid, which I am INSANELY excited about.
So what is misophonia? The word translates to “hatred of sound,” but it’s not really that simple. I don’t hate “sound.” People with misophonia are triggered by particular sounds, often related to “human” noises (chewing, breathing, sniffling, etc).
With misophonia, brain scans have shown greater myelination in the part of the prefrontal cortex related to emotional regulation and processing, as well as where “importance” is assigned to stimuli as it comes in. Myelin is the stuff that coats the nerves and transports electrical impulses throughout your brain. There’s a theory that this thicker myelin creates a “super connection” between audio input and the part of the brain that manages fear, in addition to mucking up the “sorting” process (meaning that “normal” brains are more efficient at sorting out unimportant sounds and moving on, where the misophonic brain labels trigger sounds as important and won’t let it go.) In short, certain sounds create a “fight or flight” response. So when the “normal” brain registers the sound of someone clearing their throat, for example, that person thinks, “That’s annoying,” and moves on or tunes out. When MY brain hears that, the super-myelated coating rushes that signal as fast as it can go, and it registers as a threat. Now, when your brain thinks there’s a threat nearby, do you think it’s going to tune it out? NOPE. It’s going to stay laser focused on the “threat,” until the threat is gone. In the meantime, the fight-or-flight system kicks in. I could write a novel on my flight-or-fight response throughout my life, but for the time being, I’ll just say that I typically go into “fight,” and almost never “fight.” (It’s a coping mechanism and the fact that I choose “fight” over “flight” is why I’m still here today. ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER POST.)
It may sound ridiculous to you, but if you understand how the primitive brain system works, it makes sense. Sound and noise, in general, don’t bother me – it’s very, very specific sounds. Logically, I know that the horrible sound of someone sucking snot down the back of their throat isn’t a “threat” (but damn, it feels like a real threat to our sensibilities, no?). But the inner workings of our so-called “lizard brain” don’t operate on logic. The human species wouldn’t exist in this day if that lizard brain didn’t work faster than the “top down” logical part of our brains. I hear that sound, and within a millisecond my emergency system is on and ready to rumble. (Ironically, if there’s an actual crisis or emergency happening, I’m the person you want around because I am on point, which is pretty typical of ADHD.)
But believe me, I wish I could “just breathe” through it and turn it off.
We have these neighbors (oh, the stories I could tell about these neighbors) whose dog took to barking for hours and hours and hours each day. They’re not home during the day, mind you, so why would they care? I work from home, however. It was Summer, and I wanted to leave the windows open. Closing all the windows barely helped, you could still hear this thing, all day. When Husband asked them to do something about it, we were met with derision and the equivalent of a shoulder shrug. After asking around to other neighbors, who confirmed that yes, this dog was a PROBLEM with a capital everything, and after one neighbor sent them an anonymous letter after almost calling the police when the dog was going at it all through the night, they magically fixed the problem overnight. (I think they got an anti-bark collar.) Husband was annoyed, but he tuned it out as best as he could. I, however, was as stressed as can be. I could practically feel the cortisol plumping up every cell in my body. I had frequent headaches and was sleeping worse than usual. When it finally stopped, I didn’t realize just how tense I was until the morning I walked out to my car and realized that all I could hear were birds chirping. I could feel my body turn to Jell-o as I relaxed. And for weeks afterwards, when the dog would occasionally, randomly bark once, I’d go rigid again, in anticipation of more barking.
It’s a mini version of that for me every time we go out and someone is making one or several of my “trigger” noises. I wish I could ignore it or tune it out. I wish I could not be so tense and wound up every time I’m out of the house and people are… being people. It’s not fun. I can’t sufficiently explain the feeling of hope and relief I feel right now that there is a legitimate, “mechanical” reason for all this stress… and that I might be able to do something about it and get some relief. I know there are people out there who think that “disorders” like this are nonsense and to them I say… The research backs it all up, but also: MUST BE NICE TO BE YOU, I hope you’re very relaxed.
As for me, I’m going to stick to my peaceful, quiet walks in the woods and dream of a day when I might be able to filter out some of the overwhelming sensory junk just like everyone else does.